“He [St. Francis] was a poet whose whole life was a poem. He was not so much a minstrel merely singing his own songs as a dramatist capable of acting the whole of his own play. The things he said were more imaginative than the things he wrote. The things he did we more imaginative than the things he said. His whole course through life was a series of scenes in which he had a sort of perpetual luck in bringing things to a beautiful crisis. To talk about the art of living has come to sound rather artificial than artistic. But St. Francis did in a definite sense make the very act of living an art, though it was an unpremeditated art.” —G.K. Chesterton from his book St. Francis of Assisi
This past week, I was standing in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, a massive, two-story cathedral erected within a century of the Saint’s death in 1226, on the edge of this little hillside town that overlooks the entire span of green Umbrian countryside, when a thunderstorm began to brew outside. I’d arrived with my group earlier in the day when the skies were clear, and we spent the morning lounging in the olive groves outside of city where he had roamed, but by the time we reached the Basilica, the sky was a menacing gray, and we gladly accepted the solace of the church. I knew upon coming to Assisi that I wanted to write something about Francis. Ever since I came here for the first time two years ago, I’ve been obsessed not only with this little man whose short life somehow transformed the city where he lived and the world as we know it to this very day, but with the question of why his life was so spectacular. I had some vague idea of writing about each of the places that we visited, and reflecting on what transpired there; the stone hermitage where he fasted and slept on dirt in the mountains above the city, the spot in the center of town where he stripped naked and renounced his worldly desires, the tiny chapel that he rebuilt with his bare hands, the trails in the pine-clad forest where he sang, prayed, preached to the birds. If Francis’s life was a drama, then these are the sets where he acted out his story. My first time in Assisi, each of these places was a sliver of insight into Francis’s joyful, brutal, beautiful life. But even though it was my second time in the city, I couldn’t deny the fact that I still felt like a tourist, and that all the different sites were just bullet points on my St. Francis itinerary.
Believe me, though; I was trying. As we strolled through the olive vineyards below the city, I willed myself to imagine what it might have been like to see through Francis’s eyes, to feel the same deep love for creation and its Creator that he must have felt every time he took a breath. It was an attempt at a kind of spiritual voyeurism; a willed shutting off of my own thoughts, feelings, and biases, with the hope that as I pretended to think like Francis, some lightning bolt of spiritual clarity would hit me on the head. Sure, there was a kind of inspiration that came with seeing all that Francis saw, which led me to want to learn more and more about his life. But in all honesty, that first trip to Assisi was more overwhelming than it was enlightening. It was overwhelming because I wanted so badly to understand how a regular man could live such a spectacular life, but the only conclusion that I could come to that was Francis was either totally crazy or totally lucky, as if all that happened during and as a result of his life was part of some divine fluke.
Even though I was still totally enthralled by him, I was beginning to think that his life didn’t have any relevance to me whatsoever. What’s personally inspiring about the legacy of a man who, by most accounts, seems nothing less than superhuman? Sure, Francis had his fair share of hardships, but once he traded in his swanky duds for a brown burlap tunic, everything seemed to fall right into place. The suffering that he faced, as far as I could tell, was mostly by choice. Giving away all his worldly possessions, sprinkling ashes on his food to dull and distort its taste, sleeping on stone, refusing to wear shoes, kissing lepers—all of this, although it’s beautiful and inspiring in a far off, what a guy sort of way, when you really stop and think about the type of conviction that those repeated acts must have taken, and consider the overwhelming spiritual vigor that must have surged through him at any given moment, it’s not only humbling, but also a little discouraging. Of course, Francis would be the first to admit that the passion that led him to such a courageous, wild-eyed, love-filled life had nothing to do with his own will power. He would be pointing up at God, dancing and singing, before the question even left your lips. But his reverence, joy, and pure conviction were on a level that a regular, non-saint, modern person couldn’t possibly understand, so why even bother? I was tempted to conclude that life was just simpler back then. To do what Francis did—to exchange all worldly aspirations and desires for a life of simplicity, gladness, and care for others—was possible only because of the culture that he lived in. A life of willed simplicity just wasn’t all that far from the normalcy back then; it wasn’t that much of a leap in a religious-minded, rural, pre-modern community to shake oneself from the grip of that moderately materialistic society and live for love. Life is just too convoluted and messy these days, I thought. Francis can be an example for how to love well, sure, but beyond that, I just wasn’t feeling the fire that I’d hope for. He was spectacular to a point where he didn’t even feel accessible, and the distance and difference of the culture that he’d rebelled against seemed too great to make any connections in my own life.
