Francis of Assisi: five lessons he can teach us all

Posted by Craig Borlase on 17 December 2013

History matters, of course it does, but there’s more to the life of Francis of Assisi than sackcloth, sandals and squirrels. And with the new Pope now causing a stir as he turns much of the Catholic world on its head, perhaps it’s time to take a look at his namesake and ask, what can Francis of Assisi teach us?



On February 24, 1208, when Francis was 25 years old, he heard mass in the little chapel he had been rebuilding a couple of miles south-west of Assisi. That day’s gospel reading offered a turning point for the son of the wealthy merchant:  

"As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The Kingdom of Heaven has come near'… Take no gold or silver or copper in your belts; no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff."  

 Francis told the priest:  

"This is what I want. This is what I seek, and this is what I desire with all my heart."

Two months later Francis and three friends decided to test things out a little more. Three times they opened the missal at random, each time reading the same words: 

"Go, sell what you own, and give to the poor..." and "take nothing for your journey..." and finally "...let them deny themselves." 

They could have ignored it. They could have carried on with life as it was; comfortable, influential, successful. But they didn’t. Adopting – embracing – extreme poverty was a sign that they knew they were poor in spirit as well. It screamed a simple message from the rooftops: without God, I’m nothing. 

And so it started. Francis identified himself with the poor at a stage in life when he had a thousand excuses not to. 

As the French philosopher Ernest Renan (1823 – 1892) put it, 

"After Jesus, Francis of Assisi has been the only perfect Christian" 

Ours is a world contorted by inequalities of wealth. Our resources are heaped on those who have the means to buy, while those in life-and-death need are locked out. You want figures? The world's richest 360 people have the same amount of money as the poorest 2.4 billion people.

What Francis preached and lived has largely been ignored by the generations that have preceded us. At best we help the poor, we might even champion them, but do we become them? What good would ever come of that? 



Before Guttenberg and the printing press things were different. Knowledge was passed person to person, using verbal rather than written communication. In Francis’ time there was the ‘culture of manuscripts’ – a period closer to the days of primary orality; the days of tribes and tales and face-to-face learning. 

Today – thanks to the invention of the telegraph in 1844 – we are moving back towards the days that Francis was familiar with. Communication is becoming communal, live, personal again. We might not have manuscripts of parchment, but our shared experience of a digital medium that we interact with, assess and rework has more in common with the ancients than we might first think. 

The values which molded Francis - the troubadour spirit, the ethics of chivalry, and the spoken Catholic mass - all functioned within a worldview of orality. They were not static or set in stone, but lessons to be experienced as they cured and infused the soul. If we approach Francis’ writings with a literate mindset his words can seem outmoded and stale. But reintroduce them with a sense of fluidity, of interaction and discourse, Francis comes alive again. 

Where our culture is heading, Francis has already been. 



What are we to do about Islam? For us in the West it can seem as though there are only two options available to us: jingoistic hubris or with a bland ecumenism. Both are failing. Both lack the love and valor of the approach of Francis to Islam.  

Out of his poverty he emerged as being ready to die as a martyr. It was from this commitment that he was able to cross the lines to speak to Muslims. Today’s house churches in China are sending members back towards Jerusalem, making disciples as they go. The spirit is the same as that which drove Francis. That age-old crucible of poverty and persecution in China has prepared them to risk suffering to bring the gospel to Muslims.

Francis wrote this: "We prefer the celebration and the living out of faith rather than disputing about it - hence we go among unbelievers and preach to others mostly by example."



We all know the stereotypical image of Francis, surrounded by animals like some kind of Doolittle pre-run. The truth is deeper and darker. For most of human history, nature was something to be endured and even feared rather than enjoyed. 

Aged 42, when his eyes were dim, Francis called out his "Canticle," which was written down for him. He praised Frate Sole, Sora Lune, and Frate Focu(Brother Wind, Sister Water, and Brother Fire) for their involvement in our lives, not their static beauty. And so his appreciation of – and learning from – nature goes beyond our contemporary understanding of poster-images and platitudes. In our days of a wounded planet and a disconnected understanding of our role within it, Francis’ words can illuminate our path. 



John Eldredge:

"Every man carries a wound."

"Every boy in his journey to become a man takes an arrow to the centre of his heart in place of his strength. Because the wound is rarely discussed, and even more rarely healed, the wound remains. And the wound is nearly always given by his father."

"Men either overcompensate for their wound and become driven (violent men), or they shrink back and go passive (retreating men)."

Francis did not have a good relationship with his father. Argumentative, fractured, separated, misjudged, misunderstood, hurt, rejected… both wore the scars of their failed bond. 

How many of us carry the father wound today? How many struggle to find our place in life because we are not sure where or how we belong? 

Frances came from privilege, but also from dysfunction. In spite of this - or perhaps because of it - he chose to commit himself fully to his God. No holding back. No half measures. No excuses.  

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