To visit the town of Assisi is to step into a place which is equal parts awesome and ironic.
Walking up the hill to the town’s enormous and ornate basilica, you will pass gelato stands, stores selling postcards and T-shirts, and restaurants which offer an approximation of Italian food designed with the tourist’s palate in mind. The opportunities for you to spend money are just about without limit. Once inside the vast church, the testimony to the work of money continues, albeit in a different form – you are now within a structure that would cost north of a hundred million dollars were you to break ground on it today.
On the August afternoon that my wife, Phoebe, and I stepped out of the heat of the Italian summer and into the subdued light of the basilica, the sanctuary was full of tourists. A sign at the door indicated that we were to maintain silence, but the throng of folks from around the world, laden with their heavy burdens of telephoto lenses and mobile phones, seemed to be having some trouble remembering that rule. Thus, a young Franciscan was charged with pacing the space with a cordless microphone in hand. Periodically, he would intone: Silencio. Silencio.
The worship space was spectacular. It proclaimed a God who was immense and ancient and impossibly beautiful. However, that space, as inspiring as it was, was not the reason that we had come to Assisi. To find that goal, we descended a set of stairs into an entire second basilica, still older than the one above, its walls infused with the smoke of centuries of candles. At the far end from the stairs lay the tomb of St. Francis.
It is said that Francis stood about 5’4”; short by today’s standards but likely average given the nutrition of his time. Francis is most famous, today, for his easy facility – for his communion, even – with animals. At times the remembrance of that charism holds the risk of turning him into a caricature: Francis is kind of the pet detective of the 13th century, a sparrow perched on his shoulder and a ferret or two nestled in the pockets of his robes. While that image is charming – and maybe even inspiring – it is also incomplete. It neglects two vital aspects of this saint, two aspects which make Francis way more exciting and way more challenging as a spiritual teacher.
The first exciting challenge that Francis offers to us lies in is his choice to become poor. Francis was born rich. But in a decision that would represent heresy for many people in the First World, especially the folks who gave us the prosperity gospel, he decided one day to join a group of men begging outside of a church. And with the cold pavement beneath him and the hunger growling in his guts, his hands outstretched in the hopes of the blessing of a coin, Francis abruptly understood that he was learning at least as much – if not more – about God sitting on the street outside of that church than he did when he sat on a pew within it.
So Francis made the decision to become what many people would call a loser, or a bum, or a welfare queen. He set aside his wealth and started searching for the divine in all sorts of people, things, and places. He looked for God in faces of the poor and in the natural world.
It is nature which brings us to the second exciting challenge that Francis offers to us. Francis insisted that nature was the image of God. He used language to speak of nature that wouldn’t be out of place in Native American mythology – language that we don’t necessarily think of as Christian. He wrote of “Brother Sun” and of “Sister Moon.” Indeed, Francis encountered nature in a way that would not be out of place here in Portland, where many folks say that they find the divine most easily on a hiking trail or beside a lake (this very week I saw a bumper sticker on a car outside of Grace Memorial that read, “I believe in God: I just call it Nature”).
Francis’ understanding of nature as God’s image did not confine itself to the beautiful. He insisted that all of nature, not just the animals cute enough to make it into our homes or our petting zoos, show us God’s image. God’s image is to be found in mosquitoes and in rats and in hurricanes and in droughts and in illness. Francis was sick much of the life – he was what we would now call chronically ill – and he wrote that his illnesses, much like the son and the moon, were his brothers and his sisters.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that line of argument hard to hear, especially as I start to plug actual illnesses into the equation. I don’t imagine, for instance, that there is person in this church whose life has not been touched by cancer. I suspect that just about everyone here either has had cancer or has lost of a loved one to cancer or knows someone enduring radiation or chemo right now. I don’t know, therefore, that I am ready to speak of Brother Cancer. I don’t know that I am ready to talk about Sister Parkinson’s or Brother Alzheimer’s or Sister HIV-AIDS. I don’t know that I am ready to use the language of family for these diseases. In fact, I have difficulty talking about those diseases without using profanity.
