A Different Drummer
Francis Bernardone and Clare Favorone were two bright kids born into well-to-do families in thirteenth century Assisi, Italy. Their futures would be linked in a very profound way and their lives would highlight the reason for the thirteenth being called "The Greatest of Centuries" by many Church historians.
Assuredly, Saint Francis of Assisi is numbered among the most popular figures of the Church in the view of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To speak of him, however, as "the saint who liked animals" is like speaking of New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter as "that guy who makes commercials." One might find more relevance in aligning Francis to the hippies of the 1960s. He certainly was a radical - to the extreme - except his brand of dropping out was not defined by sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll but by the gospel, compassion, and poverty. In a vision, Francis encountered Jesus calling him to rebuild his Church. He addressed the task both spiritually and literally. Francis was a true reformer. His mission of following Christ's life and teachings in the gospels as literally as he could became a sign that railed against the corruption in the Church and also manifested an unequivocal love for the Church.
This vigorous religious movement touched the lives of many in Assisi, none more than a young girl named Clare Favorone. The woman who would become Saint Clare of Assisi was born to privilege and would turn from it to follow Francis. She had a profound influence on Francis and he had a deep affection for her; what G. K. Chesterton would call "a pure and spiritual romance." Although Clare would spend most of her life behind the walls of her convent at San Damiano, her holiness, intellect, and fortitude contributed immeasurably to the Franciscan Order. She and her order of nuns became a source of spiritual and temporal strength for the people of Assisi. [The book I recommend is The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi by Jon M. Sweeney]
Can the overwhelming spirituality of two individuals living so many centuries ago speak to a twenty-first century world? If questions about family relations, materialism, and true friendships between men and woman are counted as concerns in this age, then the answer is in the affirmative. Pursuing a vocational path not in accord with the hopes of one's family presents many emotional and practical obstacles. If the nature of the life's work sought is noble, the stresses may be softened more easily. Yet, should the goals of an individual be deemed dangerous, immoral, or ill-conceived, one can hope that reason and love among family members can rule the day.
The inflated status of material things as the sole purpose for existence has sent a tsunami of troubles pounding against the shores of marriage and family life. Often, the importance of nurturing the treasures of God's love, a supportive family, and true friends comes too late. When the golden nuggets of faith and wisdom have been one's constant companion, life, in its joys and sorrows, will have revealed all its hidden gifts along the way.
Can friendship between a man and a woman happen authentically or will sexual tensions always spoil its development? Francis and Clare proved that friendship, pure and chaste, can not only exist, but also thrive between members of the opposite sex. Their affection for one another was grounded in the passion of their desire to serve God and a true concern for each other's well being. They shared a mutual respect for the way in which the Holy Spirit had transformed their lives and in the importance of their work. A successful friendship (or a marriage) between a man and a woman requires an indefatigable focus on each other as complete human beings with all the concomitant qualities of being such. I believe it was the poet Yeats who wrote, "I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softy because you tread upon my dreams." Respect for the power of each life to grace another or to harm it must be kept foremost in one's mind.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." - Henry David Thoreau easily could have been referring to Saint Francis and Saint Clare. Though few are called to the austere spiritual model that they adopted, all can benefit from their example. They revealed an intimacy with Christ that gave a dignity and a beauty to all creation and a service to their God who fulfilled all hopes. Within the hearts and souls of all men and women, the creative spirit of God can inspire ways of approaching daily life that would express not only the presence of Christ, but also the gift of a Christ-like people. A fitting conclusion may be found in the words uttered by Francis to his followers as he lay dying: "Now I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours to do."