04 October 2017

The spirituality of
Saint Francis, from
Assisi to Askeaton

The cloisters in the ruins of the Franciscan friary in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today [4 October] is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. This day is popular for blessing the animals and also marks the end of ‘Creation Time’ in many parts of the Church.

I went to school in Gormanston, Co Meath, a school run by Franciscans, and now that I am living in Askeaton, I am reminded of Franciscan spirituality and values during my regular visits to the ruined Franciscan friary by the banks of the River Deel, with its beautiful cloisters which included a mediaeval carved image of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Francis may be the most popular saint in the Church, apart from Biblical figures, and the saint with the greatest ecumenical appeal. In a twee way, he has inspired countless birdbaths and statues. But when he is story is looked in greater depth, it is easy to see that his values also have an appeal to people engaging with the issues of today’s world.

He is an inspiring figure for Pope Francis, who has tried to emulate the saint’s humility since his election in 2013. For example, in imitation of Saint Francis, the Pope washes the feet of women prisoners each year on Maundy Thursday and he has broken bread at a soup kitchen in Assisi.

Francesco di Bernardone (1181-1226) was the kind of rebel a teenager could admire. He dressed oddly, spent much of his time alone and quarrelled with his father.

He was born in Assisi in central Italy either in 1181 or the following year. He was baptised with the name Giovanni (for Saint John the Baptist), but his father changed the boy’s name to Francesco after a successful business trip to France.

It was expected that eventually he would take over his father’s business. But Francis was a rebellious youth who led a dissolute life and had a difficult relationship with his father. But all that began to change after he was taken prisoner in 1202 during a war between Assisi and neighbouring Perugia. When he was freed, he was seriously ill, and during his recovery he had a dream in which he was urged ‘to follow the Master, not the man.’

He turned to prayer, penance and almsgiving. One day while praying, he said, God called him to ‘repair my house.’ In 1206, he sold some valuable cloth from his father’s shops to rebuild the run-down church of San Damiano.

His father dragged the offending young man before the religious authorities, and the break between Francis and his family was final.

Francis turned his back on his inheritance, became a friar, put his complete trust in God to provide for his needs, and made his home in an abandoned church. He wore simple clothes, tended to lepers, made friends with social outcasts and embraced a life of no possessions.

Others joined him and he drew up a simple, gospel-based rule for them to live by. By 1208, Francis and his followers had reached the biblical number of 12. As the order grew, it witnessed to Christ through proclaiming the gospel of repentance and emphasising the poverty of Christ as an example for his followers.

Saint Francis was a compelling preacher and an effective evangelist. He is said to have once told his followers, ‘Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.’ But, while this saying is widely attributed to Saint Francis, no published source can be found predating the early 1990s. The ‘Serenity Prayer’ has often been attributed to Saint Francis, but the earliest known forms date from the early 20th century, and it is generally credited to Reinhold Niebuhr.

The widely known ‘Prayer of Saint Francis,’ once quoted by Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street, is not found in the authoritative collection of Saint Francis’s writings. Dr Christian Renoux of the University of Orleans in France traces the origin of the prayer to an anonymous 1912 contributor to La Clochette, a publication of the Holy Mass League in Paris. It was not until 1927 that it was attributed to Saint Francis.

Tradition says that before delivering a Christmas sermon in Greccio, he organised the first living Nativity scene, and used the scene to demonstrate the humble birth of Christ.

But perhaps Saint Francis’s most audacious move came in 1219. With a dozen other friars, he travelled to Egypt during the fifth Crusade to try to convert the sultan to Christianity. Saint Francis managed to make it through the battle lines to meet al-Malik al-Kamil, the leader of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. The two had a cordial conversation. But the sultan was just as committed to his faith and Francis was to his.

No-one was converted, the wars continued, but the encounter and the conversation that ensued, in which both parties conversed, listened and showed mutual respect, became examples for Christian-Muslim dialogue in the future.

Two years before his death, at Mount Alvernia, his life was so closely linked with the life of the crucified Christ that he received the Stigmata, the marks of the wounds of Christ, on his body.

He was 44 when he died on the evening of 3 October 1226. By then, his order had spread throughout western Christendom.

Saint Francis is also known for his celebration of God’s creation. His most famous poem is his ‘Canticle of the Sun.’

El Greco, ‘The Vision of Saint Francis’ (ca 1590-1595), in the National Gallery of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Francis is popular throughout the Western Church, and there are Franciscan orders in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran traditions.

But Saint Francis is also one of the few post-schism Western saints who is also popular in the Orthodox tradition.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614), was a Greek artist who trained as an icon writer in Iraklion in Crete, and who worked mainly in Spain. His work bridges the gap between East and West, between the Renaissance and Byzantine worlds, and he. His painting, ‘The Vision of Saint Francis’ (ca 1590-1595), is in the National Gallery of Ireland.

This painting, which shows Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, was presented to the National Gallery in 1914 by Sir Hugh Lane. This is one of a number of paintings by El Greco of the life of Saint Francis. He is seen looking heavenwards, as stormy clouds frame his body and seem to reflect his inner state. The marks of the stigmata are visible on his right palm. The skull acts as a physical reminder of human mortality.

The late Ecumenical Patriarch, Demetrios I, introduced the concept of Creationtide in 1989. Since then, 1 September – chosen because it is first day of the Orthodox ecclesiastical year – has been adopted as the start of Creationtide. This season, which comes its conclusion today, the Feast of Saint Francis [4 October], when churches and congregations are called to pay special attention to the responsibility of humanity for the Earth and for all that lives upon it.

Its start and end dates reflect that it is a shared idea between Western and Eastern Christianity. The timing of Creationtide also makes it an excellent way of rooting traditional harvest festivals in wider issues and on firm theological ground.

A mediaeval carved image of Saint Francis of Assisi in the cloisters in the ruins of the Franciscan friary in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Readings: Micah 6: 6-8; Psalm 100: 1-3; Galatians 6: 14-18; Luke 12: 22-34.

Collect (Common Worship):

O God, you ever delight to reveal yourself
to the childlike and lowly of heart:
grant that, following the example of the blessed Francis,
we may count the wisdom of this world as foolishness
and know only Jesus Christ and him crucified,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Proper Preface:

And now we give you thanks
because you raised up our holy father Francis
to burn as a shining light in your Church;
that, inflamed with love for you and all creation
and bearing in his body the marks of your Son’s passion,
he might bring to glory many sons and daughters.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you made your Church rich
through the poverty of blessed Francis:
help us, like him, not to trust in earthly things
but to seek your heavenly gifts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lights in the chapel at Gormanston, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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