St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!

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