Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Brothers Join Francis of Assisi

Following Jesus’ direction for his life, Francis continued to restore the church building of San Damiano. Ignoring those who taunted him for wearing poor clothes and begging for supplies, Francis set his face like flint in obedience to God and faith that he would not be put to shame (Isa 50:7).

Not everyone thought Francis was mad, however. Bernard of Quintavalle, one of the wealthiest nobles of Assisi, was watching the young convert very closely. Knowing Francis since a child, Bernard was convinced that Francis’ profession of faith was genuine. One evening Bernard invited him for dinner and a night in a comfortable bed. Pretending to be asleep, Bernard kept awake to see what this radical Christian would do that night. After a bit of time, Francis slipped out of bed to spend several hours in prayer. Bernard watched as Francis whispered again and again, “My God and my all,” and was rapt in God’s presence.

Bernard was right! He knew it—Francis was the real thing. He had not only given up his family money, he had given his heart completely to God. After a hard day of laboring on the church building, Francis—much like Jesus—spent the solitary hours of the night in intimate prayer.

The next morning, Bernard joined Francis—the first of the Little Brothers in what was to become the Franciscan movement: the Order of Friars Minor. Bernard sold his extensive holdings and gave the revenue to the poor. Then he joined Francis in his simple lifestyle of manual labor and ministry to the needy.

Needless to say, the addition of Bernard gave people of Assisi a new perspective on the work of the radical young believer. Francis’ eccentric lifestyle was not some passing fancy; rather, it was the evidence of a genuine repentance and the beginning of a life committed to Jesus. It was also the beginning of a new movement which was soon to grow with explosive force. Bernard’s presence added tremendous weight to the movement. He brought respectability and permanence. The fellowship of the Friars Minor was begun.

Radical Community
Soon Francis and Bernard were joined by others. They came from all strata of society. Peter Catani was next to join. He was a local priest who had lived in community with other priests (canons) near the cathedral in Assisi. His addition furthered both the respectability of Francis’ group, as well as its diversity. After Peter came brother Giles, a simple peasant living in the marshy valley below Assisi.

Such a community of men from different stations in society was unheard of in medieval Europe. Particularly in Italy, it was unthinkable.

Strata of Society
The different levels of society in medieval Italy are easy to picture when we look at a photo of the Assisi. The higher up one lived geographically, the higher one’s station in life. On top of the hill in Assisi was the castle where the duke lived. Part of the Holy Roman Empire until Francis was about 16 years old, Assisi’s duke was appointed by the German Emperor. All of the Assisian nobility sided with him and lived just below the castle. The height of their large homes symbolized their status in society—they were referred to as the Majores, the “major” people, i.e., playing in the major leagues of power and positions of leadership. The location of their homes also provided protection by its close proximity to the fortress in case the lower classes should ever start an uprising.

Below the nobility lived everyone else. These were the lesser people in society—the Minores, i.e., those playing in the “minor leagues” of life. The Minores included the wealthy merchant class from which Francis came. Their homes were in the vicinity of the Piazza Communal—the plaza of the common people. Below the merchants were the artisans—the cobblers, blacksmiths and the like. Further down toward the valley floor lived the peasant class who worked the fields, which were owned by the nobility and wealthy monastery of Assisi. Finally, in the swampy lowlands one found the leper hospices where the lowest of low lived is squalor.

Just before Francis began his community, Assisi had undergone a political revolution where the nobility who ruled the city were ousted, and the merchant class gained control. Some blood was shed and many of the noble families fled for their lives. No love was lost among the various socioeconomic strata in Assisi!

In light of these political events, Francis’ band of brothers was all the more remarkable. It made a statement to everyone: Jesus is no respecter of persons! He loves rich and poor, and calls them all the same through the Gospel. Moreover, he summons all to live together in genuine community, not segregated by class and income. Francis’ movement would demonstrate true Christian love and fellowship, not only to the divided populace of Assisi, but eventually to all of Europe and finally to the whole world.

Francis’ emphasis was upon being minor—lower, little, humble, playing in the minor leagues. Thus he and his brothers adopted the title “little brothers”—Friars Minor. That title takes on new meaning when we understand the society of the day. For Bernard and other nobility to join Francis, they had to renounce their title and rights as Majores. All the brothers took the mentality of being little and lower.

Philippians 2:5-7 describes how Christ emptied himself when he came to earth:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing [literally: emptied himself],
taking on the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (NIV)

Everyone who joined Francis gave up money and titles and power in order to serve. Just like Christ, they had to empty themselves.

Reflecting on this movement, Christians today need to ask the question: What rights and privileges am I holding on to? What would it mean for me to “have the same attitude at Christ” and empty myself? Finally, am I willing to do just that?

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

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