By Wendy Murray
When I wrote my book about Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) a few years back, I couldn’t get over what a simple humble man he was and how — as such — he managed to change his world. His life carries an echo that reverberates to this day as noted in the wild popularity of the new pope who bears his name.
I have identified five attributes Francis possessed that will serve everyone, in any time, who desire to carry an impact on their world.
1. Show Up
When Francis wanted to make a point or get something done he did not “outsource.” He went where he had to go. For example, in the early days of his conversion, before his “order” had become officially recognized, he knew his small band of followers would need papal approval lest they be dismissed as heretics. Francis went to Rome personally to meet the Pope face to face and request validation. It was to be predicted that Pope Innocent III was not convinced by Francis’ initial plea. Francis waited for a another hearing and, through humility and tenacity won the day. Innocent III “embraced Francis.” The new Order of the Friars Minor (“lesser brothers,” now “Franciscans”) was born.
2. Step up
Francis of Assisi always put conviction into action. The most significant example of this involved an episode during the Fifth Crusade – in 1219. Francis would not be denied his intention to go o Damietta, Egypt (where the conflict was centered at the time) tin order to preach (not fight), even if it meant death—as all his companions deemed it would. Early summer of 1219, he and a small contingent of brothers said good-bye to their beloved Assisi believing they would not see it again in this life.
The Sultan, Malik al-Kamil received Francis but fetched his sages to judge whether his teaching was genuine. The sages answered that he was bound by “the sword of the law” to cut off Francis’ head.
“The law forbids giving a hearing to preachers. And if there should be someone who wishes to preach or speak against our law, the law commands that his head be cut off. It is for this reason that we command you, in the name of God and the law, that you have their heads cut off immediately, as the law demands.”
The sultan decided to act against his own law, because “it would be an evil reward for me to bestow on [one] who conscientiously risked death in order to save my soul for God.” The sultan enjoined Francis as a friend to remain with him for an extended period, which Francis obliged. When Francis was ready to depart, the sultan granted him safe passage. He also offered him gold, silver, and silk garments, the which Francis refused. (He took along a little food.)
Ten years later in 1229–three years after Francis had died– Malik al-Kamil freely conceded Jerusalem without bloodshed to the then-Holy Roman Emperor and Francis’ childhood friend and Assisi native, Frederick II. Some speculate that Francis’ friendship with the sultan affected this outcome.
3. Shut up
Francis is credited for the maxim: “Preach the gospel always. Only when necessary, use words.” Francis exemplified this poignantly in a story about his relationship with a leper. This particular individual was so wretched and profane that even the brothers despaired of helping him. Francis himself followed through with what his own followers were loathe to. He greeted the leper : “God give you peace, my dear brother.” Early documents capture the scene:
Francis said, “Dear son, I want to take care of you, since you are not satisfied with the others.” The sick man replied, “All right. But what more can you do for me than the others?” Francis said, “I will do whatever you want.” The leprosy patient said, “I want you to wash me all over because I smell so bad that I cannot stand it myself.” Francis immediately had water boiled with many sweet-scented herbs. Next, he undressed the man with leprosy and began to wash him.”
4. Stand On Your Head
G.K.Chesterton in his biography that Francis “saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool.” The effect of this, Chesterton said, was for Francis an utter dependence on God. Chesterton writes, regarding Assisi:
“whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. . . . [Francis] would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped.”
Francis understood two essential truths: the first is that all of God’s creatures carry his beauty; and second is that he himself stands as an equal among the most wretched. In his time these were revolutionary ideas.
5. Get naked
Francis “got naked” literally on numerous occasions, the most well-known of which occurred during his conversion of 1209 when he stripped naked before his father and surrounding observers in dramatic renunciation of the world and his family. His nakedness illustrated literally, physically and graphically Francis’ inimitable unselfconsciousness, and fearlessness to show himself for what he was.
By “showing up” when he visited the Pope he won approval of a rule that has been the bedrock of one of modern Catholicism’s most prolific and influential male orders, the Franciscans.
By “stepping up” he walked head-on into the heart of enemy territory at the risk of his own head for the sake of the soul of the enemy and changed the landscape of the Crusades.
By his “shutting up” Francis validated his conviction not but words but by example.
By “standing on his head” –in his upside-down vision of the world— Francis imbued dignity and beauty in the smallest and most wretched beings, transforming the understanding of God in that day, bringing God near to anyone – especially the lowest of the low—who could enjoy intimacy in his presence.
Francis’ willingness to “get naked” not only showed Francis for who he was truly, but brought freedom to all who knew him. In a way, it put a mirror before everyone that enabled them to see themselves for who they are and not feel ashamed. He lived by grace. His entire life was an assertion of grace in the particulars—every-day moments such as those you and I face everyday–with nothing but trust in the integrity of God and gratitude. He changed his world and maybe we can too.