Despite my inability to make sense of Francis’s legacy, or his relevance to a modern believer like myself, I’d been reading G.K. Chesterton’s biography about the Saint prior to and during my most recent trip to Assisi, and he made some claims that were too bold for me to ignore. Such as: “What I mean is this; that if men find certain riddles and hard sayings in the story of Galilee, and if they find the answers to those riddles in the story of Assisi, it really does show that a secret has been handed down in one religious tradition and no other. It shows that the casket that was locked in Palestine can be unlocked in Umbria; for the Church is the keeper of the keys.” Amidst all that tricky British wit, what Chesterton is saying is that reflecting on the story of Francis has an even greater power than I’d imagined. He’s saying that it’s possible that the story of St. Francis of Assisi should not only be personally inspiring, but functional in some mysterious way, in that it can reveal things about the person of Jesus that we’d never imagined. He goes on: “St. Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible.” Being less vivid, it is more visible. So if Francis is so visible, why was I having such a hard time understanding him? I was standing in the very fields where he would have walked, staring at the crucifix he would have prayed to, and all I could think about was how far away his radical faith felt. How a beautiful sunset occasionally leaves me cold. How fear of the future and regrets of the past often push away present joy. How hard it is for me to love my roommate, let alone kiss a leper.
So, there I was with all the context in the world; all the knowledge of his life in the background of my mind, and the image of the place he lived in the foreground before my eyes, and none of it would register. By the time we’d reached the Basilica in the late afternoon and the sky above the city began to fill with clouds, I’d resigned myself to the reality that I wasn’t going to get any grand, tangible conclusions about the Saint’s life. Assisi was a city like any other. That a great man once wandered through its streets and fields with nothing but the clothes on his back and a song of love to sing, doesn’t mean the people who come along after will hear the music. And as I gazed up at Giotto’s masterpiece “The Life of Saint Francis,” on the upper walls of the massive Basilica—a fresco cycle widely regarded as the catalyst for the Italian Renaissance—all I heard was thunder beginning to churn above the church. If I couldn’t feel the connection to Francis’s life that I’d always hoped for, at least I could look at some incredible art in a dry church away from the rain. The place was swarming with tourists, both because it’s the prime attraction in the city and because it’s the only space that’s big enough to protect a thousand people from a storm. A Franciscan Friar lead a group of elderly German tourists below the progression of paintings, while some rambunctious Italian teenagers chased each other around the apse in the front of the church. With the storm taking shape outside, the church was beginning to look like its own kind of stage, where tourists and locals and monks rubbed elbows as they hid from the rain and searched for some beauty to rest their eyes on. I took a seat in one of the pews so I could focus on my favorite painting in the Giotto cycle called Sermon to the Birds. It’s just like I remembered: simple, serene, mostly blue except for Francis, the birds, and a tree.
At that moment, just as I was getting lost in the simplicity of the painting, a double-crack of thunder burst from the clouds above us, though it was so loud it felt like it might have struck the roof. A somber-faced security guard was passing in front of me in that very instant, and when the crack after the initial rumble exploded above us, he literally jumped at the sound. He jerked his shoulders up and his head down as if the roof was falling. It must have startled everyone in the whole church, but I had my eyes fixed on him, and I’m fairly certain he had the most extreme reaction of anyone there. He regained his composure and looked around with obvious embarrassment to see if anyone had noticed. His eyes locked on mine. After a brief stare down, we smiled simultaneously. He shrugged as if to say, pretty scary thunder, right? and I shrug-nodded in affirmation. He put his security guard face back on and returned to looking un-phased.
That moment, which was initiated by a literal lightning bolt in the sky above Assisi, was the breaking point that I’d been waiting for. All the posturing and striving and contextual gymnastics that I’d been doing were suddenly irrelevant. Seeing that security guard quake like a little kid was all I needed to get into the mind of Francis. Because really, that’s all that Francis needed to inspire his love for the world and for all the creatures in it. Francis was after true human moments, moments of connection and vulnerability, where the presence of God in every person was apparent precisely because he was willing to see past a uniform and see a man. The only difference is that Francis didn’t need lightning bolts to help him truly see the person standing next to him. Or maybe he did and he just heard them more often. Lightning or not, Francis’s life looked like a grand drama and sounded like a poem, not because he was striving to be spectacular or the holiest man standing, but because he simply wanted to see people as they really were, to strip away the vanity of class and religion and fashion and come face to face with everything within the wide expanse of God’s creation—from the mountains to the caves, the wolves to the sparrows, the Popes to the lepers—and fall in love with it.
After that first bolt, I made my way to the entrance at the back of the Basilica. There was a small, covered vestibule by the door, so I squeezed into the tiny space with 10 other strangers. We watched in silence as the rain made the stones of the old city shimmer, listened as the thunder receded slowly into countryside. I had heard someone mention earlier that Francis, who gave away every penny he ever received, would’ve been appalled by a giant, expensive Basilica erected in his name. True as this may be, I couldn’t help but think that in that moment, Francis wouldn’t have given the question a moment’s thought. He would have been too busy watching the rain as it passed over Assisi, shoulder to shoulder with his new friends.