Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reluctant Saint

It is critical, I think, to try to shed light on the humanity of Francis, who had little interest in becoming (much less being called) a saint. In fact, his life bears witness to the fact that holiness is not by necessity a denial of one's humanity, or something added on to it. Holiness may in fact be the deepest achievement of what is authentically human. Here we are close to the Christian mystery of the Incarnation.

Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi

It is possible to speak and act on behalf of God and still be separated from God. Therein lies tragedy. St. Paul gets at this when he writes to the Corinthian church, "And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." Note what Paul says and what he does not say. He does not say that he does nothing if he does not have love. He says he is nothing if he does not have love. Without love, we have no being, because God, the ground of our being, is love.

It is not enough to offer the words and works of a prophet. God desires persons, not their deeds alone. We are not merely passive messengers or empty channels through which the will of God is communicated. The creature matters. The person is sacred.

Prophets seek to change the world in God's name. Saints seek, with God's help, to be changed themselves.

This week we are reflecting on the Franciscan path and the ideals of Franciscan prayer that lead to a Gospel way of life. Francis was a saint and a prophet, but he was a saint first because his life was consumed by God, and his vision was to become a person more and more deeply in union with God. He achieved this being-with-God, as much in spite of what he did as because of it. Donald Spoto writes, "Francis remains something of a wonderful embarrassment to the Church and the world. His life and example--and not, let it be stressed, anything specific he said or wrote--had an integrity that challenges our presumptions about what constitutes a good life, not to say a respectable approach to religion."

Over against the pursuit of superhuman feats of detachment, purportedly for Christ, that actually negate one's personhood, the Franciscan path to holiness has to do with finding God through an affirmative turn toward the inherent goodness of our created being. "Earlier concepts [of saintliness or holiness] have with time become too rarefied, linked to an almost absurd idea of perfection and a denial of humanity." [The letter of Paul to the Colossians cautions against this, too.] "Francis, in contrast, seems to me one of the most obviously human and necessary among saints. He was also one of the most reluctant to undertake a spiritual journey."

Many people will go to great lengths to do heroic and glorious things. Indeed, they may achieve the good, the just, and the righteous, and the world will be blessed for their struggle. But they remain the same or, worse, end up by becoming less than the sum of their deeds. Thus today's messiahs become tomorrow's false prophets. Fewer are the persons who are willing to go to the ends of the earth, and beyond its living bounds, to do no more than catch up with themselves. But these are the saints, and are they not themselves the words and works of Christ proclaimed by the prophets?


  1. Fascinating post, Anthony. But, I wonder if you're not selling short the Christological implications of Francis' life.

    I think of the "symbolum" first coined by Plato: part of being fully human is turning towards our inherent goodness, but the other half has to do with turning toward Christ.

  2. Brother Matt, I am presupposing two things: first, that the inherent goodness of created being (existence) is God's presence in creation; and second, that the turn toward our inherent goodness does not happen without Christ. Christ, the ultimate Person, makes the "turning toward" possible.

    Francis' encounters with Christ led him to abandon the pursuit of "glorious" deeds that could never glorify his soul, and to take up instead the spiritual journey, in love, to life in God. Ironicallly, it was in abandoning the concern for achieving illustrious works (for God and Church and the world) that he accomplished mighty works, because he himself became a mighty work of God: he became a fully human person.