Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis.
Many paintings depict scenes from the life of St. Francis. The subjects in these paintings are stories that have grown up around his life. Many of them are true, and all of them inspire faith in some way as these stories have inspired many artists.
Now, we can look at two paintings of St. Francis by the 13th Century Sienese painter, Sassetta. The first is called ‘The Mystic Marriage of St. Francis’. Some years ago I actually took a day trip outside of Paris just to see this beautiful painting. It illustrates what I would call one of the two ‘personalities’ of Francis that have come down to us.
What we celebrate today is simple and direct because our link to the life of St. Francis is a direct appeal to our conscience. That message is to feel, to think, and to act as Francis did– as a profession of faith, and for the good of others, by “making your hands strong” — in the words from the prophet Zecharia. It is a message that has a lot to do with what we’ve come to call ‘Social Justice’.
The difficulty of social justice, which is nothing more than how to do good together with others in this world in which we find ourselves, –and to maintain some semblance of our own sanity while doing it –is not any easy one. Can we, like Francis, embrace a vow of poverty, shed all our clothes, renounce our parents and give away all that we think we own– and all this in a spirit of true humility? Not always.
But there are things we can do — not just by embracing the spirit of poverty — but actually to share in those things Francis teaches us by word and by example. We can avoid unnecessary wasting of food, refrain from buying and consuming things we don’t really need (if we truly think about them). And we can give away those possession we already have that others may may better use.
We can march in solidarity with others, protest all the injustices, and work to level the vast and growing discrepancies of wealth between rich and poor…Just for starters.
But it isn’t just the act of doing good but of feeling and thinking about what’s of value — material or otherwise. This thinking about genuine value is part and parcel of the first Francis, the mystical, the prayerful, the meditative person we glimpse in some paintings, the Francis of the stigmata and beatific vision. The doing of the good belongs to the figure of the second Francis, the reformer, the Francis who renounces the vanities of this world, but who is also seeking social justice, serving and — in the words of Christ in Mark’s Gospel reading — “to give his life a ransom for the many”, not just the wealthy few, I must add.
We often hear the saying that a journey of a thousand miles takes the first step. From that perspective, almost any step — even a misstep — is the right one, even if we can’t see our goal and are blind to whether we are doing any good at all by our actions, if…if we are not blind to our own mistakes like those in Jericho who told Bartimeus to stop shouting.
There is precious little in the historical record about Francis and his friends as social reformers of their time. I did, however, find one book written many years ago on precisely that topic. One passage caught my eye. It concerns a trip by Francis and his stopping to preach in Bologna:
“At the close of his sermon he spoke of the extinction of hatreds and of concluding treaties of peace and union. He converted noblemen whose boundless ferocity and unrestrained cruelty had made blood flow throughout the country and among many became reconciled”. Clearly this is work of social justice. It shows too that Francis is very much active in his world to bring about peace and change.
I spoke at the beginning of two St. Francises. Of course, there is only one. It has been said that if there is any woman or man who has ever lived who is most like Jesus, it would be Francis. While a comparison like this one is not necessarily helpful in grasping the meaning of one Umbrian monk’s life, the comparison does help us to understand the social message of both Christ and Francis. Each illuminates the other.
Social justice means many things. To me for instance there can be no social justice without economic justice. The two are inseparable. But for us to make social justice truly effective in this world, we like Bartimaeus in today’s passage from Mark, we must shout and shout again to be heard — even if we can’t immediately see the effectiveness of our raised voices. We must say it over and over again, “My teacher, let me see again.”
The injustices that people inflict on each other recur throughout history. It was just as prevalent in Francis’s time during the High Middle Ages, a very different world from our own. And too often we are faced with the situation of one step forward and two steps back. We must remain vigilant and steadfast.
And we must persevere right to the end, never give up, as in the words of the poet Anne Sexton, “in our awful rowing towards God”.