"Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."
That's a line often attributed to Francis of Assisi, though I don't have the time to look it up to see if he actually said it. There are many things attributed to Francis, like the famous "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace" prayer that he didn't write. But the quote is a good one, nonetheless. I am often prone to saying that our lives may be the only gospel some people will ever read.
My favorite cross is the one that spoke to Francis at the little church of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. "Go and rebuild my church, which you can see is falling into ruins." Frenchy took that literally and went out collecting stones and started his home improvement project. He also took some of his father's bolts of fabric, sold them, and used the money. This did not make the old man happy. Dad hauled his son into the bishop's courtyard and demanded that the bishop make his son behave, to honor his father as the commandment said.
Francis stripped off his clothes and declared, "From this moment on, Pietro di Bernadone is not my father. I say instead, 'My father who art in heaven.'" The bishop had someone throw his cloak around the naked guy and Dad went home in a huff. From the stories written about Francis, one is missing: he apparently never reconciled with his father.
That part of the story makes me think of the inmates tonight, many who are estranged from their families, from their communities, from themselves. Maybe there is a bit of hope along with the sadness. Francis went on to do some amazing things, cajoling people to fall in love with God who is infinitely patient and merciful.
I have a poster of the San Damiano cross hanging in my office. It's big enough to see all the detail, even the rooster at Jesus' left knee. It captivates men who sit in my office for any length of time. They probably aren't aware that the Jesus on that cross is risen, that behind his arms you can see the two angels at the empty tomb, that cloud of witnesses above him, and those tiny people? His enemies.
Isn't that much of the truth of our lives? There is a great deal going on and all sorts of people around us. The fundamental truth is that we are beloved children of God and the sobering truth is that each of us is capable of great evil. This cross gives me hope, but the story of Francis does so even more.
When I was 20 and going to school in Rome, one of our professors took us for a long weekend to Assisi. Francis became a real person that weekend, someone who partied all over that lovely city, prayed in its churches, and desperately wanted to be like Jesus. He wasn't perfect. He was a bit eccentric. He lived in a time of war--suddenly the crusades weren't just dates in the history book--they were a real cause! And he was a poet. He made being a Christian possible in ways that other saints never quite moved me.
Here's another quote, one I've never seen on a poster or a bumper sticker. Francis wrote it in a letter of advice to a minister of the Little Brothers: "There should be no friar in the whole world who has fallen into sin, no matter how far he has fallen, who will ever fail to find your forgiveness for the asking, if he will only look in your eyes. ... And should he appear before you again a thousand times, you should love him more than you love me, so that you may draw him to God."
May God bless you and keep you.
May God's face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May God look on you kindly and give you peace.