There is a temptation to linger in the details of a saint’s life in search of a clue for how we might become more holy. If we crack the code of any given saint, perhaps we might know — at last — how to become the better people we’d like to be; the “better Christians”…whatever we think that means.
In the late 1990’s, there was a song in the Christian Contemporary Music genre (not my favorite genre, to be completely honest) that jumped out at me from the radio, and I still think of it on days like today, when we remember and lift up the name of a saint. The payoff line in the chorus went something like, “The saints are just the sinners who fall down and get up… who fall down and get up.” I always loved that line, because it dispelled some of the celebrity that we attach to the Christians who’ve lived and died before us. The song draws attention to the ordinary humanity that can be obscured by the extraordinary mythologies of sainthood.
Do a little digging into the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, and you will find a rich collection of stories to enjoy. They range from the mundane to the miraculous. You’ll hear of his early life as a wool-merchant’s son, his relative privilege, his high-minded military aspirations, and his near-supernatural conversion. There are stories of his gentility, which are reinforced by the iconography we see of Francis in the form of a mostly-bald headed hermit, surrounded by animals. That is maybe the most beloved, most comforting image of Francis. The Francis of the animals and of nature is a person who is so aware of God’s presence as Creator of all things that he is capable, in every moment of his life, of rejoicing in the full knowledge and love of God. This image of Francis is a lovely one to hold onto in our minds and hearts, and it has served as an inspiration for generations.
There is something so attractive — alluring, almost — about the peace and serenity we see in the statues of Saint Francis, popular among neighborhood gardeners. When he is cast in marble or concrete, Francis seems unbothered. The news of the world does not change his expression. The horrors that we have come to accept as a normal part of American life never move him. His face remains peaceful; his gaze resting softly on the stone bird perched on his stone finger. His heart, too, must be made of stone, this saint in stasis.
But the actual Francis — the Francis who fell down and got back up — had a heart that broke over the injustices of the world. The Francis that preceded the statuary was a small man in possession of what we might consider to be a completely irrational belief in God. His faith was not well measured, or safe, or polite. It did not obey the rules of etiquette. He was not a Christian who used the good china on Christmas, nor was he a Christian who wore his best clothes on Sunday. He was not a Christian who sought to impress other Christians with his piety, or his intellect, or his righteousness.
He was a Christian who recognized that the path of Jesus is a path of downward mobility. To follow Jesus — to become like Jesus — is to become perfectly dependent on God alone. It is to shun the idolatry of the world, with its preference for worldly comfort, in favor of radical fidelity to God.
It’s crazy. I mean, it looks crazy, and it sounds crazy to the modern ear:
Radical dependence on, and complete fidelity to, God….. and God alone.
Do we know what it feels like to have that kind of faith? Often, our faith is a contingent faith. A faith with strings attached. Our faith asks for assurances from God, because our faith has trust issues.
Sometimes our faith is like a dog with separation anxiety. It’s nervous that God is gone, and not coming back, and this metal cage that we’re stuck in is all that we’ll ever experience, and we’re afraid, and we’re lonely, and this is it. This is it. This must just be it. And in those moments of existential panic, we shore up our defenses with books, or ideas, or theories, or logic, or statues in the garden.
We rationalize our emotions, or we build up new theologies about God, or we take old ones apart. Our faith turns into a constellation of well articulated positions, well reasoned principles. Not too religious. Not too sentimental. We use our minds to hush our hearts, and to keep our fears at bay.
Other times, our faith is a performative faith. It is a faith built out of prayer book liturgies. A rehearsed faith. A well worn faith. It is a faith that has been bound up in the pages of a book that we read once a week. A regular Sunday faith, or a once-in-a-while Sunday faith, but in either case a faith that lives in a book, in a pew, in a building.
But this contingent faith, this fear-driven faith, or this performative faith…isn’t this kind of faith a heavy burden to carry? Is there not something more joyous… more liberative… more meaningful about our Christian faith than this? I certainly hope so.
I fall down regularly in my spiritual life. I am a person who puts his foot in his mouth, who fears the judgement of others, and who can slip somewhat easily into self-righteousness. If I’m not careful, I can make bold and uncritical proclamations about the nature of God, or about the role that Jesus plays in the fate of humanity, and I can do it all with an air of certainty that gives others the impression that I really know what I’m talking about. Some people might feel emboldened to possess this skill, but I take pause. The moment that my faith becomes an expression of certainty, I could just as soon be one of those guys preaching through a bullhorn; the pulpit, a downtown street corner. There is power in certainty, but it isn’t necessarily the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s more kind of human-generated power that puffs up the chest of an insecure person.
The faith with Jesus is not constructed from this kind of power. The downward mobility of Jesus, after which Francis patterned his life, is humbling. It makes men like me reconsider how we use our bravado.
It makes the bold and the boisterous take a second look at silence or quietness. It takes a self-assured person, who finds safety in securing a solid reputation, or who feels confidence with their ability to procure status or good standing in the community, and it challenges them — it challenges US — to see the glory of God in the face of the outcast. It asks us to become the outcast for loving the untouchables in a way that society says is foolish or unsafe. This kind of faith — this Jesus centered faith — makes a mess of everything we try to keep neat and tidy.
Now, there is nothing that anyone can say to force you into adopting this kind of faith. I’m not sure that even God, himself, could force it upon you. This is the kind of faith that dawns on a person in a dream; or the kind of faith that calls out to them like a voice emerging from the San Damiano crucifix, which said to Francis — “Rebuild my church.”
What would we do if we heard God speaking to us so plainly? Saying, Rebuild my church. Love me with a new heart.
It stirs the imagination to even consider such a question.
Francis was not made of stone, and neither are we. Our hearts are soft, and fragile, and resilient. We are affected by the news. We are afflicted by the injustices of this world. And we may even find ourselves on the precipice of asking, “What would it mean to have a faith like that of Francis? What would it mean to rebuild God’s Church in the places where it has fallen to ruin” — both in our own lives and in the world?
I cannot answer this question for you, but I believe strongly that it is a
question worth asking.
Jesus says that God’s truth is sooner revealed to infants than to the wise and intelligent. So let us become youthful fools like Francis. Let us remember that we are not statues, frozen to the world, but flesh and blood children of God. Let us set aside the burdens of any faith that we have built out of fear, or self-preservation, or hubris, and let us follow Jesus on his downward path of the cross. For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Amen.