Detachment and Saint Francis of Assisi
The popular story of the origin of the calling of Saint Francis connects it with the ruins of the Church of Saint Damien, an old shrine in Assisi which was apparently neglected and falling into pieces. Here Francis was in the habit of praying before the crucifix during those dark and aimless days of transition which followed the tragic collapse of all his military ambitions, probably made bitter by some loss of social prestige which so terribly affected his sensitive spirit. In one of those occasions, he heard a voice, saying to him: “Francis, did you not see that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it?”
Francis promptly obeyed the voice and set upon himself the task of rebuilding the Church of Saint Damien. What he did first was to sell his own horse and then go off and sell several bundles of his father’s cloth that he stole, making the sign of the cross over them to indicate their pious and charitable destination. But his Father, who never identified and agreed with his noble intention made him pay harshly by charging him with a crime. The whole legal process dragged drearily to several stages. At one time, the humiliated Francis had to disappear underground into some cavern or cellar where he hid himself hopelessly in the dark. Here something happened for when Francis came out of this seclusion, he was a changed man.
Then, he and his father were summoned into a court of a bishop. Addressing Francis in all kindness, the bishop requested him to restore the money to his father and reminded him that no matter how noble his intention was it will not correct the wrong he had done. In response, Francis stood before them all and said, “Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernadone father, but now I am the servant of God. Not only the money but everything that can be called his I will restore to my father, even the very clothes he has given me.” And Francis rent off his garment, piled them in a heap on the floor and placed the money on top of them. He turned toward the bishop to receive his blessing, after which he went out half-naked into the winter woods, walking on the frozen ground. He was penniless, he was parentless, and one that by all appearances without hope walking into the frosty tress and who suddenly burst into song.
Francis continued to commit himself to the call he received to rebuild the Church of Saint Damien. But he no longer engaged in the commercial activities of the town of Assisi. He realized that to build a church is not to pay for it, certainly not with someone else’s money nor with ones own money. The way to build a church is simply to build it. That is why Saint Francis went about by himself collecting stones. He begged all the people the met to give him stones, becoming a new sort of beggar, a reversal of the parable: a beggar who asks not for bread but for stones.
Definitely, what Saint Francis did was a literal and faithful obedience to the Gospel’s demand for Christ’s disciples to renounce attachment to material possessions as they preach and build the Kingdom. In this way, Saint Francis, have much to tell us on how to follow and why do we need to follow Jesus Christ in poverty. Three directions are indicated to us:
First, only by divesting oneself of any attachment that one is ready to give him/herself totally to God. For Saint Francis, God is the only one that maters. Look at what he said, “Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernadone father, but now I am the servant of God.”
Second, in poverty one makes him/herself available for the Kingdom. Also destitute and one like them, Francis made himself free to be one with the poor and little ones to serve and care for them from his own generosity.
Third, once the goods are no longer mine, they become available for all. Goods are destined to be shared. This is the reason why Saint Francis had to beg even for his own food—to teach people to share their goods.
The Gospel ideal of detachment from possession and renunciation of material things as practiced by Saint Francis are difficult demands and indeed constitute a hard life to follow. But as one Cardinal in the time of Saint Francis argued: “make what compromises you think wise or humane about that ideal; but do not commit yourselves to saying that men shall not fulfill that ideal if they can.”