``Go, sell all you have; give to the poor; and come, follow me!'' There must be few among us who would not immediately look for some kind of metaphorical or abstract meaning in this saying of Jesus -- we do so with so many of his sayings that it becomes quite automatic; or we tell ourselves that this must refer to someone else. However, for one young man these words stood out in as stark a challenge as when they were first spoken, and his response was ``This is what I long to do with my whole heart!'' -- and that is what he then did. This was one of several incidents which make up the calling of St Francis of Assissi from his secular life into a life of following Christ with such immediacy that a whole town could plead to join his movement in an afternoon, and the whole of the Catholic Church shaken into meeting anew the challenge of the life of Christ, which could be seen so strikingly in a new light, no longer hidden behind explanations but put vividly into practice by this fiery, idealistic, sackcloth-clad eccentric.
In this, as in others of these stories, what stands out is a receptive heart listening to the Word of God as a voice that calls, and responds from that which was already within -- and we alse see that God listened and responded to Francis' reply, infusing him with the gifts of the Spirit to an extraordinary degree.
One of Francis' great strengths seems to have been an incisive insight into what really mattered and what could as well be left behind, and this led him, and the band of followers who were soon drawn to him, not only to a rather spartan lifestyle but to a freedom deeper than that from exterior attachments to property -- that from interior attachments such as resentments; and it appears that, in their lives of uncomfortable hard work on the edge of society, in which any search for inner peace cannot have had much priority for much of the time, Francis and his companions were indeed recipients of peace that the world had not given them.
The joy and peace that these early friars found shone out, and their preaching by word and example inspired and ignited many more into joining them (despite their formal organization into a religious Order); and soon, women also wanted to join, and also those who had already committed themselves to raising families, and so the Second and Third Franciscan Orders were formed: the Second, for women leading an enclosed life of prayer (since the Church hierarchy assumed women were too frail for the harsh life of the brothers -- an assumption robustly but unsuccessfully disputed by the women concerned); and the Third, for those (including married people) in secular life, to live by the same principles whatever their walk of life -- which included some royalty. In common between the Orders were, in various forms, the threefold vows of poverty (simplicity, for the Third Order), chastity (either celibacy, or faithfulness in marriage) and obedience.
Although the fire and vigour of the Order have waxed and waned many times, a continuing chain of Christians have been touched by the inspiration, and have found something within them saying ``Yes! That is the way I must go!''. For different people, different aspects of the tradition have caught their attention. (For me, it was the prayerfulness and the simplicity that first drew me.)
We now tend to associate Francis with a gentle approach and a concern for animals, a caricature no better than the Victorian Jesus ``Meek and Mild''. Francis drove himself mercilessly, and expected his team to do likewise, stamping fast and hard on any weaknesses or sinful tendencies as soon as he spotted them. Probably harder to live with than his infamous contemporary Genghis Khan, he imposed humiliating punishments on faltering friars, himself included; and cared for all of God's creation, not so much for the sake of the creation as for that of its Creator (helping worms off the path because the Psalmist had said ``I am a worm and no man'') -- but many of his more famous interactions with animals were to expose how little response humans made to their calling. He had a greater concern for the poor and for the outcast, with a care that centred on them and their creator rather than on their oppressor; and yet he had compassion for the wealthy, from whose ranks came not a few of the early friars.
The Order started in the mediaeval world, and the world has been changing at an ever-accelerating pace ever since. A modern Franciscan might seem very different in his or her concerns from an early one, but the change may be mostly in the way that the world's needs present themselves for attention, human nature and its needs having remained the same. We now tend to look at social and environmental concerns in terms of systems, and to put our concerns into action by fighting against oppressive and destructive systems, and indeed it is good to address the root problem rather than treasting only the symptoms -- but Francis stands as a reminder that we must work with the suffering rather than just against the oppressor.
Yes, it is good to address the root problem rather than only the symptoms -- and behind the exploitive systems lie another set of damaged and suffering people trying to hold onto what they see as their birthright, and it is these people to whom Francis' call to voluntary simplicity must ultimately speak. From the start -- starting with Francis himself -- the movement filled its numbers largely from those who had something to lose.
It is easy to be drawn by some aspects of this charismatic figure, but when we look at his total dedication to his Lord, and take that as our pointer, we again start to explain the Gospel's call away. But Francis stands as a stark reminder that the life of discipleship, that we'd like to say is an ideal that we cannot live in real life, can be lived by real people: ``Go, sell all you have, give to the poor; and come, follow me!'' -- and he did.