The Saint for the Suburbs

Being in Assisi, the small Italian town where St. Francis (of said location) was born, lived much of his earthly life, and then passed on to the next, has proven to be a wonderful opportunity for reflection for Andrew Haines and myself, both studying Italian here for the next two weeks. The city is lovely – in fact, it feels so much like the 1300's that I expect at any moment a cart to go by with the driver shouting, "bring out your dead."

However, once such superficial observations are taken, deeper reflection brings one to realize the incredible ordinariness of this place: St. Francis, one of the greatest saints in our history, did not grow up in a monastery, nor in some shrine town like Lourdes or Fatima. Really, Assisi is like the ‘burbs of the Middle Ages, with St. Francis growing up in a family comparable, I'm sure, to those of many readers of this post. His father was a cloth merchant who had high hopes for his son (a career in the military, which ultimately didn't pan out when Francis got captured in his first battle). Because of his father's lucrative career, St. Francis was able to enjoy a comfortable standard of living – he wore Abercrombie, listened to Green Day, drove a Jetta, all that.

Luckily for the Church, and for us, he soon discovered a more noble calling when he heard a voice from the crucifix in a church he was repairing by hand, calling him to "rebuild my Church." He did this not by rebuilding physical church buildings, but rather by living a life in which he sought to build up, as best he could, the people who make up the Church, by his example of response to the call of our Lord in the Gospel, "follow Me."

In the interest of brevity, I will forgo giving a full account of St. Francis's life, many of which can be found online, and instead get to the point of this all (applause track). The thing about St. Francis, one of the greatest saints in history, is that he is really no different than any of us, at least in his origins. What made the difference in his life is that he put into practice what we are called to do, namely, to be living witnesses to the grace of God at work. Although he appreciated the finer things in life, he realized that God was calling him to love poverty (Lady Poverty, he called her), and so lived a life of radical poverty; though he cared about his own physical appearance, he would eventually overcome his initial revulsion upon meeting a leper and later embrace the sick man, seeing in him and his illness a reflection of the suffering Christ. Though he initially loved being popular according to the judgment of the world, he later realized that one's status in the Divine Judgment is more important. With such generosity of spirit did he follow Christ that he even received the stigmata, the physical marks of the crucifixion, on his body. However, he started out not that different from any of us.

So, what do we take from all this? While there are obviously many things of value in this story, let's focus on one in particular here: St. Francis responded to the challenge of Christ: "follow Me." He came from an average background, yet once he resolved to give himself fully to Christ, great things happened. You see, when we give God the permission to use us as instruments in accomplishing His will, extraordinary things will happen through our ordinary actions. It doesn't mean going out and doing something huge; rather, be like Francis: who are the lepers in your life whom you can embrace? What are the unattractive choices to which you feel God is calling you, or that you know are right, yet you are still holding back a little? Just as every relationship starts somewhere, so does our spiritual relationship with God have to start somewhere, even if it's something as simple as inconveniencing ourselves in some small way, because we know God wants more from us. By knowing the lives of the saints, God's friends, we can understand how to better respond to God in our own lives.