His name was Francis, the son of Pietro Bernardone, a cloth-merchant, and Lady Pica, who was of French origin. They lived in Assisi, Italy in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. He was a man born of wealth, a leader who dreamed of knighthood and who went to war on a high steed only to be brought low to the earth in defeat and imprisonment that marked him with what has been the fate of countless soldiers and prisoners of war throughout the centuries.
Some say that mark was what today we call post-traumatic stress, an experience that affected Francis his whole life long until, singing “Bring me out of prison,” the words of Psalm 142, David’s prayer in a cave, he entered eternity on the high steed of evangelical poverty and intimate union with Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior.
It was that very Jesus who became for him, and all his followers, the closeness of God. For Jesus was and is the closeness of God. He is God become one of us, like us in everything but sin. He is the mystery of the incarnation of God, and that mystery was deepened for Francis with the knowledge that this Incarnate God can become present in us through the sacramental grace of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist wherein we eat the body and drink the blood of Christ whose effect is to intensify the indwelling of God in us.
Saint Francis was not a medieval theologian, but a wisdom figure, a teacher of wisdom who used sayings, stories, and rituals to show us how we can allow God to transform our lives. In this, as in everything else, he was following in the footsteps of Jesus, who is the mystery of the fullness of God among us. The Wonder of the Incarnation is the first and central teaching that Saint Francis left us. And from that core teaching six other teachings cascade: The Paradox of Evangelical Poverty and how it unites us to God and leads to Living the Gospel in our time and place.
This living the Gospel leads to how we are to Go and Repair God’s House, and we repair God’s house by Making Peace. Peacemaking leads to the realization that God’s House is All of Creation. These first six teachings all involve a going down in order to rise. Then, in the fullness of time, our living of these teachings are brought to completion in The Joy of Humble Praise and Service of God by embracing and serving all of God’s creatures. This joy, then, accompanies our final rising in a symbolic return to paradise. All seven teachings are rooted in the love of God.
This simple map for living is why Saint Francis is still listened to and followed today in our fractious and divided world. What he teaches, if lived out, brings joy, which is the result of union with God who lives with us and within all of creation. God lives in creation but is also apart from creation as its Creator who existed before the existence of the universe.
Saint Francis’ teachings, then, become both a theology and a way of living. They are a theology that emerges from the concrete, practical choices he made in the effort to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who is the teacher and the embodiment of what it means to live and love in God. As Saint John says in his First Letter, “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 Jn 2:27).
This Christ, this anointing, is what the teaching of Saint Francis is about. Christ is the revelation of God. In a sermon on the Feast of Saint Francis in 1255 Saint Bonaventure said of his holy father Francis that he was a true teacher because he learned the truth of God’s revelation, gave his whole heart to what was being taught by Christ, and did not forget what he’d been taught because he put what he learned into practice. So, in the end, Francis’s teachings are concretized and made visible in his choices and in his practices, which are the result of hearing and living the truth given him by Christ.