In a 13th-century text called the Il Foretti (The Little Flowers), a story is told about St. Francis in which a brother friar came to him and asked, “Why after you? Why is the whole world coming after you, wanting to see you, to hear you, to follow you?” Some 800 years after the life of St. Francis, this question remains. What is it about this unpretentious figure from the early 13th century that continues to exert such a perennial fascination for Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and agnostics alike? What is it that has made Francis the subject of more books than any other saint? Why has he inspired artists, ecologists, peace activists, and advocates for the poor to claim him as a patron? Why has he inspired countless tens of thousands of men and women to follow his Rule of Life in religious and secular communities?
As Francis’ contemporary, Brother Masseo pointed out, Francis possessed no outstanding beauty, or nobility of birth, or great depth of learning. He was neither a scholar, nor an organizational genius, nor a conscious innovator in any of the arts or sciences. Even though Francis’ endeavor was but one of 130 known movements in his day, many people think that it was his founding of a penitential movement in the time when spirituality was largely monastic. Even now the whole world continues to be drawn to the little, poor man dressed in his nondescript brown robe. What is the source of his attractiveness? Francis’ own response to Masseo’s question was that God chose him because of his “vileness and insufficiency,” so that the Creator and not the creature would receive the credit. Francis seems to be saying that to focus too exclusively on Francis is to miss Francis altogether.
Part of Francis’ charism is his very ordinariness, his closeness and accessibility to the average person. Though his early biographers make clear that his winning personality and qualities of leadership were evident well before his conversion, these traits do not set him above or apart from others, but draw him closer to them. More importantly, Francis is an ordinary person who takes the gospel seriously. Francis’ own identity is so bound up with his commitment to Jesus that one must see past the little brother in order to see the Lord and Creator shining through the creature. To focus on Francis, one will miss the pattern of his life, and the secret of his genuine attractiveness will remain forever a puzzle.
St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar in the generation after St. Francis, was attentive to the pattern of Francis’ life. He noted that Francis moved into the life of Christ by prayer and contemplation in order to more conform himself to the imago Christi – the image of Christ. Then, inwardly aflame in desire and love of Christ crucified, his life was marked with the love and peace of Christ that Francis then carried into the world. “It was a custom for the angelic man Francis never to rest from the good, rather, like the heavenly spirits on Jacob’s ladder, he either ascended into God or descended into his neighbor. For he had so prudently learned to divide the time given to him for merit, that he spent some of it working for his neighbor’s benefit and dedicated the rest to the tranquil excess of contemplation. Therefore, when he emptied himself according to the demand of times and places to gain the salvation of another, leaving the restlessness of the crowds, he would seek the secrets of solitude and a place of quiet.” (Bonaventure, Legenda Major, Chap. 13)
It was this pattern of Francis’ life that was attractive to people, in that through the way of life Francis offered, they intuited a way to God that remained entrenched in life and did not pass through the monastery doors. The brother’s question “Why after you?” missed the point. Francis’ pattern of life became an invitation to undertake a journey of discipleship by following the footsteps of St. Francis in order to be like Christ with Francis as guide. It is a spirituality which is lived out in a way that one is dedicated to conforming one’s self to Christ in all things – to be put directly into deeds, actions, and the manner of Christian living.
Francis never explained what it meant to become one with God – he demonstrated it, with an intensity and simplicity, a spiritual power, which has continued long after his death to inspire others to follow in the footsteps of Christ. This week, as we celebrate the life and passing of St. Francis of Assisi, may we all dedicate ourselves to the lifelong work of being conformed to Christ.