Happy St. Francis Day to all of you! It is a very special day here in Aston and across the world as we celebrate the saint whose heart was transformed and whose spirit lives on through all of his followers. I always think it is no accident that we celebrate Francis as we enter the Autumn Season where transformation is displayed before us in breath-taking ways.
In autumn nature prepares itself for its own transformation, leaving behind the lavish productivity of summer. Nature seems to take a deep breath, slow down, and settle into the call to let go of what it now knows and ready itself for what is yet to be. Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant, had such a transformation. He was geared to take over the family business. He was perhaps a party animal but his real dream was to become a chivalrous knight. That dream was crushed by his quick capture and imprisonment during the battle between Assisi and Perugia. As a prisoner of war he was treated harshly. During that time he contracted malaria. On his return to Assisi Francis was in poor health and disillusioned with life as he knew it. He was filled with self-doubt and spent long periods of time searching for something meaningful from which he could walk into the future. There was a spiritual longing within him that led Francis into the quiet cave within his heart.
San Damiano: As he regained some strength, Francis wandered into a small church in San Damiano. The church was run-down, but a crucifix had survived. As he sat quietly Francis heard the image of Christ say, “Francis, go and rebuild my church.” Since he was sitting in a Church that was collapsing and needed to be rebuilt, he took the words quite literally. But, more importantly, he knew that something inside of him had changed. God had reached out to him through the crucifix and cleared his spiritual confusion by giving him a task to focus on. He began to realize God could be his guide as he moved into the future. Francis’ world seemed to be collapsing before him and yet his searching seemed to open up something sacred within him. . Autumn is in many ways like that as well. There is a sacredness in the transformation of autumn that shows itself in the quiet of our hearts. We see nature collapsing and needing to be rebuilt as the decay of its leaves subtly prepares the ground for new life. And the beauty of that transformation stuns us into acceptance.
Before the Bishop of Assisi: Eager to rebuild the church in San Damiano and many other churches, Francis needed resources and so he took cloth from his father’s shop, sold it and used the proceeds to purchase materials to rebuild the churches. This enraged his father who brought him before the bishop of Assisi to force Francis to pay him back. After hearing the case the bishop ordered Francis to return the funds. A man of extremes and wholeheartedness, Francis then removed all of his clothes and handed them to the bishop along with the money. He told his father that, “Today, my Father is in heaven.” Fall, more than any other season, is a time of extremes. We both celebrate abundance of the harvest, and quietly mourn the ending of yet another cycle of life. Autumn is a time of great harvest—corn, squash, berries and pumpkins– but in autumn there are also new seeds that need time and space to take root. For Francis and for us, autumn is a time to let go of anything that is in the way of our relationship and to trust that all will be well. Autumn reminds us to meet change with grace and to be willing to let go of everything when God calls us to do just that.
Lepers: Francis trusted that God had called him to “Go, rebuild my church. But as he pondered his relationship with God who is Father of all he began to recognize that the “Church” Francis was being called to rebuild might well be the “people of God”. And so, “relationship” – being brother and sister to all creation — became the core of his ministry. Francis sensed that God was calling him to serve the poor and the powerless. When returning from a pilgrimage to Rome he encountered lepers who would normally have repulsed Francis. Having no food and having given all of his money away to some beggars, God moved Francis to embrace and comfort the lepers, the ultimate outcasts. Francis looked at their decayed skin and knew that his challenge was to accept and comfort them. When Francis returned to Assisi he began to nurse other lepers in the Umbrian region. As the autumn season moves further away from summer and closer to winter, we see the decay evident in the leaves and the fruit that has dropped. We watch the last leaves fall from the trees, the last blossoms drop their petals and in it we recognize an unbelievable beauty. It is a season that helps us recognize and accept the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The little deaths of autumn help us realize that every life is precious and that beauty must be noticed and treasured.The dark silhouettes of bare branches against the sky are so beautiful, somehow full of dignity and quiet strength. They speak of endurance, of patience, and in their delicate, lacy patterns we can see God’s handiwork. In a similar way, Francis noticed the beauty of the lepers for whom he cared. He pondered all that God set before him. He spent time in silence and solitude, fasting and praying for guidance
Matthew 10: One day while repairing a Church, Francis heard a priest read from Matthew 10: “Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts, take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic or sandals or a staff.” Francis heard this as a call to live simply with no possessions and to trust in the providence of God. Letting go then became core for Francis. He called his followers to seek downward mobility. Spiritual transformation doesn’t happen instantly. Francis gradually learned that what brought him through his darkest times was his total dependence on God and he chose that with all of his heart. In autumn we take time to slow down, we rest, we spend time discerning where we’ve been and where we are headed. When we are still, when we’re able to see both light and dark, without turning away, we may come to recognize areas of our life where we need to let go. We may begin to see what we need to relinquish, in order to allow God to work within us. We may look for where we need to get out of the way, and let God be in control. What matters in life is not productivity and having, but relationship and giving. Change is the only constant. Autumn reminds us to meet change with grace.
Francis and the Sultan: In life we have both light and darkness. Most prefer the light but the darkness is equally as important. Rather than turning away from the darkness, our inner autumn calls us to embrace it. One wonders if Francis did not have some flashbacks of his days in battle and his year-long imprisonment. What we do know is that Francis was keenly troubled by the Crusades. He wanted peace among all creation. He also had a deep desire to mirror Jesus in his life and to bring all to an awareness of Jesus and the extravagant love of God that Jesus reveals. And so, it is not surprising that, in 1219 Francis felt called to attempt to end the Crusades by converting the Muslim Sultan to Christianity. Although Francis was allowed to spend a week with the sultan, his conversion efforts failed and the Crusades continued. But Francis was changed and so was the Sultan, both being touched by the spirituality of the other. Autumn teaches us that even in the darkness there is light that transforms. We might plant the seeds but the love of God is what brings the growth. May our hearts be open to both light and darkness and may our spirits mirror those same opposites in a way that allows us to see the God of all seasons.
Canticle of Creatures: It is said that in late 1224 while recovering from an illness Francis wrote the Canticle of Creatures, a hymn of praise and gratitude to this God whom Francis loved with all his heart – this God of extravagant love. It was sung for the first time in its entirety on Francis’ deathbed. The canticle shows us Francis’ spirituality and his invitation to be brother and sister to all that God created. You can click this You Tube link to Sr. Andrea’s version of this canticle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yIv2mPyz8M&t=22s which we sung last evening at Transitus. May autumn call us to praise and thank the God who parents us with such extravagant and compassionate love.