– James Cowan, from Francis: A Saint’s Way
St. Francis is remembered by the general population as the kind man who loved nature. But he was so much more. James Cowan calls him the “perpetual outsider.” And Cowan wasn’t talking about St. Francis’s love for the great outdoors. He meant that he didn’t fit in. Not anywhere.
Outsiders everywhere – here is your patron saint!
If you are an outsider, you have no doubt felt the pressure to become an insider. And either you have learned to withstand the pressure or you have succumbed. St. Francis was no different. He struggled throughout his life under the pressure of those who demanded that he conform. Yet, somehow, even until his dying day, he managed to push through it all and fly his freak flag proudly.
What made St. Francis so different was not that he talked to animals or that he preached to birds, but that God had called him and his followers to live out Jesus’s command to go into the world and preach Jesus’s message, without the luxury of belongings:
“ . . . Take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” — Mark 6:7-13.
Therefore, St. Francis and his men lived in homelessness with very few belongings. Their goal was to preach the teachings of Jesus while caring for those in need. Yet, so many people have tried to reimagine St. Francis – to make him into an insider – a gentle lover of animals, man recognized by the church as a saint, a man who caused no trouble or controversy.
BUT ultimately he was the perpetual outsider! A controversial figure who loved Jesus until the very end.
For instance, when he refused to take over his father’s successful business, his father kidnapped him desperately trying to keep him inside the family fold. St. Francis refused. He stood naked before the authorities returning to his father even the clothes on his back and cheerfully gaining his freedom. Years later as he mourned the lack of a father in his life, he recruited a vagrant to be his father.
When St. Francis’s band of merry homeless troubadours became too popular for the church to continue to ignore, the church commandeered them. Over time they recognized Francis and his friends as an official order of the church and even put in their own management team, who layer by layer stripped away what St. Francis’s men had originally stood for giving them housing and belongings. Francis protested to anyone who would listen believing this distracted them from the work of Christ.
When St. Francis became ill, the Bishop of Assisi required Francis to stay at his palace in hopes that Francis would die there and his valuable relics, which would no doubt have miraculous powers, would be safe in the bishop’s hands. However, Francis, though deathly ill and blind, decided to sing all day and night until the Bishop could take it no more and let Francis go to face death among his friends.
Even on his deathbed, Francis wrote against what the church had done to his order. He was so against the direction that the church was taking his men that without the presence or blessing of a priest, he and his faithful served one another the Eucharist. Only an outsider serves the Eucharist without the proper blessing of an ordained priest – that is heresy.
With his death, the church finally had free reign over him. So instead of honoring his marriage to Lady Poverty, they built him a tremendously expensive basilica and buried him there. Of course, no one can contain his spirit.
Next time you see a statue of St. Francis hanging out with birds and bunnies, think of him not as just the kind man who loved creation, but also as the perpetual outsider.
And . . . don’t forget that when God gives you a freak flag to fly, you should resist every temptation to conform. Fly it proudly.
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.