This weekend and next, my church is presenting an original play about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Why, you may ask, would a Protestant church be celebrating the life of a Catholic saint? And what determines who’s a saint, anyway?
For Catholics, what determines the naming of a saint depends, in part, on miracles that have occurred in response to prayers to a deceased, pending saint. Pray to John Paul II for miraculous help, receive it, and your experience counts toward his recognition as a saint. For Protestants, the accepted category of saints is far broader: all those born again in the Holy Spirit, alive or dead, are saints through the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Even Protestants, however, must admit there are saints and then there are Saints — and St. Francis is one with a capital S. He was born in 1182, and by the time he died in 1226, he had helped turn the church away from stagnation and corruption, simply through his example of living his love for Christ. Like such modern examples as Gandhi and Mother Teresa, St. Francis is a tribute to the power of the individ-
ual in changing, for the better, the course of religious history.
Francis’ early life did not display such promise. He was born the son of a successful cloth merchant in the town of Assisi, Italy, and took up a life of teenage drinking and brawling with his friends, sharing their fascination with wandering ribalds and troubadours — traveling musicians akin to the touring rockers of today. Soon he went off to war against the neighboring city-state of Perugia. Defeated in the battle, he spent a year in prison before returning home.
A serious illness and a series of visions, including a voice from God telling Francis, “Go and repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins,” moved his deepening enlightenment to full flower. At that time, lepers were the most reviled beings alive. Local priests performed a ceremony reciting: “I forbid you to enter church, monastery, fair, mill, marketplace or tavern … to touch a well, or well cord, without your gloves … to eat or drink, except with lepers.”
Overcoming his initial revulsion, Francis took to feeding and nursing lepers, and restoring, stone by stone, the ruined church of St. Damiano, where lepers were welcome. He supported this work by begging in the streets for food to eat and stones for building. His father, angry and embarrassed by all this, beat and chained him, and finally disowned him. Francis, in turn, removed his clothes in the public square, handed them to his father, and declared he had no father but his Father in heaven.
Soon after, Francis heard a sermon that further changed his life. The text was drawn from Matthew 10:8-10, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take any gold, or silver, or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.”
Barefoot, in rough robe, Francis began in earnest his calling of preaching and begging, and within a year he had 11 followers — the beginning of the Franciscan order. The beautiful Clare of Assisi yearned to join him, and eventually the order of Poor Clares was established, as well.
In his introduction to The Road to Assisi, editor Jon Sweeney notes, “It is not simply that Francis’ ideals are worth recounting, but that his life was so extraordinary. He was fully human — like each of us in our awkwardness, insecurities and fear — but he was also perhaps the purest example we have seen of a person striving to do what Jesus taught his disciples.”
Sweeney also quotes Nikos Kazantzakis, who summarized the meaning of Francis’ life thusly: “Each of us has the obligation to transubstantiate the matter which God entrusted to us, and turn it into spirit.”
To understand how Francis could have had such an impact on the Catholic Church of the day, we have to recognize how all man-made institutions become corrupted over time.
Sweeney tells the story of a medieval priest who thought one of his flock was too stingy with his contributions to the church, and so put an old penny in the man’s mouth instead of the communion wafer. Later the priest lied, and told the man that God had changed the host into the penny, in order to shame him.
Today, it’s more likely the non-denominational Christian churches that are so in love with money they will sometimes drive some of their obedient flock into bankruptcy by demanding tithes and double-tithes. The greed of some church clergy can be breathtaking, and Francis’ example lives on to remind us of what God’s love is truly about.
But the real miracle of Francis’ life was the change he wrought without resorting to preachiness. Sweeney writes: “A great part of St. Francis’ power came to him through his systematic avoidance of polemics. The latter is always more or less a form of spiritual pride. It only deepens the chasm that it undertakes to fill up. Truth need not be proved; it is its own witness. The only weapon that he would use against the wicked was the holiness of a life so full of love as to enlighten and revive those about him, and compel them to love.”
It’s this power of Francis’ love our play endeavors to portray. It’s being performed at 7 p.m. Saturdays, Aug. 14 and 21, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 15 and 22, at Union Street Brick Church, corner of Union and Main streets, Bangor. Admission is free. For more information, call 945-9798.
The Rev. Dr. Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at email@example.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.