Tag Archives: Francis of Assisi

The Upside-Down World of St. Francis

Today, we’ll celebrate the feast of Saint Francis.


This morning I’m going to the village of Delicias, Concepción, to celebrate their feast day. They are planning a procession (despite the rain) followed by Mass.

After Mass, I plan to rush off to La Entrada to celebrate the feast with lunch with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters here in Honduras. (Yesterday I spent the afternoon cleaning the kitchen and baking bread.)

I don’t know if Padre German will have me preach in Delicias, though he has two other Masses today. But I’ve something prepared.

There is a passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi that inspires my thoughts this morning.

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing. If St. Francis saw in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.

I had thought of beginning to preach standing on my head – but I am not sure if I can do that well.

But Francis turned the world upside down.

The Gospel in the Franciscan lectionary is Matthew 11: 25-30: “The Father has hidden these things from the learned and revealed them to the simple.”

In a world that values degrees and learning, what is more contrary than to affirm that the poor have a privilege in understanding the revelation of God. How much more important that is here in Honduras where the rich and the powerful look down on the poor.

Francis opens up for the radical simplicity of the Gospel by interpreting the Gospel through the lens of the poor Christ, laying aside the notions of an imperial and dominating god.

The reading from Galatians 6: 14-18 is chosen because Francis bore “the marks of Jesus on his body.” He lived with the sufferings of Christ before his eyes and was marked by the stigmata for two years before his death. But what is more counter-cultural than to desire to share in the sufferings of others and to accompany those who are in need. So was Christ and so was Francis.

The first reading, Ecclesiastes 50: 1-3, 7, refers to the one who repairs the temple of the Lord and propped up the sanctuary. When Francis heard the Lord speaking to him from the cross in San Damiano, “Go, repair my church,” he took it literally and began to rebuild the church. (He also rebuilt several others.) A man of leisure, used to the good life, works with his hands.

Francis became poor for the sake of Christ; he worked as the poor worked; he gave up power and position.

He truly saw the world upside-down – suspended from the Crucified Lord.

The photo, courtesy of Terry McElrath, is from the entrance to the church at what was St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary, Callicoon, NY, where I spent high school and two years of college.

Other posts on Francis:
Francis and encountering Jesus in silence
Francis and Gandhi: peace and nonviolence
Francis and repairing the church
Francis and the leper
Saint Francis and poverty
Saint Francis: gratefully loving the world
 Saint Francis: performing the Gospel
Saint Francis and the challenge of nonviolence
Saint Francis and the evangelization of love



Francis and encountering Jesus in silence

So often I think of St. Francis in terms of what he did. He tamed the wolf at Gubbio. He praised God for all creation. He lived as a poor man and cared for lepers. He was a man of peace who charmed even the Sultan.

But central to Francis was Someone – Jesus. Francis was nothing without this relationship.

Five years ago when I visited Assisi I spent a whole morning at the Carceri, the place above Assisi full of caves, where Francis and his early followers went to pray. There is a small room where once there was the cave of St. Francis, but there are still some caves. I sat for some time in the small chapel and, in the midst of visits of school kids, I found peace.

But I also found and entered the cave of Brother Masseo. I had to maneuver down steps with a bit of ice.


I entered the small cave and went to the back.


Looking out on the hillside, I had the sense that this was one of those thin places the Irish speak about, where the veil between heaven and earth is almost non-existent.


There, in the silence, in the solitude, God is present – if we open ourselves to His loving presence.

At the center of the life of Francis of Assisi was the encounter with a God of love, an encounter nurtured by silence and prayer.

Sister Ilia Delio, in Compassion: Living the Spirit of Saint Francis, notes that this relationship was essential for Francis.

The key to Francis’ “ecological life” is relationship. Francis found himself to be an “I” in need of a “Thou” and realized that he could not be fully a person apart from being a brother. His relationship with God, rooted in a profound love of God and his acceptance of God’s love in his own life, changed the way he knew himself in relation to others. He took the commandment of Jesus to heart, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and realized that to love oneself, one must know oneself.

Out of that silence and prayer, the place of encounter with the living God, Francis and his companions could know who they were and live as the poor men of God and preach the Gospel.

I ask God to give me the grace of silence and prayer, so that I may better serve God and the poor.


Saint Francis, help me open my heart to God and to the poor.

Francis and Gandhi: poverty and nonviolence

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every one’s need, but not every one’s greed.”

