Culture, Saint Francis of Assisi, The Franciscans

Christ & His Saints

st-francis-of-assisiG.K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.” Confronted by the difficulty of living the Way, there is a temptation to weaken its teachings by sissifying not only our Lord Jesus Christ, but many great Saints of the Church.

The American image of Jesus is one eye winking, smile on his face, and giving a thumbs up. This icon of American Christianity signifies something like, “Hey, you are doing a great job. You don’t have to worry about your debauched attachment to the very sin separating you from God, because I am your buddy and I have your back. Keep doing you, because I have a wonderful plan for your life.” This flippant treatment of the King of kings, and Lord of lords is a distinctive mark for why we live in a culture that considers it a right to spurn his holy name.

By manufacturing this icon, it creates a cultural environment that is unable to recognize the words of the Lord we find in the Sacred Page not befitting of the characteristics of this heretical, hippie version of Christ. To the contrary of this depiction, consider the treatment the Pharisees get in Matthew 23,

“Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man you father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus continues,

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, ad hen he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

And Jesus goes on to read the riot act to the Pharisees in an identifiably harsh manner. Now, these remarks are not accurately represented in the image of the winking Jesus our culture loves to point towards in their understanding of Christ. And even if we go to a different context, such as the conversation with the woman at the well, Jesus shows a softer, and gentler side to his confrontation with people living in sin. While the tone of this discussion is less severe than the one highlighted above, there is still the loving confrontation of sin, while simultaneously presenting the mercy of the Gospel.

There are countless examples that can be presented of our Lord lovingly confronting sin with the gentle touch of his mercy; and there are also numerous examples of Him intensely confronting sin that does not fit the image of the “I’m ok, your ok” narrative our culture seems to attribute to the Gospel. Both scenarios, however, are of Jesus confronting sin and calling for repentance, because a repentant, contrite heart follows true mercy.

In addition to the false icons of Christ present in our culture, there is the tendency to turn some of the Church’s most influential Saints into groveling wimps; that they are all about mercy without teaching the other side of repentance and the dangers of eternal damnation.

Saint Francis of Assisi is a victim of this treatment. Consider some of these words written by the Seraphic father,

“Almighty, eternal, just, and merciful God, give us scoundrels your grace to do for you what we know you want from us, and always to do that which is pleasing to you. May we be inwardly purified, interiorly illumined, and kindled by the fire of the Holy Ghost, so that we are able to follow in the footsteps of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by your grace alone make your way to you, the Most High, who live and reign in perfect Trinity and simple unity and glory, God almighty forever and ever. Amen.”[1]

These words are taken from his recommendations to the faithful,

“To those who do not do penance, who don’t receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, who allow themselves to sin and walk after their evil desires and concupiscence, who don’t practice what they have promised to Christ, and who serve the concerns of the world and are most interested in the cares of this life, they are in the devil’s grip. It is the devil’s work that they do.

They are blind. They are unable to see the true light, our Lord Jesus. They live without any spiritual wisdom because they don’t have the Son of God or the true wisdom that comes only from the Father. It is said of such people that their wisdom has been swallowed up, ‘accursed [are the] ones, who wander from your commandments.’ They see and recognize, they understand and do wrong, and they knowingly lose their souls.

See, you are blind and deceived, your enemies are the flesh, the world, and the devil, because the body sins and feels sweet doing so, and it can feel bitter to serve God, but ‘it is within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,’ as our Lord says in the Gospel. You have nothing in this world and nothing in the next. You believe that you will gain this world’s vain prizes, but you are deceived because the day will come when death comes, and even though you may not give this a moment’s thought, you will die a death most bitter-tasting. Wherever, whenever, and however a person dies in the guilt of sin without penance, the devil snatches his soul from his body, and the anguish you feel cannot be described except by one to whom it has happened.

Every talent and skill and knowledge that they think they have will be taken from them. They leave their wealth behind to friends and family, who take it only to say, ‘His soul should be cursed because he could have given me more.’ Their bodies are devoured by worms, and so nothing remains of it – or the soul – as they die from this world, heading to hell where they will only find eternal torment.

We beg all of you, with the love that comes only from God, to hear these words, offered by Jesus Christ in the Gospel, and allow them to reach you with their love and gentleness. If someone cannot read for himself, may someone else read this to him often. ‘The words that haves spoken to you are spirit and life.’ Keep and observe them, together with active spiritual practice, to the end. Whoever has not done these things will be accountable before Jesus Christ, for ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account.’”[2]

These words of St. Francis provide an image of a man that did not merely spend his days preaching to birds and flowers. He was well aware of the realities of judgment taught by the Church, and he did not shy away from speaking these truths when necessary. The extremities of love mark the life of St. Francis, but love requires speaking truth even when unpopular.

The icons of a culture seeking to subvert the reality of the Gospel ought to be challenged and exposed as false idols. Let us not be fooled in believing that these deceitful icons capture the truth of Christ and his Saints.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] Francis of Assisi: The Essential Writings, Sweeney, Pg. 85, 86

[2] Ibid, Pg. 58 – 60

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