I want to suggest that these two exciting challenges from Francis – his choice to be poor and his insistence on seeing God everywhere, absolutely everywhere, including in injustice and illness – make him a particularly important Saint for us living in America right now. Because these two exciting challenges in concert invite us to examine the world with a hopeful criticality, perhaps we could say with a Gospel criticality. And as or more importantly, Francis’ two exciting challenges invite us to examine ourselves – and the systems in which we participate and from which we profit – with a Gospel criticality.
There are any number of subjects that we might consider critically and hopefully. Maybe your gears are turning right now, maybe you are wondering how Francis might examine us to understand poverty or hunger or economics in a new way. Rather than trying to talk about everything and, thereby, risking talking about nothing, I’m going to choose but one subject. And because it is raw in our minds right now, I’m going to choose the subject of violence, and in particular the subject of school shootings.
My experience of watching the nightly news is that, more often than not, it draws me into a place of passive fear. Maybe this is why Phoebe and I don’t own a TV: I find it hard to hear about the stock market and the senate and the latest school shooting without ending up with this curious and maybe contradictory combination of adrenaline and apathy, a state in which I am both thoroughly wound up and equally convinced that the world is irreparably broken, in which there is nothing to be done except to despair to drink heavily.
But Francis invites us to hopefully and critically ask: What if the world doesn’t need to look the way that it does? What if, much as I stopped participating in my inherited wealth, you can stop participating in your inherited assumptions about how life has to be?
We can begin living differently by doing something small. Let’s refuse to lavish attention on perpetrators. Hostage takings became less common when the popular media made the decision to stop giving free publicity to hostage takers and their demands. Suicides among teenagers declined when the popular media stopped publishing details of suicide pacts – what psychologists call the “contagion” of these destructive ideas declined. Let’s do the same with the perpetrators of school shootings. Let’s deny them the spotlight.
And while our critical hopefulness has got us wondering about living differently, let’s go even further. Francis proclaims that we don’t actually have to live in a country in which a young man who has fallen into a poisonous mixture of rage and alienation and narcissism finds it hard to get help but easy to go buy an assault rifle. We don’t have to live in a country where the only answer we can think of to that young man is even more people carrying guns, where the only answer is more and better violence. We can change that if we want.
If that strikes you as naïve – well, it is. Gospel criticality is always naïve. It is what St. Paul calls foolishness. When someone first said, “We could end slavery!” that was naïve – the American economy was predicated on it. When someone first said, “Women could have the vote!” that was naïve – women had been shut out of governance for so long. And how recently – ten years ago, even less? – did we know that marriage equality would never come to America in our lifetimes, and it would never ever come south of the Mason-Dixon line?
Francis challenges and enlivens our consciences by showing us the example of his life. Francis invites us to look at him, to witness a man who truly sees Jesus Christ in the least of these, our brothers and sisters. Who does not just visit the hungry and the prisoner, but who lives with them. Who does not just see God in nature but who lives beneath the canopy of the sky. Who testifies that he sees God in all things and means it. Who quietly invites us into Gospel criticality, quietly asks if we are willing to say yes to following Jesus as he has done.
Phoebe and I walked back down the hill from the great basilica which houses Francis’ mortal remains. Past the post cards and the T Shirts and the fake Italian food. We walked through that place of awe and irony, in which the life of a man dedicated to poverty and simplicity is remembered amid opulence and, maybe, even excess. I imagined Francis walking beside us, his ancient sandals on the cobblestones. I wondered if he would be angry to see this, his resting place.
My guess, however, is that, were he to visit Assisi today, these 800 years after his death, Francis would surprise us anew.
I imagine him standing there, amidst the chaos of that street. He is smiling gently, laughing at a joke that only he can hear. I imagine that, even in the bustle of tourists and the shouting of merchants, what Francis sees is the face of God.