Today, the birthday of Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi, the Mahatma, in 1869, is the international day of nonviolence.


Though St. Francis never would have used the term “nonviolence,” he was an advocate of all that leads to peace.

In particular, St. Francis saw the relationship between possessions and war, taking seriously the words of Saint James (4:1-2):

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.

Because of this Francis sought a life of poverty for himself and his companions, a truly shocking proposal in the thirteenth century and even more so now.

The response of the church officials was strong. As G. K. Chesterton notes in Saint Francis of Assisi:

“The good Bishop of Assisi expressed a sort of horror at the hard life which the Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground. St. Francis answered him with that curious and almost stunning shrewdness which the unworldly can sometimes wield like a club of stone. He said, ‘If we had any possessions, we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”

There are few of us who have the courage and the trust in God to give up all, but we can start by trying to live lives of austerity.

I am not talking of the mandatory austerity that has often been imposed on countries since such austerity measures most often affect the poor.

I refer to the voluntary austerity that we see in Francis, in Gandhi, and in many who accompany the poor. This is what Pope Francis writes about in Gaudete et Exsultate, ¶70, commenting on the Beatitudes in Saint Luke’s Gospel :

Luke does not speak of poverty “of spirit” but simply of those who are “poor” (cf. Lk 6:20). In this way, he too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, “made himself poor” (2 Cor 8:9).

I believe that developing a spirituality of austerity, trying to live “a plain and austere life” is what will help us work to peace. Austerity, “sufficiency for all as the first priority,” is a personal commitment to the poor and can be,  in the words of Denis Goulet, “the economic expression of a society’s commitment to placing the needs of all above the wants of the few” (The Uncertain Promise,  p. 164).

When we learn to live austerely – as persons, as communities, as nations – we begin to live nonviolently, in the spirit of Francis and Gandhi.


The sculptures are found in a park south of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Francis and repairing the church

When I visited Assisi in 1973, one of the first places I went was the church of San Damiano, where Francis heard Christ speaking to him from the cross, “Go! Repair my church, which you can see around you is falling into ruins.”

I overheard an English Franciscan friar explaining this to a few young people. Francis was going through a serious emotional crisis after his experience as a prisoner of war in Perugia after a battle in which Assisi lost. His response was what he needed – to do something physical. His work literally rebuilding the church of San Damiano was a form of physical therapy which helped him heal.


Later that day I went up to the major basilica where Francis is buried. As I marvelled at Giotto’s frescos on the walls of the upper church, I heard a Conventual Franciscan friar explain to a group that Francis got it wrong. He was not called to rebuild the church of San Damiano but to reform the whole church.

I think this friar got it wrong.

Reform of the church begins with the small everyday acts of building up the church. It is, in a way, to show in one’s daily life what a reformed church looks like. It is not to call on the authorities and castigate them (even when that is necessary). There is more.

Leonardo Boff, in Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church, puts it this way:

Francis of Assisi was obedient to the church of the popes, and at the same time he went his own way with the gospel of poverty in his hand and heart. In 1970, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “Francis’s no to that type of church [powerful and rich] could not be more radical; it is what we would call prophetic protest”. It does not attack or criticize the dominant style; rather, it simply inaugurates and enacts a new style.

Francis lived the repair of the church – reconstructing San Damiano and other churches, kissing and caring for lepers, becoming one with the little ones of this world and showing others the way of poverty, living Christ amidst wealth and power by living without possessions and sharing God and all that he had with those most in need.

We can repair the church, first and foremost, by being followers of the poor Christ, who healed the sick and raised the dead. We can be a witness to the corruption by living austerely. We can “repair the world” by letting Christ repair us.

This, of course, does not rule out prophetic denunciation. But that must be rooted in a conversion to the God of the poor, so that we may become a poor church, a church of and for the poor.


Francis and the leper

Very few conversions happen in an instant. Often conversion is a long process, with various little conversions, until there is a “tipping point,” an event that brings a person to a turning point, where a decision has to be made.

For St. Francis, I think this was his encounter with the leper. As he himself wrote in his Testament:

The Lord inspired me, Brother Francis, to begin a life of  penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers.  And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy on them.  And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body; and afterwards I lingered a little and left the world.

