Today is the Feast of St. Francis, marking the saint’s death 789 years ago. St. Francis is among the most beloved and most familiar of all the saints of western Christianity. He remains as popular today as he was in his lifetime. His love of animals and of God’s creation have made him an icon of the environmental movement. His joy, playfulness, and child-like faith offer an alternative to a Christianity that often seems to take itself too seriously.
Francis was born in a time of rapid social change. Italian towns were were growing and the monetary economy was emerging, Then as now, the church was finding it difficult to respond quickly to these changes. Francis grew up like many boys in urban settings. His father was a cloth merchant but Francis participated in a number of military campaigns and enjoyed the sorts of things that young men typically do. In his early twenties, he began to take a deeper interest in spiritual matters, and had a number of religious experiences that culminated in a vision of Christ, in which Christ told him to “repair my church.”
Key to Francis’ devotion to Christ was his desire to imitate him. A common phrase used of him was “naked to follow the naked Christ.” When he finally organized his followers into an order (that was ultimately recognized by the church), he took as his model Jesus’ words when sending out his disciples two by two. So as Jesus said in Matthew, they were dressed in tunic and sandals with a rope for a belt. They had no money or possessions.
Imitation of Christ ultimately became identification with Christ. Near the end of his life, after he had given up control of the religious order he had founded and retreated into a life of solitude, he is believed to have received the stigmata—he bore on his hands and feet the wounds Jesus Christ received on the cross. It is the first recorded example of that phenomenon in the history of Christianity. His reception of the stigmata is evidence of his total identification with his Lord. It is also an example of another trend to which Francis gave impetus. Although the suffering of Christ was already an important focus of Christian piety by the time Francis came on the scene, his devotion to it helped make it wildly popular in the later Middle Ages.
Today offers us the opportunity to reflect on Francis, on his legacy, his faith, and his significance for today. It’s a curious thing that with all of what Francis meant, that the way we honor him most often in the twenty-first century is with the blessing of the animals. It’s curious because there’s little evidence that Francis related to animals in quite the way we tend to relate to our pets. Oh, he loved them, preached to them, and in the case of the wolf of Gubbio, he turned him into a pacifist and a vegetarian. But he certainly didn’t treat animals like family members, which is the way many of us treat our pets.
Indeed, one of the reasons I like the blessing of the animals is because it is one small way to acknowledge the important role our pets play in many of our lives. If you don’t have no, or never have had a pet, this may be hard to imagine, but for those of us who include animals among our household, they truly are often like members of the family. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that some people have closer and deeper relationships with their pets than they have with other humans.
That may sound shocking, but it shouldn’t be. Our pets are utterly dependent on us, –yes, that’s true even of cats, no matter what they might think, and whatever attitude they might have at the moment. And they share love and devotion with us. Now, I’m not about to say that all dogs go to heaven; that’s not my call, but I do know that for many of us, our spiritual lives are also experienced and deepened through our relationships with animals.
So it’s appropriate to bring our pets with us to church at least once a year, and on that day, to ask God’s blessing on them and on our relationships with them. Yes, it may be a little disruptive, and perhaps even a little unseemly. Nonetheless, to acknowledge the role our pets play in our lives is also to acknowledge our full humanity, in all of its messiness and unseemliness.
And if there’s anything that St. Francis was about, it was that. His ministry was among the poor and the downtrodden. He and his followers sought to help those who were sick and dying and he brought the gospel to places it was rarely heard or experienced.
Our culture, indeed, our religious sensibilities, often lead us to disparage the concrete and the real. We want our spiritual lives to exist in some nebulous ether up there, far from the down and dirty of daily life. But Francis was just the opposite. He sought to lead others, through the concrete and real to know Jesus Christ. That’s what led him to create the first nativity scene, for it is in the incarnation, when Jesus became human, that we see God most clearly.
We have been hearing a great deal about discipleship as we have been reading from the Gospel of Mark. The call to discipleship, to follow Jesus is clear. What Jesus means by following him also seems clear—hard sayings like “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
What doesn’t seem clear is how to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century, in our world which is so very different than first-century Palestine, and in our lives, which are so very different from the lives of first-century peasants.
That’s one way the saints can be of help. In the Anglican tradition, we regard the saints primarily as models of faith. Their lives and their faith should inspire and challenge us to deepen our own faith and discipleship. They were human beings like us, with shortcomings and faults like ours, who received the grace to follow Christ more closely and to experience God more deeply than most of us. Francis followed Jesus in a way that was completely consistent with the gospel, and perfectly suited to the early twelfth century. It is our job as faithful Christians, to shape our lives similarly, consistent with the Gospel, adapted to the present.
In this present day, there may be no more urgent message we need to hear than the one carried by the presence of animals in our worship. For they remind us that our relationship with God is not just about us and God. It includes all of creation. Creation proclaims the glory and love of God and in an age of climate change and environmental degradation, to see our responsibility to the earth as part of what it means to follow Jesus, may be the most important thing of all.