I went to a Franciscan High School, but I don’t think I’ve ever been properly appreciative of St. Francis of Assisi.
Some people try to reduce him to the saint who loved animals (he did) or the saint who was poor (he was). But St. Francis was truly revolutionary in a way that few people are. I don’t mean that he came up with an entirely new philosophy. I’m sure that St. Francis would say that all he was doing was putting into practice the life of Christ in the world.
Many of us follow Christ, but St. Francis did so with an utterly radical devotion. What made this so extraordinary was that he made a complete inversion of fallen human nature. The only other person who was as radical as this was the atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who called for the “transvaluation of values.” This means that he wanted to radically overhaul morality so that good and evil would cease to have meaning. I grant that I am oversimplifying this German philosopher, but I am not overselling how utterly radical he was in wanting to upend the order of things.
The difference between Nietzsche and St. Francis on this point is that Nietzsche wanted to upend the truth that God wrote into our nature. St. Frances wanted to upend the worldview we have because of our fallen, sinful nature.
Before the Fall and Original Sin, God made us in Original Innocence (free from sin), Original Justice (in harmony with nature and each other), Original Holiness (union with God, and Original Nakedness (complete openness and sharing). Once our first parents disobeyed God, our entire human nature became broken by sin. We now experience suffering, death, and concupiscence, which is our attraction to sin. Whereas God made us to be beings of love who give to others the gift of ourselves, our fallen nature makes us turn inward. We look at others as a means to our own ends. Life, in this view, is less about what I can give and more about what I can get.
If we are honest, this is deeply rooted in our daily experience. How often do we regard the strangers we meet in terms of their convenience or inconvenience to me? When I am standing behind someone at the post office who is asking about all their shipping options or if the person at the drive thru cannot seem to grasp the concept of a Sprite with no ice, am I thinking primarily of how this person is affecting my life? I am not saying that we should not look out for our own health and safety. But are the people we encounter every day looked at through the prism of what we can get from them?
St. Francis wanted to upend this entire worldview. GK Chesterton put it best when he wrote:
“If St. Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round.
But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence…. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so,
when he was crucified head-downwards.” (GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi)
What Chesterton is getting at is that St. Francis looked at the world from a completely inverted perspective. Instead of seeing things the way which is common to our fallen nature, St. Francis looked at everything in the opposite way. You can see this most clearly in his amazing Peace Prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
What we see here is a complete inversion of all of our natural, self-centered tendencies that we have inherited from the Fall. Our fallen nature wants us to return hate with more hate, to be loved rather than to be loved, and to take rather than give.
But St. Francis points out that we must not only reject this idea, but we must be radical about it. If we let it, our self-centered ego can act like a black hole whose gravitational pull will warp all of our thoughts and actions. St. Francis tells us that we must place God at the center of our lives and give our lives away.
He not only said it, but he lived it. His radical poverty was a way to replace the self-centered ego and thus made himself free to give his life away as a gift.
In flipping the script on Original Sin, St. Francis helped us rediscover our Original Innocence.
Copyright 2020, WL Grayson
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