Rebuild my Church which is in ruins
Until recently my knowledge of St Francis was limited to rudimentary memories of stories describing his relationship with the natural world. My picture of him was of a holy man for whom the ‘birds and the bees’ had a special relationship.
All this was to be transformed three years ago when I led a first pilgrimage tour of Assisi. This was to be extended substantially in April 2016 by a further visit to Assisi, plus a few days at La Verna – the extraordinary Franciscan mountain retreat established in Francis’ later years.
Much remains in both locations that enable Francis’ life and mission to be uncovered. Assisi these days is a bustling place of pilgrimage and religious tourism. It’s positioned in a stunningly beautiful setting on the slopes of Mt Subasio that has Francis, and his female counterpart, Clare, written in just about every stone.
In the time of Francis – the late 12th and early 13th century, the higher you lived up the slopes, the posher you were! He was the ‘half-way up’ product of the new growing and prosperous middle class, and his dad aspired for him to benefit from this success. However Francis initially longed to be a knight - it was the later period of the Crusades – a war between Christians and Muslims demanded by Papal edict, that had shown earlier signs of success, but was now increasingly disastrous for the West.
Francis’ early efforts as a soldier were unsuccessful and he was captured and held prisoner in nearby Perugia for a year - the result of a period of city state conflict with Assisi. Imprisonment seems to have been a salutary experience for Francis, and he returned to Assisi with a new perspective on life. His solitary wanderings over the next year or so in the Assisi countryside increasingly motivated him into a life that had a deep concern for the poor – including the many lepers and other destitute people living in the swampy mosquito infected plain at the foot of the mountain.
One day Francis found himself in a little broken down church called San Damiano, near the foot of the mountain. He sat in the derelict church and reflected deeply on the crucifix that hung at the front of the church. He describes how in that period of contemplation he heard God’s powerful call to ‘Rebuild my church, which is in ruins.’ It was to be the most important moment of his life – a command that determined his future vision and direction. However, initially he misunderstood – and like so many of us, became preoccupied with rebuilding the fabric of the tiny church building. Two other church buildings were similarly repaired before Francis grasped the enormity of what God was asking of him. The church of his day was in desperate need of spiritual and moral transformation. In addition to being pre-occupied with war in the Middle East, it was also a period when the church’s affluence was enabling vast cathedrals and monasteries to be constructed throughout the Western world.
Francis and his followers were to provide a huge contrast to this. They recognised that Jesus’ way of life and ministry priorities needed recapturing as the essential foundation on which God’s kingdom must be built. Over the next twenty years, before this early death in 1226, the Franciscan revolution brought great spiritual refreshment and fresh vision to the church across Europe and more widely, with Francis even daring to cross the Mediterranean to be an agent for bringing peace to the Middle East. The visit established a trust between the Franciscans and the Saracens that lies behind the role of the Franciscans being the guardians of Christian holy sites today.
Jesus Shaped People can have no better model than Francis for keeping our vision refreshed. Indeed it’s a very great joy that JSP is establishing a growing partnership with Anglican Franciscans in different parts of the country. We live in days when the call Francis heard from God ‘Rebuild my church, which is in ruins’ has huge relevance. His passion to ensure that the example of Jesus must be the lens through which they understood discipleship is our passion too.
La Verna Photo © Christopher John SSF