With Pope Francis visiting the US, it’s time again to reflect on his namesake. This is a reblogged post, so some might remember it.

St. Francis, 13th Century

St. Francis, 13th Century

A couple of years ago I listened to one of those Great Courses lectures on St. Francis of Assisi. I patiently waited through all the talk about his early beginnings, his military experience, his illness, his rejection of society, and his eventual creation of a new order. Most of it was dry and rather matter-of-fact. Where was the meat? Where was the mystical Francis I’d heard about? Where were the stories, the hagiography, that made Francis one of the most loved and recognized saints of all time? I walked away from the lectures shaking my head in disappointment. It wasn’t until later that my reading caught up with the reality. I had been very naïve believing a history and art professor would ever broach the subject of mystical experience. It wasn’t done; even an academic degreed in comparative religion would shy away from this discussion. How sad because isn’t that what many of us hunger for?

Francis has whispered to me from time to time. A statue in someone’s garden, the visit of the Pope this fall to Assisi, a well-known spiritual teacher planning a workshop there, St. Francis hospital visible from my new house. Then recently, Pope Francis was proclaimed Time’s Man of the Year. Francis is present in ways he hasn’t been in a long time. What can a twelfth century saint have to say to the modern world? Maybe a lot.

St. Francis in Ecstasy Caravaggio, 1594

St. Francis in Ecstasy
Caravaggio, 1594

Let’s dispense with the relevant historical details (and don’t worry it won’t take twelve lectures) to seek out a deeper meaning for Francis in our time. Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadone around 1181. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he enjoyed all the advantages of his station and even went off to war fighting for Assisi. Some kind of vision compelled him to return home where he subsequently lost his zeal for the kind of life he’d been previously living and he began to reject it. He left his father’s silk business, took to serving the poor and lepers, and gained a following. Francis eventually went on to found the Order of the Friars Minor, the Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order of St. Francis.

It was in San Damiano that Francis had a powerful mystical experience which was to frame his life’s work. While praying before an icon, he had a vision of Jesus who spoke to him and said, “…go and repair My house which, as you can see is falling into ruins.”  Francis’ interpretation resulted in him raising money to repair the physical church he was in. Of course, Francis’ mission was not a literal one and called him instead, to restore the institution of the Church.

Stigmatization of St. Francis Matthias Kargen, 1664

Stigmatization of St. Francis
Matthias Kargen, 1664

Although never ordained, Francis’ calling was manifested in a simple life of poverty emulating the life of Christ. His followers were “To follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and walk in his footsteps.” He was devoted to his spiritual practice and at times would withdraw from life to develop it. He had guiding visions throughout his life, was seen levitating, and was the first recorded person to receive the wounds of Christ (stigmata). Francis was a mystic, but he was also a mystic who brought back what he learned and shared it.

St. Francis leads the wolf of Gubbio. HJ Ford, 1912

St. Francis leads the wolf of Gubbio.
HJ Ford, 1912

Two of the most widely known miracles told about Francis involve his ability to work with animals. In the town of Gubbio, a wolf threatened the townsfolk. Francis intervened and made a pact with the wolf. Thereafter, the wolf remained peacefully near the village and the people fed it. The other story concerns an incident where Francis was trying to preach over the noisy chatter of swallows. He asked the birds to be silent and to the amazement of the crowd, they did. That famous story is the reason why Francis statues and art depictions often have a bird. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment.

As we draw near to Christmas and many churches display a nativity scene (Francis is credited with creating the first nativity scene), I hope you will remember a simple saint who lived an exemplary life devoted to poverty and service. His mystical connection to the Universe (God, if you prefer) was the powerhouse of his practice.

For More:

Canticle of the Sun: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canticle_of_the_Sun

St. Francis Peace Prayer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Francis

Book: The Life and Prayers of St. Francis






Filed under mysticism, spiritual

17 responses to “WELCOME BACK FRANCIS!

  1. 21 years ago I was on a school tour that took in Assisi. My schoolmates had no interest in exploring so off I went myself. It was a wonderful experience – a truly special place. Your post has brought back an awful lot.

    I recall some discussion of Francis in Anthony Storr’s book “Feet of Clay” which while written from a pretty sceptical point of view was also quite respectful and informative (I think it was in a chapter that also dealt with St Ignatius)


    • I’m sure Assisi can be a transformative place. I’ll be in Italy later in the month, but we’ll be on a whirlwind bus trip and won’t get there. I know Caroline Myss (a spiritual teacher from the US) does wonderful week long retreats there. Now, that would be something!


  2. Very interesting, thank you. I love to get a taste of the lives of such profound shapers of history, and I’ll be reading more as a result. Great post!


  3. I enjoyed this post, Ellis. It is certainly timeous for a pope with the same name to remind us of the simplicity of St Francis’ message. I feel sure St Francis would have approved of Pope Francis’ arrival at the White House in a small Fiat!


    • Very refreshing to see how excited Americans were to see this pope. I’m sure there were protests but the news didn’t cover them. Also interesting to note that while the Pope was enjoying this trip, the Dalai Lama is also in the US at the Mayo Clinic. Things don’t look good there as no information is being made available.


  4. An informative and timely post! I was delighted that the Pope chose Francis for his name, since Francis of Assisi has always been a favorite saint of mine – largely because of his relationship with animals. But now you’ve told me so much more about him!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Supernal Living with Dana Taylor and commented:
    On the occasion of the visit from Pope Francis, Ellis Nelson shared this apropos post. One the most powerful books from Wayne Dyer is There is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem, based on the famous St. Francis Prayer. He was definitely a man for the ages.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good info at an appropriate time – in many ways. Have you seen the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon? It’s been many years since I saw it and some scenes remain with me still. sd


  7. Francis of Assisi has always been one of my favorite Catholic saints. My favorite uncle was a member of the Third Order, and even took me to Mt Greylock when I was growing up. The connection to the animals probably had a lot to do with it, as well as his creation of the first creche for Christmas. I think this current Pope a fine example of the name, and am glad he chose to honor this saint both by adopting the name, and by living by many of St. Francis’s tenets.


  8. He has the best saints prayer, too (Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace / Where there is hatred, let me sow love…”). Oddly, your wiki link doesn’t show the whole prayer, despite its brevity (?). Thanks for the bit of inspiring history!


  9. EICG Staff

    Well done indeed. Great post


  10. reanolanmartin

    I love this, Ellis. I too have been a devotee of his. My youngest son took his name on his Confirmation. My father and both grandfathers were named Francis, as is one of my brothers. He is a ubiquitous presence around here!


  11. Great post. Pope Francis is very fitting of his name. He will likely be credited (in history if not now) as the one who saved the church.


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