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Like most great prophets, Francis of Assisi became a saint in spite of himself. The more he tried to disappear into the unifying light of the Divine, the more the holy One seemed to raise him up as a shining example of what is meant by the phrase “love one another.”
Eight centuries after his death, this humble Italian sage is the most popular saint in the world. Saint Francis dissolves the boundaries between believers and doubters. He leaps over the fence that divides religious traditions to penetrate the heart and inflame the imagination in every culture and across the centuries. Who doesn’t love this gentle, joyful saint, a being who preaches to the birds with one hand and blesses lepers with the other?
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 and died in 1226. In his forty-four years on the planet, he managed to reform the entire Roman Catholic Church—not through revolution and dissent, but through gracious persuasion and his own living example of an authentic gospel life. Francis committed every breath to making the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ a daily reality. In contemplating these sacred sayings one by one, I invite you into a living encounter with power of his presence. Then, using the questions I pose in italics, explore the essence of each teaching in the context of your own spiritual journey.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Francis dedicated himself to uplifting the wretched conditions of the poor. He gave up his inherited wealth and privilege to live among the outcasts, the marginalized, the struggling, identifying with them as Jesus identified with them. If Francis received a half a loaf of bread in his begging bowl, he divided it among all who were hungry. He refused all possessions beyond the patched robe he wore to cover “Brother Body.”
What about the blessed poor one inside yourself? Can you enter the state of radical spiritual simplicity that allows us to get out of our own way and have face-to-face encounters with the Divine Mystery?
“God, whose love and joy are present everywhere,” said Angelus Silesius, “cannot come visit you unless you are not there.” This means resting in a nakedness of being that is not always comfortable, but which seems to be a prerequisite for direct spiritual experience. We do not necessarily need to cultivate our blessed spiritual poverty—life in the world has a way of stripping us of the presuppositions and attitudes that stand in the way of a loving relationship with the Source of All That Is.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Francis understood that great sorrow shatters our hearts and that only in that shattering can the light of the Divine come streaming in. Into the vessel hollowed out by grief and loss, the holy One pours his love and fills us to overflowing. Francis tended to that emptying with boundless loving-kindness. Wherever he perceived suffering, he offered comfort, both in the form of physical relief and spiritual illumination.