St. Francis and Me
I’m not Catholic and, until fairly recently, I was quite adamantly against Catholicism. That’s not to say I didn’t like Catholics. Regardless of my disagreements with many of the church’s theological positions, I always felt Christ moved within Catholicism just as much as he moved in any other Christian tradition. For example, I’d known about Mother Teresa my entire life. She was the humble little nun in Calcutta who’d managed to inspire the entire world with her Christ-like love and compassion for the poor, the weak and the dying. No one could deny the spark of the divine living within her. She was brilliant yet humble, sacrificing everything to love and care for a people no one else dared to approach. If I could just have a touch of Mother Teresa’s faith, I knew my life would have meaning and purpose beyond anything I’d ever known. Once I saw a documentary wherein a reporter asked Mother Teresa who would replace her when she’s gone. Casually and without hesitation, Mother Teresa responded by saying anybody can. She knew her strength was from God, not her and God can use anyone.
Later, when I was just a sophomore in college, I felt compelled to read the old stuff by saints who lived after the apostles but before the Protestant Reformation. I began with St. Augustine’s Confessions. Through his words, I encountered God’s grace. This man had been a pagan and had lived with a woman who was not his wife. He had hurt many people through his selfish actions, but ultimately, he repented of his ways and gave himself up to Jesus.
More than a thousand years later, God was using Augustine to speak to me. His words convicted me to let go of my materialistic ways and live in simplicity. It was never an easy task for me. I still wrestle with it to this day, but at least I began to question my way of life and the way of life the world seemed to be trying to sell to me.
In my youth, particularly my twenties, I struggled to find myself. I tried to stay open to new experiences and ideas, but I never stopped believing in this loving God I’d forged a relationship with in my adolescence. Within the secret chambers of my heart and mind, I walked and talked with God. There were no audible voices or physical manifestations for me to hold onto. If God spoke to me, it was through the gentle impressions he lay on my heart and mind or the encouraging words of a friend or stranger.
The year I took a one-way ticket to France, I willingly opened my heart to as many new experiences as possible. In return, pieces of my heart I didn’t want torn open were painfully ripped apart and exposed to the elements. I could no longer ignore them.
I may not have been aware of it at the time, but I’d gone to France not only to learn a new language and “better” myself as a whole, but to lose myself as well; to be transformed; to die to who I was and become someone else. I was clearly running away from something. But since the one I wanted to run from the most was me, it didn’t matter how far I went. All my buried secrets, hurts, and fears would catch up with me in the end.
The more I tried to suppress all I hated about me, the more those hidden emotions fought to be free. All I needed were a couple of inciting incidences to weaken my resolve and drain my power to suppress the pain inside. Of course, nothing crushes the spirit like feeling you are alone in your suffering. My first three months in Europe, I’d been with friends. Then I came alone to Montpellier, rented a studio apartment, and discovered a crippling, new definition of loneliness. Though it was partially self-inflicted, it was still harsh, isolating, cold, and empty.
To ease the pain, I began reading the Bible again. Talking with God, whether it was just in my imagination or real (I’ll let you decide), became my primary way of expressing my thoughts and feelings. And even amidst the multitudes of tears, I’d lay in bed, covers pulled tightly over my shivering body, imagining the strong arms of a loving Father-God holding me, stroking my hair, and wiping away my tears.
My parents sent me a little prayer book and one of the prayers was the prayer of St. Francis. I looked at it for the first time and thought, this is was Jesus meant when he told us the last shall be first and the first shall be last – this is what he meant when he told us the peacemakers and the weak and poor were blessed and would inherit the earth.
With no one to keep my sanity in check, I began to lose my grip on reality and, soon after my final exams ended in January, I broke. I threw my passport into the river, renouncing citizenship to any man-made political system and aligning myself with God’s kingdom – a family comprised of believers from every tongue and every nation.
Then I gave away all I had save a small backpack containing only the bare essentials, – including a Bible – but no money and no identification. Then I walked with unspeakable joy, not knowing where I’d go but trusting God would show me the way. As I walked I sang and when night fell, I continued to walk and sing until at last I was intercepted by the police.
Fear prevented me from telling anyone who I was or where I was from. Not knowing what else to do, the police took me to the hospital and ultimately transferred me to the nearest psychiatric hospital to where they found me. In this case it was Thuir, France (near Perpignan)
What was the point of such an insane journey? To show others the love I tried so hard to find for myself, but couldn’t seem to find in other human beings. I wanted to love Mother Teresa style. But I was a little too eager back then. I wasn’t ready for that sort of thing because in order to give love, you have to experience love and know you are valuable. Love your neighbor as yourself – this phrase is meaningless if you cannot see yourself as God sees you.
My dad flew to France to liberate me from the hospital and bring me home. I still felt “called by God” to do something, but what I couldn’t say. I had a vague notion the challenges in my life had only just begun but I had no way of knowing the full weight of it all. However, the first blow following my first stay in a psychiatric hospital was the “stigma” attached to mental illness.
Soon after I returned to the States, I began volunteering as a receptionist at a mission organization that helped send missionaries to the Muslim countries around the world. I found a book there entitled Waging Peace on Islam and one of the first chapters hooked me in instantly. The chapter was called The Mad Monk. It was about one of the first people to go to the Muslim world as a peacemaker. This man was St. Francis of Assisi and he most definitely earned the title “mad.”
To begin, St. Francis was said to have rejected his father’s wealth all the way down to the clothes on his back. He did this in a radical public display wherein he stripped naked in front of everyone and returned his clothes to his father.
Francis had visions as well. The first one he misinterpreted as sign that he should take up arms and fight in the Crusades. But then he deserted and came home. This is beautifully portrayed in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
There were other stories as well, stories of Francis preaching sermons to the birds, hiding out in a cave when his visions became too overwhelming, and ultimately suffering the “miracle” of stigmata. He inspired St. Clare to form a band of sisters very similar to the brotherhood Francis had begun. It is said she and him were very close and, in their later years, she would tend to his wounds, the wounds caused by his stigmata.
Knowing that Francis became a saint despite his alleged “madness” brought comfort to me. The world was so different in Medieval Europe than the world we live in today. Imagine if Francis had been born in our generation. Would he be considered crazy and sent to a psychiatric hospital as I was? Would he have been court-ordered to take psychiatric medicine and would all his marvelous visions of championing the poor and living as he felt called be discredited? Many missions and humanitarian organizations will not risk sending someone who’s done time in a psychiatric hospital to a poverty-stricken country to help the weak because we could be considered a liability. We don’t want to risk potential suicides (although essentially that’s what’s killing most of our soldiers these days). Would someone like me even be able to pass the ordination process in churches where women are ordained as preachers?
These questions used to plague me. I hated them because they seemed to greatly limit my possibilities. The problem was, by allowing these things to bother me, I was putting limits on God. St. Francis has made a greater impact on the world since his death than he could ever dream of in his life. And, in the Catholic tradition, you can’t become a saint while you’re still alive. St. Francis probably never knew God would use him in such a profound way to encourage and inspire others, such as me. When all is said and done, St. Francis was just trying to be obedient. He believed God for the impossible. Can you believe God for the impossible?