Tuesday, December 30, 2008

St. Francis of Assisi, Upside Down (ACL Pilgrimage, Day 9, Assisi)

(Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas; This homily was given on 30 December, 2008 in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi; See 1 John 2:12-17)

Towards the beginning of St. John’s Gospel there is a beautiful statement which describes God’s attitude and response to the world. The Evangelist—whose feast we just celebrated a few days ago—says:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
—John 3:16

John could not be any clearer about this God who loves the world enough to send us Christ; His stance towards the world is one of compassion, one of mercy.

Therefore it is with some curiosity that we listen to the same Evangelist, in our first reading this afternoon, warning us quite directly:

Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
—1 John 2:15

Of course, St. John is talking about two completely different things. The world, as God created it, is good. We see that clearly in the Book of Genesis. But what John is referring to in our first reading is the world corrupted by sin; he is talking about a world system that is opposed to God’s perfect plan for our happiness.

In describing that system he says “all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). So, obviously, we find two very different uses of “world” in St. John.

We could say that God looks at the world in one way (with love and mercy and a desire to see things set right) and we, because of sin, are prone to see it differently and embrace the world for its own sake, without God. We sometimes look at the world incorrectly, even sinfully, our vision impaired through lust, covetousness and pride.

We can take a moment here in Assisi this afternoon to recognize both of these perspectives in the person of St. Francis. I am sure it comes as no big surprise to you that Francis, as a young man, was quite worldly. He very much saw the world with that impaired vision described by St. John. He was misguided by “sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life.” But while still a young man, and to the surprise of many close to him, everything changed.

Francis’ life underwent a complete transformation, and it happened here, in this city. It happened here in the few square miles that we will walk through and pray in throughout this day. What happened, according to the great Catholic author, G.K. Chesterton, is that St. Francis began to see the world he lived in…and God…and himself…differently.

Chesterton, in his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, says that Francis’ transformation took place through humiliation. Through being humbled in all kinds of circumstances, through humbling himself in prayer, fasting, and imitation of the poor Christ, he began to see things differently and to live differently. His life, says Chesterton, was turned upside down.

Think about how it feels to be humbled, or better yet, humiliated. We feel like our whole world has turned upside down. Eventually we get back “on our feet” and move forward. But what Chesterton suggests is that Francis underwent that experience so many times and with such intensity that he simply stayed that way, upside down! It is a powerful image to be sure. Chesterton says:

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.

Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards… men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them.

—G. K. Chesterton

Francis begins to see the world the way God does, and how utterly dependent we are upon Him for everything. That vision eventually set him free and allowed him to live in an entirely new way.

Today we ask for that same grace, to stand on our heads here in Assisi! We pray for the grace to see things as they are, completely dependent upon God. Then we shall live here in this world, and love the world, even as God does. We shall live and love as St. Francis, as we walk the streets of his hometown.