It’s easy for us to claim to be on some sort of “spiritual path” but an entirely different thing to “walk our talk.” If we take a moment to look at our life and ask our self if we are truly practicing our spirituality, many of us will find that we fall short. When in doubt however, it might help to look at the life of one who has succeeded in walking the talk. From the life of Saint Francis, we can learn where to make a few adjustments to truly become more spiritual, particularly in the forms of love (kindness) and humility (simplicity)—two of the primary manifestations of really walking the talk.
Saint Francis (Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone) was born in Assisi, Italy around 1180 AD. He became a Catholic friar and preacher, later founding the Franciscan Order and became one of the most venerated religious figures in history. Since the 1960’s, there has been a resurgence of interest in the message of St. Francis—even among non-Catholics. This is undoubtedly due to the worldwide growing appreciation for peace, love, and a simpler life, which are among the essential teachings of Saint Francis.
As a child, Francis received some elementary school instruction but it’s believed he learned more in the school of the Troubadours, which was one of the leading mystery schools of the time. Being amount artist would better fit him, as he was not the academic or studious type. In his early years Francis preferred to party more than study. Even when he worked for his father, he showed little liking for a serious career. No one loved materialism more than the young Francis; he was quick witted, sang merrily, delighted in fine clothes and showy display. Handsome, gallant, and courteous, he soon became the prime favorite among the young nobles of Assisi, the foremost in every feat of arms, the leader of the civil revels, the very king of frolic. And yet, although he spent money lavishly, Francis was already showing an instinctive sympathy for the poor.
When about twenty, Francis fought in a local battle where he was captured and held prisoner for over a year. While in prison, he contracted a fever. His thoughts then began to turn to more spiritual matters. Like Buddha 1700 hundred years earlier, Francis began to be aware of how empty and unfulfilling his life was. Nevertheless, Francis soon became distracted again by the trappings of life. But after experiencing a few miraculous visions he was forever aligned to his soul’s calling.
Francis began to prayerfully seek Guidance as to the direction his life should take. One day, while traveling on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive being filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated. Controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had, thus beginning his life of detachment to worldly goods. About the same time Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome. Pained at the miserly offerings he saw at the tomb of St. Peter, he emptied his purse, then exchanged clothes with a tattered beggar, and Francis stood for the rest of the day fasting among the horde at the door of the basilica.
Upon his return to Assisi during prayer one day, Francis heard a voice saying: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Taking this call literally, as referring to the ruinous church where he knelt, Francis impulsively sold his horse and other possessions to procure the money needed for the restoration of St. Damian’s. In the same way Francis also restored two other deserted chapels (St. Peter’s, some distance from the city, and St. Mary of the Angels, in the plain below it, at a spot called the Porziuncola). Meantime he redoubled his zeal in works of charity, especially in nursing the lepers.
In 1208, during Mass at a church near where he had built himself a hut, Francis heard the Gospel of the day say that the disciples of Christ were to possess “neither gold nor silver, nor scrip for their journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff, and that they were to announce the Kingdom of God.” Francis took these words as if spoken directly to him, and discarded the last of his worldly goods: his shoes, cloak, pilgrim staff, and empty wallet. At this point, he chose to dress in a dull-colored, coarse woolen tunic—like that of a peasant tied with a knotted rope. He began exhorting the people of the country-side to penance, brotherly love, and peace. People, eager to share his life of peace and poverty, began following Francis to travel the countryside converting others through their words and behaviors.
Like careless children, they wandered from place to place singing in their joy, and calling themselves the Lord’s minstrels. The world was their cloister; sleeping in haylofts, grottos, or church porches, they toiled with the laborers in the fields, and when none gave them work they would beg. In just a short while, Francis and his companions gained an immense influence, and people from all walks of life flocked to the order.
Christmas was a favorite holiday of St. Francis, and inspired him to celebrate by creating the first replica of the Nativity scene. Francis is also the first recorded person to experience stigmata—the sudden appearance of visible marks on the body of the five crucifixion wounds of Jesus. The saint’s right side is described as bearing on open wound which looked as if made by a lance, while through his hands and feet were black nails of flesh, the points of which were bent backward. The stigmata is believed to have caused Francis great suffering afterwards because (again, like Buddha) his body was so frail from his stark lifestyle.
