I am reading Adrian House’s biography, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life, and thought today I would share some words from its introduction, written by Karen Armstrong.
Like Jesus himself, Francis is often sentimentalized. We like the image of the poetical saint, preaching to the birds and exulting in the beauties of the natural landscape. We look back with nostalgia to Francis’s time, when the natural world and the Bible seemed not to contradict but to complement one another. But we have no intention of imitating his total self-abandonment which, the masters of the spiritual life in all traditions insist, is essential if we wish to experience the Sacred. A great deal of religion is actually devoted to the propping up of the ego and the establishment of a secure identity. We do not wish to emulate Francis’s material poverty, a symbol of his transcendence of the self, and we prefer to keep clear of beggars and the like. Francis’s spiritual journey began when he laid aside his visceral disgust for the lepers of Assisi and kissed their hands. This act of compassionate love gave him an immediate intimation of the divine presence.
Religion cannot always be tasteful or confined within the polite restraints of institutional practice, because it aims at the infinite. Like Jesus, Francis showed the difficulty of incarnating a divine imperative in the flawed conditions of human existence. His stringent bodily and spiritual mortifications never degenerated into masochism or narcissism because they were always tempered by a kindness, compassion and gentleness to all creatures which, again, is often sadly missing from the churches that proclaim his sanctity.