Birdbath Francis

Birdbaths and St. Francis go together like ham and cheese--so it seems. The modern world has grown up with a lawn ornament saint, whose reputation and character have been set adrift and nearly lost. I occasionally encounter remarks similar to this:

"I finished Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi. What a glorious little book. It has helped me to regard St. Francis in a very new way. I've always been rather cool toward him, probably mainly due to modern stereotypes, myths, and sentimentalities… the whole Medieval Flower Child thing, you know. I know it's horrible, but that's pretty much the (fake) image of St. Francis I've grown up with."

So says one of my blogger favorites, The Practicing Catholic…and she's not alone. I'm guilty of starting with a similar misconception of Francis. In fact, I've confessed often that my beginning knowledge was 'less than zero' and fraught with glaring errors. Still, as one who has devoted considerable time and prayer getting to know St. Francis, I've become attuned to remarks which echo this sentiment. Since his image is so well known, even 'iconic', it sometimes lends itself to a childish caricature. Because he is highly recognizable, generally admired, and widely misinterpreted; he is free to be associated with whatever fancies the world finds useful: all with little objection or scant historical accountability.

Culturally, we make Francis fit our own needs and desires rather than bring ourselves to his sanctity. Take the matter of promoting peace. Young Francis was a captured soldier who later learned that personal sacrifice and penance precedes peace in the way that a needle precedes thread. All too often, we as worldly peacemakers focus on the change that's required in others--not ourselves. This is true whether we brandish words or bayonets. As a spiritual peacemaker, Francis typically brought parties together and created circumstances for peace to emerge. Brother or Sister Peace was a spiritual guest who never failed a proper invitation. It was not his manner to impose peace or mandate its presence.

His loving attentiveness of creation marks his love of the Creator. This is what the environmental movement unwittingly prays for, if it seeks to call upon Francis as patron. The sun, moon, stars, sheep, worms, and birds; all give glory to God by their own nature and in their own way. For St. Francis, they are worthy of respect not only because they are created by God, but because Our Lord had deigned to enter into his own creation. In the way of Francis, creation is blessed because the Eternal One who is Creator has 'emptied himself' and become incarnate; he has looked upon the sun with his human eyes, and felt its warmth on his face. Brother Food nourishes the Savior's body and Sister Water slakes his thirst. This is ecstasy to the Saint who is Brother to the Divine Savior and all of creation. Francis also values mankind's role as co-creator in the material realm, so long as he serves the divine plan accordingly.

Through the gift of eternal light the Penitent of Assisi sought to rid himself of all unworthy attachments of body, mind and soul that interfere with our proper stance before God. Nowhere is the spirit of St. Francis more lacking today than in the worlds' complete disdain for the practice of penance as virtue; otherwise known as 'doing penance'. It's an indispensable element in aligning the human spirit with the divine plan. Poverty and humility are the hallmarks of his path, and 'doing penance' is the academy in which the individual grows in his relationship with God. For Francis, the Holy Spirit 'makes his home and rests upon' those who do penance. Those who refuse to do penance are trapped in their carnal desires, blind, full of anxieties, and lacking in Wisdom from above.

His mystical heights are for some an embarrassment in a world that has locked itself in temporal chains. This devaluation of mystic qualities in Francis has left him appearing awkward, with some of his behaviors seemingly harsh, odd, or unexplainable. One of the keys to accepting an authentic vision of Francis is to humbly acknowledge the many extraordinary gifts he possessed, while simultaneously avoiding the need for sensationalism in our own religious experience. The gift of the stigmata, the divine seal, marks him with God's favor. And if holes in his body were not enough, his skin formed the shape of nails themselves that could be touched and moved within the palms and feet. Though he tried to hide the stigmata while living, many bore testimony to having witnessed them directly. "More than fifty friars with St. Clare and her nuns and innumerable lay people saw them after his death. Many of them kissed the stigmata and felt them with their own hands, to prove the truth." [Bonaventure: Major Life]

St. Francis is one of the most chronicled persons in history and the Church has sought to hold him up in full light. As with every human being 'The Poor One' remains somewhat a mystery: part of every person is reserved for God alone. But his life was given to be a radical witness of the gospel, to be put on display for us to learn from. Some focus on his rather harsh mortifications, but truly he was a person who gave himself totally over to God, who in turn showed to us, what a person who is conformed to Christ resembles. For this reason, when he is properly understood, his saintly reputation is often placed immediately after that of the Virgin Mary.

St. Francis is truly a gift to the Church; for that matter he's a gift to those still outside the Church. Those who know him most clearly do so by following his example and tracing his footsteps; which is the only way he is ever substantially revealed. All in all, the current generation sees Francis in a superficial manner: without any serious consideration and therefore of little value or significance. The birdbath Francis isn't misleading or incorrect, but to a world that rarely sees his charism displayed in real life, he's simply another lawn ornament.

In effect, it's the current stock of living members in the Church who are called to carry on the role of 'doing penance' here and now. In doing so they counter the stranglehold of materialism and selfishness that robs all souls of eternal life. Those who embrace the charism of Francis with its emphasis on penance, show the world what real freedom is. They have set themselves free from worldly entanglements in order to love and serve the Lord; to bring about the Kingdom of God.

Meanwhile, those charming little statues stand alongside welcoming birdbaths. Here winged visitors rest and refresh themselves giving praise. So too, they invite human spirits who are open, to stop and spiritually bathe in simplicity and quiet peace.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I certainly am gaining a greater appreciation for St. Francis. I do like the birdbaths too, though--because the little birdies enjoy them so much! :)

Joyful Catholics said...

I just want to sit in my prayer room, close the door, and let St Francis talk to me. I want to know "him"...not others' perceptions of him, who may or may not know him. Thank you for the informative post on this blessed and holy man, lover of creation and reformer of the Church.