Below is my Thought for the Day broadcast on Radio Kent this morning:
In the afternoon of 3 October 1226, a 44 year old man lay dying beside a church in a small Italian town. He was blind and his body was wasted by disease, but he bore on that body the open wounds of the crucified Christ.
Only two years after his death, Francis of Assisi was canonised, and last Friday, 4 October, was his feast, the day when the Church commemorates the life and example of the poor friar of Assisi.
Despite the decline of traditional Christianity, St Francis of Assisi is one saint who has not quite disappeared from our collective consciousness. Many people will have an image of him as the saint who lived a simple life and was kind to animals and fed the birds – a sort of forerunner of the modern environmental movement. His name has gained additional prominence this year since the newly elected Argentinian pope took Francis as his ‘official’ name on election to the papacy in March.
But who was Francis of Assisi, and what did he really stand for?
Born into a rich family, Francis at first lived the youth of a wealthy playboy, but a series of events influenced him to give up his wealth and lavish lifestyle and dedicate himself entirely to the poor and the outcast. He denounced the rich and corrupt Church of his day, and his followers, the Franciscans, dedicated to caring for the poor, spread in his lifetime right across Europe, including to Canterbury in far off England. His inspiration was a literal understanding of the teaching of Jesus in the gospels: only through humility, poverty and total service to others can we discover our true purpose.
The prayer of St Francis is well known still today. The second part of it emphasises the importance of putting others before oneself, a reminder which we still perhaps need to hear in our own society and lives. We should not be demanding that others attend to our needs, but focus rather on attending to the needs of our brothers and sisters. In that way we find fulfilment:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console,
to be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving, that we receive,
It is in forgiving, that we are forgiven,
And it is in dying, that we are born to eternal life.