When we learn to love something, we grow into our Godlikeness. We live fully, richly, joyfully.
G.K. Chesterton once wisely wrote that people who admire St. Francis often do so because they fixate on those aspects of his life that please them while ignoring the ones they find unsettling. This obviously won’t do. Francis must be taken as he is. Scrubbing away anything about him that we find distasteful might leave us with a charming (and unthreatening) garden statue. But garden statues make poor spiritual directors.
One of the most disconcerting features of the real Francis—and hence of his message to us today—is his uncompromising commitment to Christ. Let’s be honest: Many of us are what C.S. Lewis liked to call “whiskey-and-soda Christians.” We prefer our Christianity watered down. Taken straight, it’s simply too strong for our weak stomachs. So we sidestep all the scriptural injunctions calling us to make radical changes in our lifestyles—loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, pooling possessions for the common good, voluntary poverty, sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others. We either ignore passages like these altogether or interpret them to mean something much less radical than Christ intended.
But Francis took Christ’s teaching seriously. He was too honest to read Scripture selectively and too unsophisticated to spin elaborate no-risk interpretations of it. Instead, he championed the radical notion that Christ meant what he said when he spoke of love and poverty and sacrifice. To presume otherwise is to conclude that Christ was in the strange habit of always saying one thing but meaning something quite different.
So Francis’ spiritual journey became the lifelong conversion of himself to Christ. As St. Paul might have said, Francis wished to “put on” Christ while simultaneously shucking off his old self, the Francis-centered ego (see Romans 13:14). To that end, he preached and practiced the three virtues he saw as most central to Christ’s life and teaching: poverty, simplicity, and humility.
Francis told his followers that when they wed Lady Poverty, they freed their bodies from the enslavement to possessions that breeds violence. When they embraced Holy Simplicity, they liberated their minds and hearts from internal vanities and ambitions that distracted them from God. And when they embraced Gracious Humility, they released their spirit to acknowledge gratefully its utter dependence on the Creator of the universe.
On a grander scale, poverty, simplicity, and humility free us to love because they destroy fear, the single greatest impediment to love. And when we learn to love something like the love God has for creation, we arrive at the end for which we are made. We grow into our Godlikeness. We live fully and richly.
We also live joyfully. Poverty, as Francis and his followers discovered, is frequently quite unpleasant; no one likes to go hungry or thirsty or unsheltered from the weather. Simplicity and humility are likewise often painful. It’s so much easier to read theology than to live the Gospel, or to strike back than to turn the other cheek. But these unpleasantries are just transient reactions ultimately unable to override the deep happiness or perfect joy that comes when we fulfill our potentiality as loving images of God.
This is the incredible message that Francis brought to his world—a world, much like our own, sunk in forgetfulness and indifference, a world that preferred its Christianity watered down. His message, which was really Christ’s message, revitalized the spiritual climate of his day. So many persons (especially idealistic younger ones) opened their hearts to what Francis had to say that he formed the secular Third Order for them so that they might continue their lives in the “ordinary” world while striving to prove worthy of perfect joy.