For quite a while now I’ve been captivated by the life of Francis of Assisi, primarily as I have learned of it through the teachings of Franciscan (and Catholic priest) Richard Rohr. Francis is perhaps most known for his love of animals (he is said to have preached to birds) and of the created world (he acknowledged brother sun and sister moon) or even his conversion-related streak through town (really!).
But what has captivated me even more than those aspects of his life, which I deeply admire, is his sense that God was calling him to ‘rebuild my church, for it is in ruins.’
Francis initially heard this as a literal calling – to rebuild the crumbling San Damiano church in which he was praying when he received the vision, and he did work to physically rebuild that church building and transform it from the ruins which it had become. But eventually Francis realized that this call from God was something larger still – to rebuild the Church (in the big, broad, wide sense) which had fallen into ruins in a spiritual sense.
It is also said of Francis that, rather than take on the institutional church structures of the day, which perhaps may have embroiled him within the conflict that would come of that ‘fight’ he simply opted to model a different way of being in the world, of relating to Christ, and of relating to those around him. Instead of fighting against what wasn’t working, he stepped to the side and lived the life he was called to live – while still remaining within the bounds of the church, but finding a new and fresh way of incarnating that reality. He lived what he was preaching – giving rise to the quote most often attributed to him, “To preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.”
A central component of this dedication to living differently, to preaching the gospel at all times through the actual living of his life, was to embrace all of God’s creation – bird, sun, moon and stars, but also to embrace of the outcast, the marginalized, the forgotten and the ostracized. Nothing, and no one, was outside of God’s love and God’s care.
“One day, Francis met a leper on the road. Something impelled him to dismount his horse and not only to place coins in the leper’s hand, but to embrace the leper. In so doing, he was filled with indescribable sweetness.
When he withdrew and turned to wave, he saw no one on the road. In that instant he knew he had embraced Jesus Christ. He knew then what he was to do with his life: to embrace Jesus in the poor and rejected, in those who previously had repulsed him.”
from St. Francis of Assisi: The Practical Mystic By Murray Bodo, OFM
This vision was apparently compelling to others – and Francis not only attracted a following, but was able to convince the Pope at the time (Pope Innocent III) to authorize this ‘Order of Friars Minor’ as they had come to be called.
Rebuild my church, for it is in ruins.
What might that look like, today?
I can’t help but wonder if it might not look something like the life of Francis of Assisi…