Friday, April 30, 2010

Francis of Assisi: Early Life and Conversion

Town of Assisi

What led up to Francis’ conversion, his intimate walk with Christ and his lifestyle of evangelism?

Early Life
Born in 1181 or 1182 into a wealthy merchant family in the Umbrian town of Assisi, Francis lived the comfortable life growing up. His father was a cloth merchant who traveled regularly to France to buy silks and bring home the latest fashions. As a teenager Francis loved to don expensive clothes, drink with his well-to-do friends and throw lavish parties. His parents seemed to indulge his frivolous lifestyle by providing the funds for all of Francis’ revelry.

Desiring to add the title of “knight” to his station in life, Francis joined the Assisi forces when he was about twenty and went to war against the nearby town of Perugia, only to be captured in battle. The Lord began to work in Francis’ heart as he lay sick in a Perugian prison for a year. However, upon his release Francis returned to his lifestyle of partying and fun. A few years later he made a second attempt at gaining a noble title by joining in battle against the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Lord, however, had other plans for Francis. Encamped at the city of Spoleto the night before military engagement, Francis heard Jesus speak to him in a dream and turned back from battle. The life of the rich young man from Assisi was changing dramatically.

Fruit of Repentance (Matthew 3:8)
The Lord was in clear pursuit of Francis. After some halfhearted attempts to return to his former lifestyle, Francis came to the crossroads of conversion in his life. While riding across Umbria one day he unexpectedly ran across a leper. For a young man used to fine clothes and material comforts, this divine encounter caught him off guard. Francis had always been repulsed by the sight of lepers and avoided them completely. The rotting flesh on their faces, disfigured bodies and smell of decay made them difficult to love, even for the most compassionate of people. Francis had never even tried to relate to them, let alone reach out to a leper or attempt to understand their plight.

But something switched inside of Francis that day on the road. He dismounted from his horse, went over to the diseased man and did the unthinkable—he kissed him. Leprosy was contagious, and much like AIDS in our day, people feared contracting it. However, Francis ignored all caution and instead extended compassion to the man. From then on Francis no longer saw a broken, deteriorating body when he looked on lepers but he saw Christ!

The proof of genuine conversion is a changed life. Jesus said that we would know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16- 20). Repentance means turning around 180 degrees and going in the opposite direction. Francis demonstrated such repentance. He was forever transformed from the inside out, abandoning a life of self-indulgence and wasteful living. As much as the wealthy pampered young man from Assisi had once reveled in wine, parties and the good life, he now committed himself to the life of service and simplicity—indeed poverty. As much as he had prided himself in fine clothes, he now began to humble himself and identify with the poor, sick and lepers.

Sharing in Christ’s Suffering
Francis’ care for the lepers was not simply doing a good deed or being kind to those in need. Much more, Francis was identifying with Christ in his compassion and his suffering. Toward the end of his life, the Apostle Paul prayed “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). Francis shared in Christ’s sufferings in dramatic ways during his life. One of the first ways that he identified with the Lord was by risking his life as he reached out with love and touching the lepers (Matthew 8:3).

Handing the leper was not a one-time event for Francis. Instead, ministry to the sick, especially those living in the leprosaria outside of Assisi, became the hallmark of Francis’ ministry and that of the whole Franciscan Order. As mentioned in the last blog, the little brothers—Friars Minor—not only preached the Gospel as they went from town to town, they provided food for the poor and especially tended the lepers.

Early April 2010 my wife and I went on a five-day pilgrimage in Assisi. (See link to St. Francis Pilgrimages.) When describing Francis’ encounter with the leper, the leader asked us a probing question: Who are the “lepers” in our lives? Who are the people that naturally repulse us?

We all have them—people who we cannot stomach. Often they represent something that we are afraid of, something that we are running from. On our own we will never be able to love them. However, if we allow the Lord to change us—genuinely convert us from the inside out—he will love those people through us. In fact, if we truly allow God to transform us, we will be able to love them and see Christ in them. Are you willing to be transformed like that from the inside out?

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Francis of Assisi: Apex of the New Monasticism

The New Monasticism of the Middle Ages found its fullest expression in the life and ministry of Francis of Assisi. Born in 1181 or 1182, Francis renounced the world around the age of twenty-three, converting to a personal relationship with Christ and committing his life completely to the Lord.

Soon a dozen men from all walks of life joined Francis. They sought the Lord regarding what kind of lifestyle they should live. Should they use their resources to establish a monastery where they could pull apart for total prayer, or should they engage in public evangelism and service to the poor and sick?

