With the coming of Spring, many of us find ourselves working in the yard and the garden. Some find the work a necessary chore, while others see it as a relaxing escape from the pressures of life. Gardens are as varied as the people who care for them. Some have a great deal of ornamentation, while others have more simple charms.
One of the most common yard ornaments is a simple statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The simply clad saint is usually depicted in a way that shows deep harmony with nature. Legend has it that St. Francis once preached a sermon to a huge flock of birds. “My brothers, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator. He clothes you with feathers and gave you wings to fly, appointing the clear air as your home, and He looks after you without any effort on your part.” In his enthusiasm, he is said to have walked among birds, brushing them with his habit, and not one of them moved until he blessed them with the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave.
Who is this saint that lived in the beginning of the thirteenth century and still appeals to Christians of many denominational and theological stripes? How is it that this medieval man has found a place in our modern world?
Francis Bernadine was born a rich and carefree man. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and grew up bottled and spoiled. Thirteenth century Europe was full of wars and rumors of war. In the year 1202, the city of Assisi amassed an army and the young Francesco joined the cities armed elite, knights and merchants who could afford a horse and armor. Francis was taken captive the bloody battle that followed and was imprisoned for a full year before his father could arrange a ransom.
The experience of war fundamentally changed his outlook on life. Soon after he returned home, he left his father’s house to live in a cave. He gave away his father’s gifts and wore a simple threadbare patched tunic marked with a cross in chalk. He chose a life of severe poverty utterly committed to Christ. Much of his teaching would be deemed fanatical by our generation, but his devotion and his way of practicing peace are timeless.
An early account of Francis’s life says that he was grieved that no one “intervened to make peace”. It’s a beautiful phrase. Christians often pray for peace as if it could be dropped out of the sky. Francis believed that peace is something that is made. He insisted that his followers became peacemakers. In his day, even the church went to war. Francis often helped leaders resolve their quarrels.
Francis teaches us that if we are going to have peace, we must expect to suffer. We must expect to give up something. Most people want peace simply by imposing their will on others, giving up nothing. We see this not only in families, churches and communities, but also on an international level. But peace can only be had if we see the other person’s needs and grievances and are willing to let go of some of our own. Making peace, like gardening, is hard work.
The next time you see St. Francis in a garden, remember the man who preached to the birds and also wrote:
“Blessed are those who endure in peace.”