Francis of Assisi is, without question, one of the world's best-loved saints. But is that because we long for (and desperately need) a holy naturalist role model right now? Or, is Francis so popular for the same reason that I find his life compelling enough to be the focus of many of my meditations?
Francis was provided a wealth of earthly comforts as a young man in early 13th century Umbria, and was likely the envy of his peers. His father's success as a textile merchant yielded a materially comfortable life for his family, along with some status in the region. But Francis wanted something different. He wanted more, but not in terms we usually think of. Francis didn't want more stuff -- more material wealth. What Francis longed for was spiritual greatness. He aspired to a divine status. He just didn't know how to find it.
So, assuming earthly glory would somehow win him favor with God, Francis awkwardly embarked upon a years-long series of awkward expeditions, even insulting and alienating his father along the way. Despite embarrassing missteps that left him physically ill and socially bankrupt, Francis persisted on his spiritual quest. Francis's journey is actually now regarded as the classic mystic's path: an initial moment of divine inspiration followed by lofty peaks and devastating valleys marked by sadness so incapacitating that the worthiness of one's life and the existence of God come under scrutiny. Having abandoned earthly riches and broken ties with any means of financial support, Francis remained true to his calling, and after years of muddling through a spiritual desert, he eventually found himself surrounded by loving supporters and at last achieved divine bliss in oneness with God.
Francis is an example of holiness brought about by his willingness -- no, joyin filling himself with prayer. The emptiness that once crippled him was remedied by a contemplative, or mindful practice, to borrow a Buddhist expression. Through prayerful persistence, Francis found true joy, and this example -- overcoming missteps and blunders to realize true spiritual fullness as a child of God -- brings joy to those willing to forgive themselves for their past foibles in order to turn their attention to development as spiritual beings with human life.
Francis, so much more than the earthy nature lover, was a man whose journey through self-deprecating sadness to joy, inspires joy.
photo: El Charco del Ingenio in San Miguel de Allende
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