St. Francis Of Assisi

by Rev. Joseph G. Fonti

In her work, Saints: Their Cults and Origins, Caroline Williams defines a saint as "a person of holy character who is venerated as an example of religious and personal excellence for having lived a life 'in imitation of Christ.'" While each of us is called to imitate Christ by virtue of our baptism, the lives of the saints inspire us for they prove to us that we can successfully follow Christ, our "Way, Truth and Life." Surely the saints were not immune to the harsh realities of life. Many of them not only experience life's difficulties and hardships, they bore more than their share. Imprisonment, illness, mistreatment, rejection, "dark nights" of the soul are only a few of the many crosses that they carried. Yet, through it all, they remained steadfast in faith, joyful in hope and radiant in a love for God and others.

Because of their deep love and faith, the saints received a spiritual grace from God so that they would remain faithful to Him especially during the difficult moments of life. Purified by earnest contrition and perfected by a heroic witness, the lives of the saints have always been considered exemplary, remaining forever within the Church as "icons" of God's presence among us. The saints, therefore, are the true friends of God for when He "tried them [He] found them worthy of Himself". Staying focused on God by loving Jesus, the saints emptied themselves completely of all selfish desire and thus radiated the truth of Christian love - sacrifice. Of this type of love the Swiss theologian von Balthasar writes:

The spirit of love is a spirit of self-giving and, consequently, of "choice." If love is pure, it gives itself to God and man by an interior movement that is wholly proper to it. It is nothing but self-giving. For this reason, it needs no other law than itself; all other laws are subsumed, filled, transcended in the one law of love. Love does not have to be incited or encouraged to self-giving as to something higher than itself, as to a model it must emulate if it is not to stray from the right path. Love is itself the greatest commandment. Whoever observes it in its entirety has done all that is necessary. There is no authority higher than love. On the contrary, it is itself the highest authority, holding all else under its sway. Because it is compelled by no necessity, necessity and freedom are conjoined in it. When in all freedom it makes its decision to love, it fulfills all that is required. For love is the one thing necessary.

Captivated by this "spirit of love", the saints entered into a "love affair" with God and through this sacred and intimate exchange with him they were "transformed" into the image of his love. With their hearts and wills wedded to God in Christ, the Lord was able to do great things for them because their souls were fertile with a constant awareness of his love and mercy. This awareness was a "bitter-sweet" reality for while it made them evermore appreciative and desirous of the gift of God's unconditional love, it brought them a greater awareness of their sinfulness. The theologian von Hildebrand writes:

A saint who looks over to God is on fire with the love of Jesus, is overcome with the sweetness of Jesus, necessarily also shudders at the sight of sin, also has deep contrition for his own sins, and is pierced through and through with sorrow over the sinfulness of the world and the thousand offenses committed daily against God.

Grateful for Jesus, who came to reconcile us to the Father, the saints welcomed him wholeheartedly into their lives. They befriended him and sought to make his way of love and faithfulness their own.

God's predilection for souls was truly apparent in the life of Saint Francis, the "poverello" of Assisi. Having had lived the early days of his live in a spirit which can best be described as carefree and chivalrous, Francis of Assisi fell in love with Christ. Like a bee attracted to a spring blossom, or the child whose curiosity longs for answered, Francis hungered for an intimacy with Jesus so much so that he radically abandoned himself to God's providential care. Having Jesus' voice within him beckoning him to a deeper communion and faith, Francis heeded the words of the psalmist, "of you my heart speaks, seek his faith", and went in search of his heart's love, Jesus.

Francis soon realized that his Beloved wanted to be near to him, that he greeted him in the disguise of the poor. Whether it was the beggar who sought his alms or the leper whom he tired to avoid because he was afraid and disgusted, Jesus was extending his hand to Francis. He desired Francis' embrace wanting to share with him the intimacy of his love and friendship. Being weighed down as a youth by the wealth and prestige of his family name, Francis ultimately renounced his birthright and in doing so he experienced the liberation of his soul which enabled him to recognize and love Christ in all things. Unlike the rich young man in Matthew's gospel who "went away sad, for he had so many possessions," Francis happily distanced himself from worldly attachments for he truly believed that in giving he would receive Jesus, his love. Bonaventure captures the spirit of Francis' poverty, a spirit that enable him to love Christ totally.

Francis' eagerness to be near and like Christ was so intense that he was given the extraordinary privilege of bearing "the marks of Jesus" on his body. Longing to be completely united with Christ, Francis pondered the mystery of the Cross pleading for total union with his beloved. Finally, the beloved answered with "an embrace so complete that Francis' side and hands and feet are sealed with the wounds of love." The stigmata, therefore, was Christ's unique way of claiming Francis for himself.

Jesus' words, "whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him", truly captures the spirit that motivated St. Francis of Assisi throughout his life. Striving to conform himself to Christ by imitating him perfectly in his life and death, Francis shows us that Jesus can be loved above all things provided we entrust ourselves completely to his care. His embrace of radical poverty and simplicity challenges each one of us at our core calling forth from us a greater sense of detachment for the things of this world so as to make room for Jesus in our life. While we know that this is easier said then done, Francis' example assures us that if we set our hearts on the Kingdom first...all [these] things will be given you besides."

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