Feast Day October 4
Patron Saint: peace, ecology, the environment, animals, Italy, merchants and families.
Canonized July 16, 1228 by Pope Gregory IX
I have not always been a Christian one of the reasons is because I always felt being like Jesus was not something I could do. In a way, I did not get Jesus. I had been cast out of the church as a teenager, because my parents got a divorce in the 80’s, our clothes were not new enough and after stage fright during a VBS show in front of the church, I was made fun of. With the ongoing teasing and people not talking to our family, it was easy to stop going.
All of this made being a Christian seem impossible. Growing up we went to a Southern Baptist affiliated church, I did not learn about Saints and Holy people that Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, often teach about. However, when I returned to Christianity, I started learning about the Saints and Holy people, who like Jesus, have also walked the Earth and understand the challenges we have as humans. Some of these Saints walked with, but most of them were after Jesus. Many of these saints and holy people were outcasts in some way while they were alive, because of how they followed Jesus and how they put those teachings into their everyday life.
Tomorrow, October 4, is the feast day for Saint Francis of Assisi. His youth was spent drinking and carousing, but changed his life after being in prison and having a vision from Christ. Saint Francis is probably the most widely known Saint, most notably honored or depicted in garden statues with birds and even some cities like San Francisco. He lived from 1181 to 1226 and founded the Order of Friars Minor and the Poor Clare’s, also known as The Franciscans.
Saint Francis is known as the one to pray to for needs involving nature, animals, the environment, Italy and a few others. Many depictions of Saint Francis are with woodland animals and birds, in the common long brown robes we might associate with monks. This was one of the few Saints outside of the ones in the Bible that I could name, before 2011. Perhaps, that is because Saint Francis is the most written about Saint in the Library of Congress.
In a way, I ran from Christianity. I dabbled from time to time until, the first week of October in 2011. I had an accident that injured my right leg. My leg was noticeably twisted and I could not walk. While in the emergency room, I also learned I had a birth defect in my knee that began developing symptoms when I was a teenager. This defect meant I started losing joint cartilage about the time I entered puberty, which also caused the knee to change its structure and the
beginning of chronic knee discomfort. This explained the knee pain I started feeling before I could drive, but that day it was a lot to absorb while looking at a knee X-ray with little to no cushion between bones. The doctor told my 38 year old self, that I would need knee replacements by 54.
I was already in shocking spiral of thought as the doctor told me I needed to stop running, while handing me a brace and crutches. Going on to say, I will have wished I had broken my leg, because a break would heal much faster than the twisted joint of tendons and ligaments that I had. I was in pain, emotionally and physically. In the blink of an eye, I dramatically went from training for triathlons and a four mile open water swim to sitting, looking at a raised, twisted and swollen leg.
My leg looked like how my heart already felt. The year leading up to the accident, my Dad, my 18 year old dog and 19 year old dog died. In the fight, flight or freeze, mentality, I am a fighter first and a runner second. If I was upset or had a problem, I was gone for a swim, on a bike, a hike or a run. I would be gone until I felt better or was too tired for anything to bother me. After a year of grief, I experienced that traumatic event and was forced to do something
completely out of character. As many of us have experienced, I was not given a choice, I was frozen in place and had to surrender to the mountain of emotional and physical pain.
This is how I came to know more about Jesus, by way of Saint Francis. The reference we use for a Saint today has moved to a different meaning than how it was originally used. The word saint in the original usage, meant one who was once broken and has been made whole.
How many of us here today have felt or feels broken?
In some ways I still feel broken, my leg still has issues, I still have pain, but I feel more whole. I feel more whole, because of learning about Saints and Holy people and learning a new way of life.
In our society today, the life Jesus lived and Saint Francis strived
for goes against, much of our social acceptance. The way of Jesus is outside of the popular acceptance of what car we drive, where we live, the clothes we have on, where we are going and whatever is associated with “having it all”. Sometimes we are able to be like Saint Francis choosing to let go of things that distract us from our spirituality and other times, they are made for us. Our choice is in how we respond to these events.
It took until March of 2013, when the current Pope was elected, to be
the first to take the name Francis, perhaps because the Rule of Saint Francis can be seen as hard to live by. The Rule of Saint Francis holds similar practices to other monasteries of renouncing wealth and being of service to others. Then the Franciscan’s, let go of everything, with the socially unpopular avenue of renouncing many modern comforts, such as housing and limits on food. Their focus is to live as simply as Jesus did.
In a culture, today and even in the 1200s when Saint Francis lived, there are perceptions of the right way to be a believer or the right way to be in a church, with a lot of rules and laws that can seem impossible to live by. Saint Francis only worked when he needed money, lived with as little as possible and some places even reference he did not wear clothes. I am not advocating for all of that, but for each of us to begin to look at what distracts us from God and living like Jesus.
Letting go of became real for me, because my legs are the root of my foundation of movement. In a way, I was learning to walk. The first time I walked a mile of solid walking took me forty-five minutes that was five months after the accident.
I kept walking, adding speed or adding distance and not getting upset at what felt like setbacks. It was the first time in my life I made the conscious decision to fully surrender to God. As surrendering can do, it led me to begin a life in pray. It started with carrying a cheat sheet with the prayers in my pocket, of the Lord’s Prayer, then adding the rosary. I was also praying for people in my life and different things happening around me and in the world. These prayers became something to focus on, that was something other than the pain I felt and still feel in my legs with each step or the ache in my heart about the injustices and disease in the world.
Just like the prayers, I gradually added distance or speed or elevation, eventually leading to September of 2013, when I walked my first of three half marathons. Few people know what a huge thing it is for me to walk that distance. That I remember that at one point, I could barely walk from one room to another, each step today is one I was not sure I would be making back in 2011, without the use of a cane or crutches. Each walk is one I am grateful for, but it took a couple of years for me to find peace within the discomfort.
I began to relate to scripture and the way of Jesus within my life, on one slow slog up the road on Mill Mountain, with a goal to reach the star. On that walk, I began to understand one of the things Saint Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words”. That day, I saw how small I am in the universe. That day, feeling swallowed among the tall trees, little ol’me on this huge globe, seemed insignificant. Tears started, no words were spoken, as I heard the gospel whispered in the rustling leaves. I began to see death, resurrection and a new way of life all around me. This way of life was not limited to my surrendering and accepting the physical limitations of my body and of pain, but also in seeing fallen trees, new growth around those trees and the nourishment the rotting wood provided.
Then in the next breath, I saw how big an impact I can make, not only to the environment, but in the people in my everyday life. People I knew and even people I do not know. Of how I can be like Saint Francis and how Saint Francis was like Jesus and how I can offer nourishment, through compassion wherever I go. I began and I am still learning the ways forward into a new life. That new life is striving to follow the second commandment Jesus asks of us, to love all our neighbors as ourselves. I try to remember, not everyone is able to love their neighbor, which includes me. That I can only live my life, I can only offer such a gift, while recognizing when I need to dust my shoes off to move on when someone does not want me around. I try also to remember the ways Jesus, Saint Francis and other Holy people show us, that we are the ones who have the opportunity to humbly start that chain reaction of love. It begins with giving ourselves a chance, whatever that looks like and however that feels.