Francis began to see in the poor Christ. Nikos Kazantzakis, in his highly speculative novel Saint Francis, has Francis explain this to Brother Leo:

“This, Brother Leo, is what I understood: all lepers, cripples, sinners, if you kiss them on the mouth—”
He stopped, afraid to complete his thought.
“Enlighten me, Brother Francis, enlighten me, do not leave me in the dark.”
Finally, after a long silence, he murmured with a shudder:
“All these, if you kiss them on the mouth— O God, forgive me for saying this— they all. . . become Christ.”

This, though, is not far from the experience of Francis. Andre Vauchez refers to the Assisi Compilation which has Francis reflecting:

When you see a poor person, he said, you must consider that person in the name of the one who comes, that is, the Christ who took upon himself our poverty and our infirmity. Thus the poverty and infirmity of this person are the mirror in which we must contemplate in love the poverty and infirmity that Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his own body in order to save humankind.

To see Christ in the poor person in front of me, to respond in love – that is the beginning of conversion.





Saint Francis and poverty

Saint Francis is often called “Il Poverello,” the Little Poor Man of Assisi – and rightly so. He sought to be poor as Christ was poor and, slightly modifying the word of Lawrence Cunningham, the poor Christ was “the hermeneutic lens through which he read the Gospel.”

For Francis, possessions keep us from responding to Christ and to the poor. If we have possessions, he said, we will seek arms to defend them.

This radical approach is a major challenge to me and to many in the Church. But it first of all means that we realize that we cannot be self-sufficient. Autonomy is a temptation of the devil.

What we need to develop is a real poverty of spirit and then respond in our lives to the call of the poor Christ. It is to become small, the minor, the lesser one.

André Vauchez, in Francis of Assisi: The life and afterlife of a medieval saint, puts it plainly:

But the more one is minor (small, humble), the more one is a brother of others and, first of all, of those with whom one lives. The ideal is thus not to seek to be sufficient unto oneself but to share what one receives and to accept that one needs others in the smallest details of daily life. The absolute poverty desired by Francis set up a new type of relationship— to goods, but also between persons, founded on genuine solidarity. The care of the other was indeed fundamental in the early community…

Openness to the other, putting oneself and all one has available for all – that’s a challenge.

But Vauchez sees Francis’s life as more than just a call to personal poverty, or at least a radical generosity. As he writes:

the project of Francis… was to give birth in the heart of the world a society without money and without goods, where an “economy of poverty” would prevail, characterized by liberality and the redistribution to disadvantaged persons of all that was not strictly indispensable to the survival of the community.

How can we build an “economy of poverty” in the midst of a world that glorifies wealth and power? How can we build a “civilization of poverty” (in the word of the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría) in a civilization of consumption and accumulation?

francis leperThe first step, I think, is to do what Francis did and that St. Paul urged the Romans, “make friends with the poor – associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

Do we know people who are impoverished by name?

Do we let ourselves be taught by the poor?

Do we look at life through the hermeneutical lens of the poor?

In the last century, a Hindu holy man, Mahatma Gandhi, left us a message that will help us recover and live the poverty of Francis.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.
Recall the face of the poorest and weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore the person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? On other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

Saint Francis gratefully loving the world

“[St. Francis of Assisi] could be overwhelmed with gratitude before a piece of hard bread, or joyfully praise God simply for the breeze that caressed his face.”
Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, 127

Near San Damiano, Assisi

Francis was an ascetic. He would put ashes on his food so that he would not be overwhelmed by the tastiness of his food and turn into a glutton.

But he loved the world as a gift of God and gave thanks for all creation. His famous Canticle of the Creatures is filled with gratitude for all that God has made and given us.

Praised be my Lord
for brother son,
sister moon,
brother wind,
sister water,
brother fire,
mother earth,
sister death…
and for all those who forgive…

Such praise flows from a deep poverty, a poverty of spirit. As Lawrence Cunningham wrote, “It is almost as if by dispossessing possessing himself of his worldly goods he took on a new eye for the beauties of the world and those who inhabit it.”

Giving up the desire to possess, to own, to accumulate, we can see all as gift – and give thanks.

Mosaic and sculpture from Assisi, near the church of San Damiano.

Saint Francis: performing the Gospel

A poor man sculpture

Outside the church of San Damiano, Assisi, Italy

One of the most interesting books I’ve read on Saint Francis is Lawrence Cunningham’s Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life. He sees that Francis was not merely interested in preaching the Gospel; Francis wanted to live the Gospel, to be a living Gospel, as a hymn we use here in Honduras says.

