“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” - Galatians 2:20 (NRSV)
Today the church commemorates Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), a saint even Protestants love. Protesting war, we admire his peacemaking. Worried about Creation, we embrace his delight in nature. Resisting Islamophobia, we reframe his brash attempt to convert the Sultan during the Fifth Crusade as an avant-garde interreligious encounter.
We project onto Francis what we want to see and be today. Which is fine, because saints are not just good examples from a distant past, but also serviceable screens for our modern concerns.
Still, just as it’s sobering to notice which parts of Scripture we tend to avoid, it’s instructive to ask which aspects of Francis we rarely project. He wasn’t all peace songs, birdbaths, and interfaith conversation. Most scenes from his life are as severe and off-putting as the gospel itself.
There’s the wealthy libertine, ambushed by Christ Crucified, choosing thereafter to want nothing, own nothing, be nobody, always asking what kind of Christian it is who’s not intent on a downwardly mobile life.
The bewildered ex-prisoner of war, overwhelmed by feelings of divine abandonment, self-disgust and depression, always contesting our sentimental sense of God as comprehensible and dear.
The impulsive son, robbing the family store, feeding beggars with his father’s cash, naming it justice, always questioning our law-abiding docility in the face of wrong.
The retching servant, bathing lepers, learning obedience, surprised by joy, always asking why—with such sweetness in the wounds—so many go unkissed.
The dying scarecrow stretched out on dirt, whispering truth, his final breath: “I have only begun to live the gospel.”
Suffering Jesus, teach me relinquishment so that I can love you and freely serve my neighbor, like Francis, who was so much like you.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.