Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a saint I have grown to love in recent days. My devotion to this saint began when I was at a used book store and noticed a small green volume tucked away in the religion section called, “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.” The title really doesn’t do justice to the book, which contains episodes from the life of St. Francis, his words and counsel, and a biography by St. Bonaventure.
After getting to know this saint, I will simply say that the real St. Francis is nothing like the hippy-fied, new age, pantheist that so many portray him to be. He was a man who was born in wealth and privilege, and who once dreamed of glory on the battlefield, but who ended up falling in love with God instead.
What we can learn from him
While there’s a lot I could say about St. Francis, here are few lessons about manhood that he can teach us 21st century men.
1. St. Francis was tough – The modern conception of St. Francis is sentimental and sappy. Yes, St. Francis loved the animals and wrote poetry, but these elements of his personality in no way made him a sissy. He was far tougher than the majority of us will ever be. Here are some of the things he endured in his lifetime:
He experienced frequent and debilitating sickness, but he would never fail to chant the Liturgy of the Hours no matter how sick he was; He suffered from poor eyesight, and the doctors of his day decided that burning his eyes with red hot irons would solve the problem, so they cauterized his eyes; He was often verbally and physically abused by those who thought he was a madman; He would often fast for 40 days at a time in imitation of Christ; He would throw himself in the snow to fight temptation to impurity; He endured freezing conditions in the winter without adequate clothing. The list goes on.
In other words, St. Francis knew how to suffer, and he embraced it in imitation of Christ Our Lord. And in contradiction to modern sensibilities, he was both a preacher and a practitioner of penance. His feats of endurance put most of us to shame.
St. Francis reminds us that there is no sanctity without suffering. When we are faced with trials and painful experiences, we should embrace them joyfully as St. Francis did, uniting them to the sufferings of Christ.
2. St. Francis was compassionate – It is unfortunate that most men don’t think compassion is manly. It most certainly is. True men know how to be tough, but they also know how to be gentle and sympathetic to the suffering of others.
St. Francis felt compassion for everyone, from lepers to birds. He simply recognized that our Father in heaven loves everything he has made, and it only makes sense that we should too. If we have no compassion, it is a sign that we do not truly possesses the love of Christ.
Like St. Francis, let’s show compassion to those we encounter, treating them as if they were Christ himself. Let’s look beyond ourselves and seek to comfort those who are suffering, whether it be physically or emotionally.
3. St. Francis found freedom in poverty – In America, the prevailing philosophy among men is, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Men buy boats, RVs, motorcycles, sports cars, electronic gadgets, and power tools in a quest to have the biggest and best of everything. The problem is, having a garage full of expensive toys doesn’t bring happiness. True happiness is found in God alone. St. Francis knew that, and he embraced radical poverty to prove it.
While most of us can’t renounce all possessions as St. Francis did (it would be foolish for us to do so in most cases), we can still live in such a way that we are not obsessed with material things. St. Francis shows that the key to freedom from materialism is gratitude and praise. We should give thanks for the good things God has given us, using them and enjoying them for what they are, all the while keeping our heart free to love and serve God before anything else.
Get to know the real St. Francis
People are talking about St. Francis more than ever, as our Holy Father has taken his name and is seeking to bring his virtues into the Church. I would encourage you to get to know the real St. Francis and come to understand the true Franciscan spirit. If you don’t know where to start, check out St. Francis of Assisi
by G.K. Chesterton, or The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (Dover Thrift Editions)
I mentioned above. You will find a man who shatters the stereotypes, and who is both surprising and inspiring.
What do you admire most about St. Francis? What is your favorite episode from his life?