by Maria Evans
Feast Day of Francis of Assisi
As much as any of us who love animals love St. Francis, in recent years his reputation has gotten a little kitchy. A quick Google search reveals pages and pages of pet ID tags with his image, statuary galore (including one where you can choose the breed of a deceased pet statue to be mounted with St. Francis, as well as a tag with that pet’s name on it), and a whole host of other gifts ranging from the sweet, to the…well…a little weird. (Really? Why a St. Bernard in this one? Wouldn’t he rather meet the real St. Bernard?)
We have so gotten accustomed to the sanitized pet-friendly version of St. Francis we forget some other important stories about his character. He took off his clothes and stood naked in the town square when his father became incensed that Francis had taken some cloth from the warehouse, sold it, and gave the money to repair the San Damiano chapel. He kissed a leper’s hand. He traded clothes with a poor man. As a young man, every now and then his father dragged him home and beat him for his extravagance. When he showed compassion to the lepers, townspeople called him an idiot, a madman; he was dangerous. People thought nothing of it to hurl rocks at him or pelt him with rotten fruit. He was a rich young man who, for the sake of the Gospel, chose a life as an itinerant preacher and teacher of youth.
All of those cute statues we find on the Internet show us a suspiciously clean St. Francis. More than likely, he smelled pretty bad, and looked worse. I suspect his teeth were not so great, either. We know towards the end of his life he suffered from what was then called “dropsy”–congestive heart failure. Chances are he had swollen lower limbs with stasis ulcers, and those probably festered and didn’t smell so keen, either. In short, St. Francis the modern religious legend probably doesn’t match St. Francis the real guy much at all.
Should we try to care for creation the way St. Francis did? Absolutely. But we need to also remember his passion, his willingness to take on not only physical poverty but a poverty of spirit, and ask ourselve what about our own spirit needs to get a little dirtier and more fearless in helping those at the margins.
What’s your favorite St. Francis story?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.