“The whole point of (St. Francis’) point of view was that it looked out freshly upon a fresh world, that might have been made that morning. Save for the great primal things, the Creation and the Story of Eden, the first Christmas and the first Easter, the world had no history.”
That quotation from GK Chesterton’s biography of St Francis gives us an insight into the radical nature of Franciscan spirituality. Unlike other founders of religious orders, Francis took a very straightforward approach to spiritual journeying, his core instruction was to Live the Gospel. He didn’t give a set of spiritual exercises or a Rule covering every aspect of life; he kept it simple. Live the Gospel. Approach each day as a new beginning, an opportunity to engage with people, to make a difference for people, to care for God’s people.
The personal journey that Francis went on was one that few of us could emulate. Not only did he give up his personal wealth and some of his father’s possessions, but he actively sought to engage with people who were ostracised, to reach out to people on the fringes of society and to treat them as sisters and brothers.
Immersion in the battlegrounds of Perugia and the way he dealt with his subsequent imprisonment give us an early indication of the way that God was working within him and the radical nature of his approach to his fellow human beings. When others condemned, Francis was compassionate. When others turned away, Francis reached out. He had a gift for recognising the humanity in the other, a gift for honouring each person and accepting them just as they were. One of the better known stories about Francis is about him overcoming his fear and disgust of lepers and getting off his horse to kiss a leper and to offer him money. Subsequently, he explained that encounter as an encounter with Christ. And one of the cornerstones of the ongoing ministry that Francis and his friars engaged in was within a leper colony.
What Francis did was more than simply to overcome his own prejudices and revulsion, more than doing good for the sake of doing good. It appears that he found himself compelled to behave in these ways, compelled to honour the people he met; compelled to live the Gospel on a daily basis.
His personal encounters with Christ marked him – both with the physical marks of the stigmata that he bore and with the inner marks of compassion and love.
Let’s look at today’s Scripture from St Matthew, bearing in mind as we do that Francis instructed his friars to live the Gospel. The first Apostles were sent out with clear instructions both about what they should be doing but also about how they should go about it. Jesus is telling them not to plan too far ahead. Don’t make contingency plans; don’t take your emergency rations or that spare £20 note ‘just in case’. Just set off and engage with the people you meet and the situations you encounter.
As I hear myself saying that, I know that I could easily become quite anxious at the prospect. I wasn’t a Girl Guide but I’ve probably absorbed the suggestion that at all times we should be prepared. And yet, here we read that we should do just the opposite; that we should go as we are, that we should engage in the moment, and that if it doesn’t work out we should simply move on and start again.
Now that really is a description of living with trust, being responsive, a description of an approach most of us just aren’t ready for. We have bills to pay and dependents to take care of. We have diaries and appointments and commitment – places to be and things to do. So is there something we can learn from Francis that would help us to live lives that were a little bit closer to that Gospel imperative, allow us to be a little bit more akin to those disciples rather than perhaps realising that the best we manage is to be the disciples we choose to be? Back to Chesterton: Francis looked out freshly on a fresh world that might have been made that morning.
It seems to me that the first step towards that way of engaging is to lay down each day at the end of that day. To find a way to give thanks for all that any particular day has brought, to ask God’s forgiveness for our wrong doing in the course of the day and to remind ourselves that tomorrow will be a new day, an opportunity for a new beginning, a day to do some things a bit differently from today and perhaps a day to build on some of what went well today. In that popular phrase: every day’s a school day.
Let’s just note the beginning of the quotation from Chesterton: Francis looked out. Francis didn’t just fall out of bed and find himself immersed in his first activity of the day before he’d properly woken up. Francis took the time to greet the new day, to remind himself that this was a fresh beginning that would bring fresh opportunities and challenges. This is the flip side of the suggestion I made that we should lay down all that a day has been. It’s kind of like bookending our days. At the start of the day we might take a moment to remind ourselves that this is a new day, that whatever yesterday was or tomorrow will be, this is the day we are asked to live. And this day comes to its end when we take a few moments to absorb all that it has been and brought and to give thanks.
If we are seeking to give thanks for living a little bit more like the first disciples, to give thanks for opportunities to live the Gospel, then we do well to remember that Francis based his living of that Gospel in his actions and attitudes towards others.
The defining feature of his service is that first and foremost he was interested in people who were most disadvantaged, more discriminated against, most excluded or reviled. To follow in the footsteps of Francis demands us to reach out to people whom we find it impossible to understand, people who have made choices that make no sense to us, people whose lives are unimaginable for us. And the danger is then that we try to do good to people, rather than getting alongside and finding out what would make a difference for them.
That’s the challenge – but it’s a challenge that we don’t have to accomplish all in one day. Today’s reminder is that each day is a fresh beginning and brings fresh opportunities. The Gospel imperative is to get out there and do it. Offer what you are able and if it’s welcomed, great, and if not, move on. Day by day, you will learn what makes a difference and what is best laid aside.
We’re unlikely to become modern day versions of Francis but we can be the best versions of ourselves; and that at both the beginning and the end of the day is all that God asks of us.