Emulating St. Francis in the 21st century

St. Francis of Assisi has greatly influenced and touched the world throughout the years. His spirituality has affected millions of lives, not only of those who are part his family, namely the Franciscans, but also all those who have personally encountered Francis, whether it be through a story or a visit to Francis’ hometown in Assisi. Despite the deep admiration many have for this great saint, many are slow to follow Francis’ example, thinking that it requires living a life of radical poverty.

So what are practical ways which a 21st-century Catholic can emulate a 12th century friar in their daily life? The life of this spiritual giant provides three simple tips: read the Scriptures, trust in God and be detached from earthly possessions.

Love and read Scripture

St. Francis found his vocation through the Scriptures. After hearing Christ’s command to “rebuild my Church,” at San Damiano, Francis prays for God’s will to be further revealed. One day this prayer becomes answered when Francis serves Mass. Francis becomes struck by the words of the Gospel: “Do not take possess gold, not silver, nor money in your purses; nor scrip for your journey, two coats, nor shoes nor a staff.” At that moment, Francis understands his vocation to live a life of radical poverty. He then prays for guidance in establishing rules for his order, deciding that the next three Scriptures passages he reads in the Bible will be the guiding principles of his way of life. Thus the constitution of the order began to take shape through the inspiration of Scripture.

Francis’ calling may perhaps seem more dramatic than most, but through prayer and careful meditation, Christians too can find the meaning of their own lives through Scripture. A good practice would be taking 15 minutes to meditate upon the daily Mass reading, allowing the words to penetrate the soul.

Scripture, as St. Paul reminds the faithful, is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts of and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Scripture is just as living and active as in the days of Francis. Christ still speaks to man through Scripture. All one needs do is to be silent long enough to experience the beauty of listening to Him.

Trust in divine providence

Saint Francis of Assisi truly understood the power of God’s divine providence. As a young man, Francis publicly relinquishes all earthly ties including that of influential positions, wealth or family power he would have inherited. For Francis, in order to truly follow God, one has to first fully rely on God’s providence. Knowing that his earthly father resents Francis’ charity towards the poor, Francis disinherits himself, claiming God to be his sole Father. It is this providence which Francis entrusts himself and his order to for the remainder of his life. Francis instructs his friars to embrace the reality that God is their loving Father who provides for them. This is why the friars solely beg for their needs for the day, not accepting anything more.

By his childlike Faith in the providential care of the Father, Francis reminds Christians “not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:31-33). What is only needed in the Christian life is to trust in God’s divine plan, knowing that he will care for each of his creatures.

Practice interior poverty

Though everyone knows of the exterior poverty Francis and his disciples embraced, few realize that it stemmed from Francis’ emphasis of interior poverty. For Francis, interior poverty is essential, not only for the spiritual life, but also for living the life of radical poverty. Acquiring interior poverty allows one to become pure of heart and strip oneself of pride in order that his will becomes conformed to that of Christ’s.

Francis’ desire for a life of poverty stems from his desire to “be poor because Christ was poor on earth.” The saint often reminds his friars that while on earth, Christ was poor for “foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have places of shelter; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Just as Christ was stripped of everything on the cross, Francis seeks to strip away any material possessions which would hinder him from becoming conformed to Christ. Francis sees Christ’s manifestation of interior poverty through the mystery of the Incarnation. This mystery becomes the source of inspiration for Francis’ radical embrace of poverty, for Christ, “though indefinitely rich, chose poverty for his way of life, and who meekly subjected his will to that of his Father.” (Quotes taken from “Repair My House” by Kajetan Esser.) Poverty takes on an eschatological significance for Francis, as poverty foreshadows the riches which the poor man will experience in heaven.

Interior poverty for Francis demands a total renunciation of one’s will. Interior poverty protects the friar from vainglory, a serious detriment in fostering humility and obedience. For Francis, to be truly poor consists fundamentally in the renunciation of one’s own will, and so it is only through submission that the friar becomes conformed to Christ, for even Christ obeyed the will of His Father on earth. By doing so, the friar guards against pride and so attains a pure heart.

Throughout life it is easy to accumulate possessions and to feel security through the acquisition of money. Emulating Francis does not entail ridding oneself of possessions, but rather demands acquiring this interior poverty which the saint so highly valued. This means coming to the realization that man is solely dependent upon Christ. Subsequently, everything one has is not deemed to be the result of his or her efforts, but rather seen as a gift from God. Acquiring this mindset enables one to be so detached from earthly possessions and the desire for power, wealth and prestige that when one has been blessed by God by these things he acts as if does not have it. Likewise, when the Christian does not have success, fame, or wealth he does not seek to obtain them, knowing that they do not provide true happiness.

Francis’ life provides invaluable insight into three important aspects of the Christian life. To be inspired by the life of Francis and to follow his example does not entail becoming physically poor. Rather, by reading the Scriptures, trusting in divine providence and becoming detached from the desire for possessions, fame and power, the average Christian will easily follow in the footsteps of this great saint.

Maria Cintorino writes from Virginia.