Yes, St. Francis of Assisi loved God's creatures but he also recognized Jesus in the lowliest of people
Tucked away at the bottom of a carton in my bedroom closet is a box containing a very old pair of shoes. Twenty years ago I had the wonderful experience of visiting the country of Israel. At one point on that trip, when we were about to climb the steps to the high priest’s house, we were told that although many things in the Holy Land have been replaced over the years, the large stones that formed these stairs were the original ones. Our guide said that we were then literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus. At that moment I promised myself that I would never throw my shoes away. Today they are tangible reminders of how closely I was in touch with the reality of Jesus’ life during those precious days.
On October 4 the Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. How much the love of animals has been associated with St. Francis, and yet that’s not where his spirituality began. As Francis contemplated Jesus on the cross, he was overwhelmed with the mystery of God sending his Son to be present to us in human flesh and to undergo every kind of human suffering. There was in Francis an urgency to enable the people of his time to deeply comprehend the story of God’s dwelling among us. One of the things he did was create the first Nativity scene. It was a live re-enactment of the first Christmas, outside the church in the town of Greccio. Within himself Francis felt a strong desire to be physically conformed to the crucified Christ. On Mount LaVerna, not long before he died, Francis received the gift of the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus imprinted in his hands, feet, and side. His focus on the poverty and humility of the Lord led him to recognize Jesus in the lowliest of people and then to embrace all things in the natural world as God’s beloved creatures. His was truly an incarnational spirituality.
For 35 years, as teacher and director of religious education, I conducted a children’s Christmas pageant before Mass in the parish church on Christmas Eve. In my heart I couldn’t help feeling that St. Francis was proud of me! My present ministry has taken me to spending time with a man who is mentally disabled, sitting through the night in a nursing home as a companion to the dying, and giving Twelve Step retreats for men and women in recovery from addictions. All of these special experiences have helped me realize how in touch I can be with St. Francis’ spirituality and how closely I can walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
The reality of the Incarnation cannot be relegated to a box in the back corner of a closet.