Traveling to Italy some years ago, there was one and only one place that my wife, Jane, and I wanted to go: the little hilltop village of Assisi. There in the early 13th century a rich, pleasure-seeking young man named Francis underwent an ecstatic spiritual transformation from self-indulgence to simplicity, voluntary poverty, earth-centeredness and loving peace. Francis wanted to live as he understood Jesus had done long before.
What happened to cause this radical transformation? How and why? The answers to these questions emerged as we traveled with a Franciscan monk in simple style under “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”
War seemed to be a key to the young man’s conversion. In 1202, Francis joined the military expedition against the neighboring city of Perugia. There he experienced the horror of lives destroyed — many of them young men whom he knew personally. Eventually Francis was captured and spent a desolate, but introspective, year in prison.
After returning home, his former hedonistic lifestyle seemed hollow, wasteful and un-Christian. Francis astounded his family and friends when he abandoned his luxurious life and wealth and began wandering with beggars.
In the little forsaken country chapel of San Damiano, just outside if Assisi, Francis had a vision of Jesus: “Francis, go and repair my house …”. At first Francis took this message literally and began rebuilding the crumbling walls by hand. But later he interpreted this message more broadly. Francis felt called to reform the Church according to Jesus’ teachings of love, peace, sacrifice and voluntary poverty.
Other young men, drawn to the charisma of Francis, also forsook their families and riches to follow him. Together they lived and walked in nature as Jesus had done, singing joyful praises to God and God’s natural world. They begged for food and did voluntary labor.
Francis began to preach exuberantly outdoors, in meadows and roadways, amid the birds and wildlife. He exhorted the people to penance, to the love of each other, to revel in the gift of nature, and to follow the teachings of Jesus by living in peace and nonviolence.
But his message went far beyond Assisi. In 1219, Francis went to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade to meet Egypt’s sultan. After a week of intense dialogue, Francis carried their peace agreement to the Crusaders, but tragically they refused to accept it. Despite this failure, this was probably the world’s first international, interfaith peace-making mission, transcending the barriers of culture and religion.
Legends of Francis — whose name day is Oct. 4 — abound. But perhaps Francis was most loved because of the message he kept repeating to the poor and marginalized. “Peace and goodness, good people, you are loved by God!”
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently concluding a long academic calling at Edgewood College and looking forward to being a freelance philosopher. He can be reached at email@example.com. Mary Friedel-Hunt’s “Living Well, Dying Well” column will return next month.