Admiration and imitation
“Of all the saints, St. Francis (of Assisi) is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated.” So reads the description offered in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, a publication of the church that helps forgetful clergy like me recall why we remember these folks. Yesterday, October 4, is the day our church remembers St. Francis. Churches do that in all kinds of ways, most notably the Blessing of the Animals. This has proven to be a very popular liturgy, one which draws people who won’t otherwise come to church. For instance, I remember the woman who came to church on the subway, with a rather large iguana in a snuggly. At the time, I served as an associate at this church. As she made her way toward the clergy at the time in which we offered blessing, the Rector pointed her in my direction. He told me later that he didn’t do reptiles. My theology of blessing was tested as I laid hands on Fluffy or whatever the creature’s name was. (I don’t think I had ever actually touched an iguana before.) In something of a leap of faith, in my best effort to imitate St. Francis, I declared its goodness, beauty and belovedness. St Francis would have blessed this creature. I gave it my best shot.
For that same service, a limousine pulled up in front of the church. The chauffeur ran around the back of the car, opened the door and three small dogs with bejeweled collars and fur whiter than snow marched up the steps to the church. I could feel the anxiety of the owner who thought her pets would be soiled by our church steps, or by contact with other animals (including people). I was struck with the irony of a feast day for someone committed to the needs of the poor being observed by this city dweller who clearly had an exorbitant amount of disposable income and wasn’t afraid to put it on grand display. We blessed those three dogs, in imitation of the grace of St. Francis, even though I confess that a part of me was judging the owner for her ridiculous extravagance (as if I was somehow holier than she was).
Francis is popular for sure, in part because his love for all God’s creatures taps into the great affection people have for their animal companions. He is popular for other reasons, witness the visit of the current pope to our neck of the woods, where his own popularity is revealed as he imitates his namesake in dramatic ways. In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi broke the mold. Born in affluence, he reached outside his bubble to commit to “Lady Poverty”. A devout leader off his own faith tradition, he reached outside his bubble to connect with the Muslim community, and to work for peace. He saw brotherhood and sisterhood not only with other people, not only with animals like the wolf of Gubbio or the birds that listened to him preach, but with the sun and moon and stars and water. He called for the healing of creation. He answered a call to heal the church, to rebuild the church. He did it all with a spirit of joy that is remembered over the years. Admired, indeed. Imitated, not so much.
Join in admiration for St. Francis of Assisi. That is relatively easy to do. Give thanks for his concern for the poor, his commitment to creation, his hope for the church, his outreach to people of other religions, his joy in service to his God, his call to be an instrument of peace.
Then join in imitation, taking his life and ministry and witness as an example. That’s maybe harder. But it would be good work for this Monday morning. What might that look like in your day?
– Jay Sidebotham
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of Joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord,To thee be ceaseless praise outpoured,
And blessing without measure.
Let creatures all give thanks to thee
and serve in great humility