Simple Spirituality. The Spirit of Francis: A Prophetic Sign of Hope in a Slum Community

While gazing at the San Damiano icon, St.
Francis of Assisi had a vision that Christ on
the icon said, “Rebuild my church which
is in ruins.”

Some may ask, what is a saint? Sadly, most evangelicals and Protestants lack a perspective that would help locate themselves in the historical continuity of the Church. Our church history, if we start with the Protestant Reformation, starts somewhere in the early 1500s to the mid-1600s. Generally, as Protestant evangelicals, we do not have a good grasp of Christian history—one that is full of stories from real saints.

But in the Word Made Flesh (WMF) community, we have sort of adopted Saint Francis of Assisi, sometimes called the “Reluctant Saint.” We pray the prayer ascribed to Francis at most of our public and community gatherings, we commission our full-time staff with the call of Francis, and we even give our commissioned staff the San Damiano cross as a symbol of shared vocation (in fact, many WMFers have the San Damiano tattooed somewhere on their bodies).

Luckily for Protestants, Francis predates the Reformation, so we can probably claim him as well.

Francis—The Early Years
Francis was born and baptized Giovanni di Bernardone circa 1181 by his mother in Umbria, Italy. At that time (the Middle Ages), nearly one-third of the world's known population lived in extreme poverty.

Francis’ father was one of the most successful and richest merchants in the community. He sold silks, textiles, and fine clothing. After a business trip to France, he promptly returned and renamed his son Francesco.

Francesco, or Francis as we know him today, had a privileged youth—although he lacked any substantial education. He was known to be a wild kid, full of life and creativity.

Around the turn of the century, a local feud erupted between Umbria and neighboring Perugia. A castle on the edge of Assisi was destroyed, starting what would become an all-out, small-scale war. Francis, hoping to prove his valor, enlisted in a band of knights who set out to defend the honor of their home. It was ugly. Perugia defeated the Umbrians, killing most of the small army and imprisoning the few captured survivors. Francis suddenly found himself a prisoner of war.

After a year of suffering in an underground dungeon, Francis was released, perhaps due to his tuberculosis. He returned to Assisi humiliated and defeated. It was upon his homecoming that he turned to prayer. Cultivating core contemplative practices and committing to a life of deep reflection, Francis started his journey toward Christ.

After recovering from sickness and incarceration, and again hoping to secure fame and honor, Francis set off to continue his valiant crusade. Dressed in the most expensive and elaborate suit of armor, he set off on what would be a meeting with Christ.

The Transformation
The Franciscan stories tell of a meeting between Francis and a man with leprosy. Francis hated leprosy—the mere sight of the open wounds or the smell of decaying flesh was enough to turn his queasy stomach. But as Francis laid his eyes on this man, something inside him broke. Francis found himself compelled to get off the horse he was riding and approach the man. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Francis embraced him, kissing him on the cheek. Francis took off the expensive robe he was wearing and cloaked him. As he turned and rode away, he looked back and was surprised—the man had disappeared.

Francis considered that his encounter with the man had been a meeting with Christ—essentially his conversion to Jesus. That conversion led Francis to a vocation of prayer and utter dependence on God. He found an old, dilapidated church on the hillside of Assisi, where he would spend hours upon hours praying and pleading with God.

While deep in prayer, Francis gazed at the large San Damiano icon hanging in the front of the church. In a vision or in a miraculous and divine pronouncement, Christ on the icon spoke to Francis: “Rebuild my church which is in ruins.”

Immediately, Francis knew what needed to be done. He went from door to door in his small town, begging for money or supplies so that he could literally repair the broken-down structure of that hillside church building. Francis even went as far as plundering materials from his father’s shop to sell them as a means of raising money to buy supplies and building materials to fix up that little cathedral.

Francis’ father was furious and humiliated at the conversion and subsequent vocational trajectory at which his son had thrown himself. Unwilling to support his son and still angered at having his own shop ransacked, he took his son to the bishop in hopes that a priest would talk some sense into him.

In what may be one of the most recounted stories of his life, Francis declared on the steps of the bishop’s residence that his sonship was not defined by a bloodline, but by a divine commitment to God. Francis then took off his clothing and threw it at the feet of his forsaken father. The bishop suddenly covered Francis’ nakedness with his priestly robe, echoing the hint of an ecclesial covering that would guide the submission known to be true of future Franciscans.

During the following years, Francis rebuilt many churches in the area, prayerfully serving the community as he served God. He also joyfully began his own romance with “Lady Poverty,” beginning his vocation of dependence. Francis was known to beg for his food and wine, often exchanging his fresh food with others whose begged food was staler or less appealing. Francis was even known to go naked after having given up his own clothing to cover the nakedness of another.

A Deeper Understanding of the Call
One day, during worship, Francis received vocational clarity, finally realizing that it wasn’t the church building God had called him to rebuild. But in fact, it was the Body of Christ—the members of the worshipping community—that God was asking Francis to help restore.

He now knew that restoring the Church meant centering on those who were poor. It was an incarnational commitment to recovering the identity of Christ’s Church by bringing the vulnerable and the marginalized to the center. Committed to community, Francis identified companions. The early echoes of the order simmered in the hearts and minds of those who would eventually become the Franciscans. During the early days of the community’s formation, the brothers made three biblical commitments to poverty, generosity, and suffering.

Toward the end of his life, Francis went on retreat with some of the brothers. He was praying for a divine grace to identify with the passion of Jesus when suddenly an angel appeared from the heavens. The angel burned into Francis’ body what are now known to be the stigmata of Christ. The physical wounds of Jesus were miraculously imprinted on the hands, side, and feet of Francis. These wounds caused Francis tremendous suffering and constantly needed to be bandaged as they bled until the end of his life.

I think about Francis often. What was it in the life and imagination of this simple man from Italy that has inspired the Church throughout history? His prayerfulness? His commitment to poverty? His vocation of restoration? History tells us that it is all three.

Chris Heuertz is the international executive director of Word Made Flesh, and has served with the community for nearly fourteen years. He and his wife Phileena live in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. His book, Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (InterVarsity Press), will be available summer 2008.