When I think of Francis of Assisi, I don’t consider the garden statues or a simple animal loving tree hugger, no, rather I see a dynamic, prophetic and “thoroughly Catholic man”. I see a soul on fire with the love of God, commissioned by Christ to bring a new vitality to the Church which was rife with corruption and whose faith was a dim flicker of the flame it had been.
What was the fire within Francis that drove him to found a movement that continues to revive and enliven the Church even to this day? I am of the opinion that it was his total acceptance of the incarnational mystery…that is, God present within His creation, down to the very fabric of it. God so permeates creation in the mind of Francis that to behold creation was to behold part of the beauty and majesty of God reflected in it or shining through it. Francis response to so great a mystery was to live that mystery through the perfection of joy. Joy flowing from the Holy Spirit who still moves through creation urging and perfecting it as it “awaits the revelation of the Sons of God.”
For Francis, the encounter with God was so profound that it could only be expressed in joy. He earned the title troubadour of the Great King for the songs and poetry he composed and he sang often the praises of God. His mind was constantly occupied with thoughts of God and his soul cried out to God for more and more, to be perfectly conformed to the Christ until, on 17 September, Christ himself joined with Francis by imprinting his sacred wounds on his body to allow the saint to be perfectly conformed to the likeness of His death. This completed Francis joy, for now, he could not merely contemplate the Crucified, he could participate in the mystery of the passion more deeply and profoundly than ever before.
But, for Francis, the most profound and intimate union with Christ would come through his devotion to the Holy Eucharist. Francis tells us the “Christ is made present to us at the hands of the Priest each time the sacred elements are consecrated just as he was made present in the womb of the Virgin Mary”. It was this absolute knowledge of Christ’s actual presence that consumed Francis, driving him to enter into the mystery of the incarnation deeply and mystically. This experience caused Francis to create the first Living Nativity and the impact this had on the Church and Western Christianity is evidenced by Nativity scenes found during the Christmas and Epiphany season in homes and Churches to this day. As Francis contemplated Christ, whether as the crucified, a child or in the Eucharist, he did so expressed by profound joy.
As we consider Francis and his deep devotion to Christ, his bridegroom, we to can access the joy he so celebrated in his life as we yield to the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As we toss out the idols we foolishly feed and care for, we give way to the lordship of Christ in each and every aspect of our lives and that yielding up of our very selves, as Francis would see it would be our selling all we have and following Christ. To abandon ourselves to Christ as did Francis is to give ourselves over to perfect love. Paul tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear…” and is yielding to the torrent of love flowing from Christ, we to can abandon all fear for the surety of the Divine Providence in every aspect of our lives.
The Right Rev. Aaron Edmund Cass a bishop in the United States Old Catholic Church. He resides in Greenville, South Carolina.