What Saint Francis is Teaching Me

Ever since seeing the Franco Zeffirelli movie, “Brother Sun, Sister
Moon,” when first released in 1973, Joyce and I have been fascinated by
Saint Francis of Assisi. Never before or since have I been so affected by a
movie. When I left the movie theater, I felt ready to give away all my
possessions – actually, I had very few possessions at the time; I was a
resident in psychiatry. But still, Joyce was sympathetic yet more rational
than me when I shared my radical intentions. “Barry,” she said with
gentle love in her voice, “Perhaps there’s a way to live simply and in
peace without becoming homeless.”

She was right, of course. Since seeing the movie, we have tried to live the
message of Saint Francis, which is so much more than owning nothing and
walking around bare-foot in a tattered tunic begging scraps of food. The
message of Saint Francis is love – love for everyone, everything, all of
creation and all that is invisible.

Saint Francis was a tiny man. He stood 4’6”, the size of a child. He
was even small for his time in the early thirteenth century in Italy. I
remember how shocked I was when I first saw one of his “beds,” a tiny
uneven slab of stone in one of his monasteries. Yet, despite his small
stature, Francesco di Assisi was a big man. He sang with a big voice. He
spoke with a power that opened the hearts of everyone he met. And he loved
in a big way.

Besides his universal love, Francis’ message of simplicity has greatly
helped Joyce and me. He loved watching the larks soar gracefully in the
sky, but he described himself as a sparrow, a simple, brown bird, not
showy. He modeled his simple, ragged tunic after this bird. In the movie,
Zeffirelli artistically included a touching scene with a sparrow as a
catalyst in Francis’ recovery from a long illness. In real life, he saw
the sparrow (and really, all birds) as being satisfied with one garment of
feathers, rather than needing many different outfits. His early life and
teen years, as the son of a rich cloth merchant, included many colorful
costumes made from the finest fabrics. During his early awakening, he took
two of his first companions, Bernard and Peter, to a local church, where he
could have access to the scriptures. He wanted to hear a message to guide
the rest of their lives together. He opened the book three times and got
three different quotes that basically held the same message of simplicity:
take nothing for the journey, no extra clothes or food, and follow me. On
the spot, Francis took this as his vow, to live as a sparrow, never being
concerned about food, clothing, or money. Until the end of his life, he
would trust that God would provide all that he ever needed.

Francis suffered with illness and pain most of his adult life. Yet he used
his suffer-ing to feel even closer to God. He thanked God for his
afflictions because they allowed him to feel even more dependent upon his
Creator. This fall, I got sick for weeks with bronchitis that weakened me
to the point that I couldn’t mow the lawn or do other work requiring
physical strength. I felt embarrassed to admit to others that I had
physical limitations. I realized how much pride I had in a strong body,
that weakness was completely unacceptable. Francis is helping me to learn a
deeper dependence upon God for my strength. It’s a big lesson for me,
that my greatest strength is my vulnerability and my dependence upon God.

Francis has always taught me about loving service. He lived his life
serving God, people, and all of creation. Before his spiritual awakening,
lepers repulsed him more than anything else. As he was awakening, he met a
leper one day on the road. His hu-man instinct was to get away as fast as
he could. But the voice of God in his heart com-manded him to embrace and
kiss this suffering man. The heart of his mission became loving service to
the less fortunate. Like Mother Teresa, he no longer saw lepers, only
divine souls suffering in their bodies. Joyce and I, too, are learning the
joy of helping wherever needed. All of us have the opportunity every day to
do little acts of service that alleviate suffering and make the world a
better place.

Francis often referred to himself as God’s fool. He sang when nobody else
was singing. He listened to an inner prompting and did things that often
seemed to contrast with what was going on around him. What people thought
of him was completely irre-levant. I love that! In his later years, before
he became too ill, he would meet with men wanting to join his order of
brothers. Suddenly, he would run out the door, kicking up his heels and
dancing among the trees. Some of the brothers were too embarrassed to join
him. The ones who did, however, Francis initiated into the brotherhood.

My father used to embarrass us by acting like a fool in public, and not
caring what people thought. OK, perhaps he overdid it a bit. Nevertheless,
I find myself in many ways doing the same. Do I ever embarrass people?
Sometimes. Yet my goal, like Francis, is more and more to listen to that
divine inner guidance and take action that often brings more love and

Perhaps most inspiring of all to me was Francis’ relationship to Clare. I
am con-vinced they were (and are) soulmates. They were hardly ever together
which, I have to admit, brings some sadness to me. It was a different time
eight hundred years ago. Clare spent her entire life cloistered in the
convent at San Damiano. When she wasn’t administering to the sick, and to
the other sisters, she spent her time in prayer, a significant part of
which was devoted to praying for Francis and the brothers. It was clear
that Francis adored Clare, whom he often referred to as his little flower.
When he needed encouragement, he sent a message to Clare, and her response,
conveyed through one of the brothers, would lift his spirits immensely.

The great love between Francis and Clare is always inspiring to Joyce and
me. Their holy model of loving God first and each other second, making the
inner more im-portant than the outer, is timeless. We teach relationship as
a spiritual path, looking first within ourselves for the true spiritual
partner, and thus meeting our loved ones in the highest way. Clare and
Francis are two of our teachers. We pray that this vision of holy
relationship can spread all over the earth.

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