The feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi is observed on October 4 by the Catholic church. In honor of St. Francis and his legacy, I thought I would talk about The Last Christian (1980), a biography on the life of Saint Francis:
Francis of Assisi was “an obedient rebel” against the cruelty and greed of the increasingly capitalistic world that was beginning to close in around him. Adolf Holl argues that in Francis, the premodern world “gathered itself together before coming to an end,” and that he “[took] the powerful of this world by the arm, as a child might, to tell them the truth – with a force that [stunned] them to silence.”
From Holl’s point of view, Francis was “the last Christian” because he tried to emulate the life of Jesus Christ in the most literal sense possible, instead of taking the pious middle ground of being in the world, and of the world just enough to be a good bourgeois, but not so much that the fundamental values of the Christian faith are irrevocably compromised.
Francis’ goal of reflecting Christ in his worldly life (culminating with the stigmata) was either so intimidating or so disturbing to the institutional church that after his death, he was condemned as a heretic and the Franciscans basically had to go underground. Francis may have been slightly Marxist (or perhaps Karl Marx was slightly Franciscan) in his sensibilities, but Holl is careful to note how there is more to the story than “a brotherly handshake across the centuries;” he particularly highlights Francis’ upbringing as a member of a wealthy merchant in early capitalist Italy.
In presenting Francis as the “last” Christian, Holl invites the reader to consider what might have happened to the institutional church – and by extension, descendant “Christians,” if Holl will allow them to identify themselves as such – if the Franciscans and other like-minded Christians (like the Waldensians and the Humiliati) had won it over. Indeed, it may be this lost opportunity that leads Holl to call Francis the last Christian. In a post-Christendom age, the ability of modern-day Christians to present the good news of the Gospel may very well require them to study the life of St. Francis, if there is to be any hope of the arrival of what Holl might call “the next Christians.” This is why we can’t forget Francis.
Most individuals who endeavor to study the life of Francis of Assisi will discover – and this may ring especially true for readers of The Last Christian – that his life was an intriguing one. “The Franciscan spirit continues to be considered by agnostics and atheists, as well as believers, as the most genuine expression of Christ’s teaching ever approved by the Vatican”. But, though Francis typically receives great praise when spoken of today, his early life before he cut ties with his father would not lead anyone to believe that he would one day be declared a Saint.
Francis was born the son of a wealthy father, Pietro Bernardone, and a mother from whom he inherited a love for French songs and romance. He wore the latest fashions, was known for his singing, and threw rather extravagant parties; he had a comfortable life that may have led him to believe that he had no need for God. Ultimately, however, Francis began to see the futility and shallowness of the life he was living, and began his search for God. By his search, he began to see God in dreams and hear his voice and began, accordingly, to take practical steps to follow him. Others such as Bernard of Quintavalle and Brother Leo joined with Francis, and the Order of the Friars Minor was born. But as the ranks of the Order grew, many members began to be more moderate or radical in their views, which was disagreeable to Francis. Later in life, while at Mount La Verna, he received a vision as well as the stigmata (only after which did he begin to wear shoes, to hide the periodical bleeding of his feet).
Crucial to understanding the life of Francis of Assisi is an awareness of who influenced his spiritual development. While Francis, like most children of Assisi during his time, probably heard stories of the Christian martyrs who first brought the Gospel to that area, it is undeniable that the biggest influence on Francis’ life was Jesus Christ himself (and the entire Godhead). As Brother Thomas of Celano puts it in The Life of St. Francis,
“His highest aim, foremost desire and greatest intention, was to pay heed to the holy gospel in all things and through all things, to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and to retrace his footsteps completely with all vigilance and all zeal, all the desire of his soul and all the fervor [sic] of his heart.”
