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

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