With symptoms of illness worsening and in a dying condition, Francis set out for Assisi. The saint’s last days were passed back at Porziuncola in a tiny hut, near the chapel, that served as an infirmary. On the eve of his death Saint Francis, in imitation of his Divine Master (Jesus), had bread brought to him, which was broken and shared. Then wishing to give a last demonstration of detachment from the material world, Francis removed his simple garment and set it down on the bare ground. After a while he asked to have read to him a portion of the Gospel of St. John. Then in faltering voice, he himself intoned the 141st Psalm and prayed that his “soul be brought out of prison.” At the concluding verse, Francis spoke his final request to his followers, “I have done my part, may Christ now teach you to do yours.” Then, Saint Francis passed away at the age of forty-five, with twenty of those years dedicated to his ministry.
Psalm 141 (A psalm of King David)
1 I call to you, LORD, therefore please hear my call and come quickly to me;
2 Let my prayer rise up to you like the purest of incense and may the lifting up of my hands demonstrate my humble surrender.
3 Set a guardian angel at the door of my mouth, LORD, that I may speak no evil.
4 Teach me to do only good, rather than harm and to forgive those who are harmful.
5 If a man or woman tries to hurt me, they offer me the opportunity to forgive, and I will not refuse them,
for my prayer is that we all be delivered from our evils.
Since the beginning of his ministry, Saint Francis became a living example of love, peace, selflessness, and charity. The duty of a servant of God, Francis declared, was to lift up the hearts of men and move them to spiritual gladness. He practiced care to respect the opinions of all and to wound the feelings of none. He asked his disciples to never cause a poor person to blush on account of his poverty. He also demonstrated his love for his fellow man by never turning down an offer to abide with the lepers in their loathsome houses and from eating with them out of the same platter. But one of his greatest demonstrations of being a “forgiving and compassionate” soul was in how he dealt with “sinners.” It was said that, “among sinners, he was as one of them.” He even spoke on behalf of convicts asking that they be treated with kindness and courtesy. He implored that people care for and treat all living things with love and respect. Saint Francis of Assisi simply saw everything as sacred and deserving of the greatest acts of kindness. In fact, his love and respect for nature was so authentic, he described flowers, bees, and even the sun and moon as being his symbiotic brothers and sisters.
Saint Francis’ Song/Prayer to Nature
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong, and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.
Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor.
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.
His love for Christ permeated his whole life and character. The saint imitated the example of Christ as literally as he could—perhaps even too literally. And although he seemed to loath wealth, being a huge proponent of living in poverty (which is simplicity taken to an extreme), Francis most detested discord and divisions. Peace, therefore, became his mantra. In short, Saint Francis was a Buddhist long before Buddhism would be known to his region. Further, Francis did for Christianity what Buddha did for his original religion (Hinduism), they brought life to these traditions by becoming humble and honest practitioners of what had otherwise become a mere establishment of rules and dogma.
Although there is no limit to the praises that could be sung about Saint Francis, his life and ministry could be summarized in this: Practice a life of love. This ideal is beautifully expressed in his well-loved prayer, which is as follows:
The Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
From both the life and prayer of Saint Francis, we can gain some of the clearest advice on how to live the spiritual life and not just talk it. From his life we witness love, humility, simplicity, forgiveness, and how to have a pure heart. From his prayer we learn that it’s best to be the change we would like to see in the world. We are asked to no longer ask for blessings so much as to become those very blessings in the lives of others, which in turn of course bestows those very things upon us.
The hope and plea of Saint Francis is that we learn to live the following prayer: “Dear Lord, my only desire is that my life reflects more of thee and less of me.” In its greatest sense, this prayer merely asks that our True Self replace our false self or that the Voice of the Divine (in us), replace the little voice of our ego. Saint Francis lived this prayer in the way he knew best, as can you and I—a little more each and every day.