The Lord answered them in a clear and dramatic way, giving them three passages from the Gospels: “Jesus said, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (Matthew 19:21). “He told them, ‘Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic’” (Luke 9:3). “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23).*

With this divine mandate, Francis and the brothers began to follow Jesus as literally as they could. Soon they initiated their mission work, traveling two-by-two through the countryside, preaching the gospel in the local dialect from village to village. In some districts they helped to have portions of the Bible translated into the vernacular so common people could understand the Good News. Just like the original 12 and then 72 disciples (Luke 9 & 10), they took no money or resources with them. Instead, they raised their own funds, relying on the donations of people along the way to provide food and clothing. Much of what they collected, however, they did not use themselves but instead gave to the poor and sick.

Leper Church of Santa Maria Maddalena
(photo taken during our recent pilgrimage in Assisi)

The neediest of the day were the lepers who lived in small colonies, serving as hospices outside of the city. Separated from the rest of society and suffering a slow, agonizing, humiliating death, the lepers were the bottom rung of humanity—often times hardly considered to be human. Although as a young man Francis had been repulsed by the sight of lepers (see upcoming blogs), he now made service to these suffering individuals the centerpiece of his ministry. The above photo is the church of Santa Maria Maddalena, which served one of the leprosaria just below the town of Assisi and which was one of the places Francis spent time tending the lepers—feeding, washing, bandaging, and simply touching them as a sign of his love and care for them.

Francis and his brothers chose the title Friars Minor—little brothers—a name signifying their low station in life and their desire to serve everyone, especially the lowest of the low. They wore (and still wear today) sandals and a plain brown robe tied with a rope belt. In contrast to the wealth and power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the little brothers emphasized their position of service, their solidarity with the poor and their practice of spiritual humility. The apex of the Vita Apostolica, Francis and his coworkers wanted to emulate the life of the original apostles. Above all, they wanted to follow Christ, imitating his example and lifestyle as simply and completely as possible!

Reflection Questions
If someone read the Gospels for the first time and then looked at your life, what correlation would they see between the two? What contrast or contradiction might they find between your lifestyle and that of Jesus and the first disciples?

Has God called you to serve him in a radical way? How have you responded? If you have been shrinking from the vision the Lord has given you, what fears or hesitations are holding you back?

*All biblical quotes have been taken from the NIV.
2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Foundations of the New Monasticism Laid by Bernard of Clairvaux

Laying a foundation for the New Monasticism of the High Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux proclaimed a message of personal relationship with Jesus. Bernard was a fiery preacher and important leader, but above all he was a lover of God. His preaching and his writing led tens of thousands to Christ and spearheaded a spiritual renewal in the medieval church.

Personal Faith
At the age of twenty-two and on fire for the Lord, Bernard joined the newly-formed Cistercian Order in the year 1112. The Cistercians were gung ho for God—they were the Christian “Green Berets” of the twelfth century. They lived extremely simple lives and committed themselves to hard physical work, prayer, learning Scripture and growing in Christ-like character.

Deeply in love with Jesus, Bernard wanted to see others enter the same intimate relationship with the Lord that he had. Bernard made it clear that such a relationship with Christ must begin with repentance from our old life. We need to abandon sin, our worldly focus, and our way of living that always centers on self. We need genuine conversion—in fact, one of the booklets Bernard wrote is entitled “On Conversion.”

Christian History Magazine has a great introduction to this key figure. See image above. A great one-volume introduction to Bernard that includes “On Conversion” is Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, translated by G. R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

Moreover, he welcomed them into a genuine relationship with Jesus. At this point in the Middle Ages, many people in Europe were nominal Christians. Although they went through the motions, they had not approached Christ personally. Indeed, most were afraid of Christ, who was painted only as the angry Judge, coming in vengeance to condemn sinners to hell.

Without compromising God’s call to holiness, Bernard portrayed Jesus as the Good Shepherd and loving Savior. This is the one and only Son, whom, out of love, God sent into the world to save sinners. Bernard’s positive presentation of the gospel and his powerful preaching won thousands to Christ.

More than that, Bernard showed Jesus as the heavenly Bridegroom and ourselves as the bride of Christ. For Bernard, the bride of Christ referred to the church as a whole (Eph 5:25-33) as well as to each soul who receives him. He wanted the truth of Scripture to be personalized by each believer. Above all he wanted others to experience and know and feel Christ’s overwhelming love for them.

Not only was Bernard the most influential believer of his century, he stands as one of the most significant teachers in the history of the church. Bernard’s writings pulsate with spiritual life. He always highlighted grace, asserting that we cannot earn salvation in any way—it is all a gift from God.

His greatest contribution to believers in his day—and to the many movements that followed—was his invitation to experience Christ personally. By emphasizing each believer’s special relationship with Christ, Bernard laid the foundation for the New Monasticism of the Middle Ages.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers