In my mind’s eye I am looking at a painting of St Francis by El Greco (copyright prevents my including the image here). The saint is marked with the stigmata and looking at a crucifix. Below the crucifix is a skull. Above, there is a fitful gleam of sky and a withered trail of ivy over the cave’s mouth. The colour scheme is sombre: black, brown, dusty blue. It is Francis as he is rarely portrayed: gaunt, dogged, ‘walking by faith, not by sight’. The Francis of popular imagination, joyful in his poverty, surrounded by God’s creatures great and small, is eclipsed for the moment by this other Francis, the man of God who wrestled alone and painfully with the divine will.
There are many this morning who are struggling with the divine will. The search for April Jones continues, but with less hope; the escalation of violence between Syria and Turkey is stirring vague fears of world war; add in the political stand-off between Israel and Iran, the situation in Afghanistan, and the eruption of anger against the west in many predominantly Muslim countries and you have a piquant mix. The skies are as cloudy and stormy as in the El Greco painting.
There is, however, a ray of hope. Just as Francis’s face is illumined with perfect peace and tranquillity in the face of suffering, so there is light for the world, if we look for it. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning. Sometimes we refuse to admit that. We are so determined to cling to old habits, old hatreds, old failures. They are the way we build a barrier for ourselves against feeling more pain. We prefer the goldfishbowl to the ocean because it has a kind of safety. Thinking about St Francis’ life, however, I am reminded that safety was one thing he never bothered about. His radical adoption of poverty meant that there was no barrier for him, no safety-net of property or private ownership. He faced the world throughout life as we must all face it at death.
Today it would be good to spend a few moments in prayer asking for the grace to rely upon God more completely. That doesn’t mean we should lessen our efforts to do whatever we can to meet our own needs and the needs of people around us. It is rather a question of deciding where we are going to set our hearts. Francis was supremely free because his heart was set on God alone. Can we say with equal truth that God is our treasure and that our hearts are set firmly on Him?