In his quest to emulate the life of Jesus, Francis sold all he had, including some of his father’s possessions. His father, infuriated by this act, took him before the bishop to make him return his family belongings. Francis replied by stripping the very clothes he was wearing, leaving himself completely naked: “Until now I have called you father here on earth, but now I can say without reservation, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ since I have placed all my treasure and all my hope in him.” God would continue to speak to Francis by way of dreams, visions, and sometimes his voice. All such encounters were deeply formative for him.
While Jesus was clearly Francis’ preferred mentor, there were a few others who influenced how he chose to lead his life. Among these are Bishop Guido of Assisi and his brothers in the Order of the Friars Minor. Francis had a deep understanding of the reciprocity that should exist in a fellowship of Christians, and thus often subjected himself to the authority of his Brothers; he was not only influenced by them, but was able to influence them by way of the reciprocal community he was fostering.
Like Jesus himself, Francis sought to lead by example. Before he had any followers, he was practicing a particular way of life. After hearing the passage from Matthew 10:9-10, “He immediately took of his shoes from his feet, put aside his staff, cast away his wallet and money as if accursed, was content with one tunic and exchanged his leather belt for a piece of rope.” Being quick to obey was something that characterized Francis’ life; he practiced what he preached. He preached wherever he could find an audience, and he spoke in the language of the common people, not the abstract theological jargon of those who had been able to become more “educated.” His approach was kind, yet challenging. It’s no surprise that he was able to gain such a following.
So, what do we do with Francis? If he was the last Christian, is there a way for one to become the “next” Christian? A few insights from Francis’ unique way of life may be beneficial, for example: living in a more Christ-centered way, developing a communal rule of how to live life, and falling in love with God anew each day.
Like the time in which Francis lived, people today typically love Jesus, but hate religion and the church as an institution. Many people likely echo Gandhi’s feelings: “I love your Christ, but I hate your Christians, because they are so unlike your Christ.” Following the example of Francis of Assisi doesn’t just require scholarly study of the life of Christ, but a desire to imitate him more closely. In a capitalist, consumer culture, those who would seek to emulate Francis should be encouraged to live more simply and be better stewards of the environment. In a world where Christians and Muslims often come into conflict, Francis can remind modern-day Christians that all humans are made in the image of God. In a world where thousands die daily from preventable causes, Francis serves as a reminder that Jesus befriended the marginalized. In these ways as well as others, Francis serves as a model for those to wish to live in a more Christ-centered way.
(Consider also Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who took Francis as his papal name when he was elected Pope on 13 March of this year, in honor of Francis of Assisi.)
Today’s Christians should also remember that faith in Jesus Christ should encourage a distinctive lifestyle, not a complex set of theological systems. As Francis communicated by his own life, it is practice rather than knowledge that holds true transformative power. The communal way of life for Christians, therefore, is about paying more attention to living out what they believe.
Understanding the life of St. Francis of Assisi can indeed be difficult. To explain the idea of falling in love with God, and how that helps to dispel some of the mystery that would otherwise make emulating Francis’ faith seem a daunting task, G.K. Chesterton puts it thus:
“And for the modern reader the clue to asceticism and all the rest can be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics. Tell his life as a tale of one of the Troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole modern puzzle disappears. In such a romance there would be no contradiction between the poet gathering flowers in the sun and enduring a freezing vigil in the snow, between his praising all earthly and bodily beauty and then refusing to eat, between his glorifying gold and purple and perversely going in rags, between his showing pathetically a hunger for a happy life and a thirst for a heroic death. All these riddles would easily be resolved in the simplicity of any noble love; only this was so noble a love that nine men out of ten have hardly ever heard of it… The reader cannot even begin to see the sense of a story that may well seem to him a very wild one, until he understands that to this great mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love- affair.”
“We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Although the forms of media, means of advertising and various aspects of politics available today may have changed, there are certainly still ways for us to emulate the life of Francis – and the life of Christ – today. Contrary to what Holl may suggest, Chesterton provides a ray of hope that the Christians are not extinct, so let’s make a fresh start.