Francis was, in Cunningham’s words, “more a performer of the Word of God than a commentator upon it.”  He was “imply a little Umbrian touched by the mysterious power of grace who had a revolutionary idea: to live the life of the Christ of the gospels as closely and as literally as he could.”

This is what Pope Francis seems to be saying in Gaudete et exsultate (¶ 46)

Francis recognized the temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel. Saint Bonaventure, on the other hand, pointed out that true Christian wisdom can never be separated from mercy towards our neighbor: “The greatest possible wisdom is to share fruitfully what we have to give… Even as mercy is the companion of wisdom, avarice is its enemy”.

It is so easy to preach about Saint Francis without seeing that what he was up to was trying to be a living Gospel, making the Gospel come alive in daily life, in all its revolutionary calls – to love even the enemy, to be poor and to accompany the poor, to be an instrument of peace, to suffer as Christ suffered.

Words are not as important as the way we live.

This is not, of course, a call to activism. It is a call to discipleship, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, living as Jesus did.

It is a call to love, to be with God and with God’s people – especially the poor.

Francis is not in the birdbaths; he’s at the side of the poor, walking the roads of the world.


Saint Francis and the challenge of nonviolence

Carlo Carretto, a Little Brother of Jesus, wrote an amazing reflection on Saint Francis,  I, Francis, speaking as if he were the saint of Assisi. In one chapter he reflects on the famous story of Saint Francis taming the wolf of Gubbio.


A wolf had been ravaging the town and the people sought the help of Francis. Francis went out to meet the wolf who stopped in the middle of charging the saint and meekly greeted Francis. Francis explained that the wolf was ravaging the town because he was hungry. He arranged a pact between the townspeople and the wolf, that lasted until the wolf died, fed everyday by the people of Gubbio.

Here are some reflections of Carlo Carretto, in the voice of Francis.

“What is extraordinary in the incident of the wolf of Gubbio is not that the wolf grew tame, but that the people of Gubbio grew tame — and that they ran out to meet the cold and hungry wolf not with pruning knives and hatchets but with bread and hot porridge.
“Here is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself to it as he does — unarmed and full of peace — creation will recognize you and meet you with a smile.”

“Here is the absolutely basic secret, hidden in God’s whole place for humanity.
“To believe in the possibility of the impossible.
“To hope in things against all hope.
“TO love what does not seem lovable.
“God’s proposition to humanity is always wrapped in the veil of this mystery.”

“If human beings go to war, it is because they fear someone.
“Remove the fear, and you shall reestablish trust. And you shall have peace.
“Nonviolence is fear’s destruction.”

Saint Francis, pray that God may make us, His People, artisans of peace.

Saint Francis and the evangelization of love

For the nine days leading up to the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, I hope to share some quotes from some books that have aroused my Franciscan spirit.


Eloi Leclerc wrote a fascinating book on Saint Francis, The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi, which provides insights into his spirit, providing some reflections on what the saint of Assis might have said or thought.

At the close of the book, he puts these words in the mouth of Saint Francis:

“The Lord has sent us to evangelize the world. But have you already thought about what it means to evangelize people? Can’t you see, Brother, that to evangelize a person is to say to that one: ‘You ─ yes, you too are loved by God in the Lord Jesus.’
“And you must not only tell that person so, but you must really believe it, and not only believe it, but conduct yourself with this person in such a way that this person can feel and discover there is something within that is being redeemed, something more majestic and noble than had ever been dreamed.
“Thus will this person be aroused to a new awareness of self. Thus will you have proclaimed to that one ‘the good tidings of great joy.’ This will be possible only if you offer that person your friendship, a true friendship, unbiased and without condescension, a friendship rooted in profound confidence and esteem.
“We must go unto all people, but that is not easy. The world of people is a huge battlefield for wealth and power, and too much suffering and atrocity can eclipse the face of God. In going to everyone we must above all never appear to them as a new species of competitor. We must stand in the midst of them as the peaceful witnesses for the All Powerful, as those who covet nothing and scorn no one, people capable of truly becoming their friends. It is our friendship that they are waiting for, a friendship that should make them feel they are loved by God and redeemed in Jesus Christ.”

The evangelization of the love of God must be accompanied by our love for all, so that all of us may recall that we are loved by God.

This is what Saint Francis did; this is what Pope Francis asks us to do. This is what we need to remember:

We are loved by God in the Lord Jesus.