Thursday, October 05, 2006

St. Francis minus the myth

Elizabeth Lev has a brilliant write up (also at Zenit) highlighting some of the lesser known aspects of this often misunderstood saint.
Assisi itself furthers the image of an ecology-loving, animal-hugging Francis, with illustrated stories of dancing friars in meadows and conversations with birds. He comes across as a kind of fun-loving, 13th-century Dr. Doolittle.

But Francis was prickly and difficult for people in the 13th century, quite different from the modern picture-book version.

Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. Not landed aristocracy, Francis' father belonged to a new, rising Italian class who had worked their way out of peasantry through trade. Francis' father had great hopes for him, and was determined that Francis would never know want, the way his parents had.

Standing in Assisi, one wonders what we would have thought had we been bystanders as the umpteenth fight broke out between Francis and his father. We might well have sided with Francis' father. He had worked all his life to give Francis fine clothes, good food and a warm home -- and all the thanks he got was a kid who stole from the family shop and spent all day hanging around the town outcasts.

What would we have made of Francis as he stripped off all his clothes and threw them at his father, renouncing his family name? Would we have immediately understood, as Francis rejoiced that he would now only have his "Father in Heaven"?
Francis is perhaps best known as the author of the "Canticle of the Creatures" -- today touted as a kind of ecological manifesto -- but while everyone can remember the part about "Brother Sun" or "Sister Mother Earth," few recall "Sister Bodily Death," who seems to be an uncomfortable medieval leftover. But "Sister Death" is precisely the point of the poem, the warm tone of the canticle stops abruptly when Francis admonishes, "Woe to those who die in mortal sin!"

Addressing all of his followers, Francis wrote frightening words on the fate of him who dies in mortal sin. "The devil tears his soul from his body with so much anguish and tribulation," Francis wrote. "Worms eat the body; and so perishes body and soul in that brief life span and he shall go to hell."

So this year, to honor the feast day of St. Francis, patron of Italy, perhaps instead of just recycling our trash or adopting a pet, we should pray for luxury-loving, increasingly secular Europe to rediscover its Christian identity and soul.

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