On Thursday, October 4th, in the year 1226, a man died. He was only 44. Just before he died he asked to be laid on the ground to be close to his sister, the earth. His name was Francis. His life is a great example of what it means to live a life of grace, free of this world’s possessions, and yet powerful in speech and knowledge and the love of God.
A few years ago, I was given a wonderful opportunity to visit Assisi in Umbria – the beautiful Italian hillside town
renowned as the birthplace of Francis. We made our way along the streets to the Basilica, where he is buried. There were many precious things to see – icons and crosses and monstrances and lots of ecclesiastical paraphernalia, but
what impressed me more than anything else was Francis’ darned and patched tunic and his girdle. Francis was a high-spirited young man-about-town who wore the latest fashions. His father was a rich cloth merchant, and this young man worked in the rag trade until he was 20. Then he joined the army and was taken prisoner. During his captivity he decided to devote his life to helping poor people.
On a pilgrimage to Rome he exchanged his fine and fashionable gear for the rags of a man living rough, and spent the rest of the day begging. He returned to Assisi, and devoted his time to caring for lepers and rebuilding the ruined
church of St. Damiano. He laid aside his shoes and staff, and went out dressed only in a tunic and girdle. Others joined Francis and they became known as the Friars Minor – little brothers. They owned nothing and lived by the work of their hands. Few of us feel able to follow Francis’ extremism, but he challenges us down the centuries to a life free of too many possessions, and to rebel against buying all the latest must-haves. Our obsession with fashion is one of the ways we are plundering the finite resources of the earth. The 16th century parson-poet, Thomas Traherne, hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “We grow rich not by having what we want but by enjoying what we have.”
Francis took the command to love God and to love our neighbour very literally.