(Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi).
We have a garden statue of Francis of Assisi holding a bird as he is known for caring for the natural world. Our statue if fairly innocuous compared with other statues or illustrations of Francis talking to a half-circle of birds, deer, squirrels, and other animals, which remind of old Disney movies. Francis comes across an eccentric, dotty yet endearing uncle.
But there is a different story to Francis of Assisi. Francis was not a charming, avuncular monk as history has portrayed him. Rather, Francis was a challenging prophet, who, like Jesus, confronted the political and religious authorities of his time with the truth of the gospel.
Francis lived in the early 13th century which saw the rise of a new economic era in the city republics of upper Italy. A growing population and the economic boom restricted the medieval makeup of cities. The rural economy was waning and next to the aristocracy and clergy, there arose an additional class to which affluent cloth merchants like Francis’ father belonged. New forms of trade developed in the flourishing towns and the upper classes imported and consumed luxury articles like silk and spices from the East. People who once worked the land were uprooted while more and more wage-dependent workers roamed the streets.
This new era was no longer based on the exchange of natural goods but on the traffic of money. Profiteering, speculation, and market swings determined the economic destiny of even the newly poor. At the same time, this early capitalism sustained this new class of people who were profoundly fascinated by money, property, success and upward mobility.
And here enters Francis of Assisi, born into this new wealthy class. His father was a very wealthy merchant of cloth and, prior to Francis’ conversion, Francis was known as a playboy, who was to inherit the family business. Francis became desperately ill and during his recovery he began reading religious materials and the Bible. His encounter with Jesus in the gospels changed his life forever. When he recovered from his illness, he broke with his family and lived in the nearby woods outside of Assisi, following Jesus without a permanent home or any possessions.
The commitment Francis made to poverty must be seen in his context. His break with his family was a rejection of the values of the bourgeois world. When he refused to run the family business he was cursed by his father and regarded as dead to the family. As Francis rejected affluence for poverty, he also rejected the dominant culture and all its values. Importantly, for Francis, choosing poverty was not only to avoid the dangers of affluence but also was a total renunciation of the self and subsequent giving of that self to God.
Unfortunately, throughout history, religious authorities developed two different ways of dealing with prophets—they either expelled them or attempted to domesticate them. Francis was domesticated, robbed of his prophetic sting. The radical stories about Francis were prohibited and his biography was suppressed.
A sanitized version of Francis’ life was declared the official biography which left Francis as the mild, gentle friend of nature—with a few oddities—who loved poverty more than anything else. This is the story that survives even today. Yes, Francis, did preach to the birds, but according to Umberto Eco, he was talking to vultures and birds of prey in the cemeteries telling them the things that the rich city councilmen did not want to hear.
Political and religious authorities were subject to his radical critique. He embraced and kissed lepers not only out of love but because he wanted to liberate them from exclusion, from being told that they did not belong. Is, as Eco suggests, leprosy is a sign of those who are disenfranchised, oppressed, uprooted, and pushed around, then it is precisely this spirit of exclusion that Francis was intent on eliminating. His goal was not an aimless and self-satisfying asceticism—rather, Francis sought to live the vulnerable openness of love that gives itself without condition, protection, and reassurance. He was hardly the domesticated, dotty, peculiar monk that history has portrayed him.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in PeaceSigns, August 21, 2007).