The Crucifix of San Damiano: Conversion and the story of St Francis
This is the first of three talks given for a St Francis Day retreat this year at the Church of the Resurrection, Mount Macedon.
One day sometime during the period 1205-1206 a young Italian man in his mid-twenties, tired physically and mentally, recovering from malaria and imprisonment, disillusioned with life, full of desire and longing, but confused and feeling wretched, sat before a large Romanesque rood crucifix in an abandoned church in the Umbrian region of Italy. He cried out:
‘Oh Lord, Most High, enlighten the darkness of my heart that I may carry out Your holy and true command.’
And, quite unexpectedly, he heard the response: ’Francis, go and repair my house, which as you see is falling completely into ruin.’
These words of St Francis have come down to us today known as the Prayer Before the Crucifix:
Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith, sure hope and perfect charity.
Fill me with understanding and knowledge that I may fulfil your command."
When I began to write these three talks for today, I confess that I actually knew very little about St Francis. Here was a saint whose identity I’d grown up with, but I’d never properly considered or taken seriously. I had also assumed that our knowledge of him would be scarce and only via secondary sources.
I was wrong. Almost immediately after his death people began to write about St Francis; he was canonised just two years after his death. Francis himself was educated, he could read and write in his native dialect, and Latin. He wrote two rules of the Franciscan Order. In the weeks preceding his death in 1226, he dictated a Testament of his life to one of his closest companions. He wrote letters to the clergy, to Saint Anthony, to the Brothers in his Order. He also wrote prayers. And it’s three of these prayers that I wish to ponder upon today, and use as a lens into the story of his life.
As I read about the story of the life of Francis Bernadone, I encountered a man very different to the one I expected. Where I anticipated reading about someone with a high sense of ideals, gentle, perhaps a bit rash, I encountered a person who was strong-minded, who could rally men to battle, who could be stubborn, but who could also act as dramatically and impulsively, and courageously as St Peter. Here was a man who never acted by half measure. As a youth this man we call ‘saint’ was the party boy of Assisi who harboured longings to be a knight; as an adult he was prepared to be seen to do sudden very rash and foolish things for the love of God. He took risks, he learned the power of living symbolically, and he struggled continually: with illness, with desire, and in his relationship with God.
At the turn of the thirteenth century, Assisi was a fortress town which rivalled other towns, in particular Perugia. Assisi also had its own political internal struggles between the merchant and the noble classes. Francis’ father was a flourishing merchant. He was part of a rising class that sought a more democratic rule and rebelled against heavy taxes. He routinely travelled to France to buy and sell linens. Francis was born when his father was away and his mother named him Giovanni, after John the Baptist. But when his father returned, he changed his name to Francesco, ‘the French one.’
As a youth Francis had enjoyed fine clothes, an easy-going life and mucking about with friends. He cut something of a romantic figure, popular and unprepossessing. The reality of the violent rivalry between Perugia and Assisi must have come home to him after his participation in a battle with Perugia. He was taken a prisoner of war, and for nearly a year was locked up in a squalid dungeon in Perugia. Somewhere around 1203-04 Francis’ father paid for his release and when he returned home Francis was a changed man. It took him over a year to recover and the malarial parasites in his body and the exposure to tuberculosis plagued him for the rest of his life. He began to work in his father’s shop, but he was restless, depressed and agitated.
The call to join papal forces fighting in Apulia reawakened his desire to be a knight. He had a dream in which he saw the great hall of a castle; on the walls hung many shields and a voice assured him that these belonged to Francis and his knights. Having been blessed by the bishop near the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi, he set out of the city gates accompanied by companions and big dreams. However, soon after arriving in Spoleto, fifteen miles from Assisi, his malarial fever returned. But he also had another dream. There was again the castle and the shields, but this time another voice said:
‘Francis, who is better to serve? The Lord or the servant?’
‘Why the Lord of course?’ replied Francis.
‘Then why are you serving the servant? Go now, return to Assisi where it will be shown you what to do.’
So returning home, to the dismay of his father and confusion of his mother, he became once more despondent and restless. Contemporary Franciscan priest and writer, Murray Bodo writes that for a period of time, Francis now felt shame. He was in darkness, he ‘walked and waited, prayed and wept, and thought he would go mad.’ (Francis and Jesus, Murray Bodo, Franciscan Media, 2012, p9)
I wonder if the passion that drove Francis when he was very young to carouse with friends throughout the night, inspired him to fight in the war with Perugia and later head towards Apulia, was the same searching energy that later brought him before the crucifix in San Damiano? Passion and dreaming, combined with longing for meaning needs to find fulfilment. Although upon return from Spoleto Francis went back to partying with his mates late into the night, gradually he lessened his ties with them and with his family.
At around the age of 22 or 23 Francis started retreating regularly into caves around Mount Subasio and he spent time praying and what we would call ‘working himself out’. We are told that usually a close friend would accompany him and wait outside the cave. It’s difficult to know clearly the nature of his struggles at this time. Love? Temptations of the flesh? Family and social expectations? Certainly desire for understanding God. In his later Testament he refers to this time as one when he was ‘still in sin’ and ‘doing ‘penance.’ (Francis and Jesus, Murray Bodo, Franciscan Media, 2012, p38). The movement away from being a playboy of Assisi to the celibate monk would be quite a journey for anyone.
However, in 1206, Francis Bernadone dramatically confronted something inside himself. This had to with the nature of the body. He tells us in his Testament that as he was returning home on his horse one day the path took him past one of a number of leper hospitals in the valley of Assisi. His repulsion of lepers was not uncommon. Lepers were separated from society and had to rattle a bell on a stick to let others know they were there. Like many others Francis would cover his nose if he had to pass by them. ‘The sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure’ he wrote in his Testament. But this one day he stopped when he heard the sound of the leper rattling his bell. He wrote: ‘God inspired me.’ He dismounted, hesitated, then ran over to the leper and fully embraced him. In that moment his life turned upside down. (A Mended and Broken Heart, Wendy Murray, Basic Books, 2008, p50)
It was shortly after this episode, a period when he was still working for his father, yet frequenting caves to pray, that he passed a dilapidated Benedictine church - abandoned except for the presence of an elderly Benedictine priest. Francis stopped and went in to pray.
Inside was an old wooden Byzantine image of the cross. Painted on linen covering walnut wood, this icon dated from the 12th century and was written by an unknown Umbrian artist. It stands just over two metres high and one metre wide.
‘Oh Lord, Most High, enlighten the darkness of my heart that I may carry out Your holy and true command.’
And he clearly heard the response: ’Francis, go and repair my house, which as you see is falling completely into ruin.’
This was a moment of conversion for St Francis.
With great gusto and energy, he dashed out of the church, ran home, grabbed some fine linen from his father’s shop, and rode off on his father’s horse. He sold both and offered the money to the old priest at the church. The priest refused to take it, but Francis left the money intended to repair the dilapidated church with him. His father, Pietro Bernadone, was not happy. But Francis had now started out on a new path in life.
The Prayer Before the Cross as St Francis’ words came to be called, was initially written in Francis’ own Umbrian dialect and then quickly translated into Latin so others could read it. It obviously caught something of the longing experienced by many people at this time because it became popular very quickly. Francis himself recited a number of different variations of this prayer. So this gives us a clue that the meaning and intent of the prayer is more important than the actual words themselves.
We could spend more than a whole Quiet Day contemplating the icon of San Damiano and the meaning of the figures and angels surrounding Christ. But I’d like to ponder instead what this experience of conversion for St Francis was like. I want to ask the question: what can ‘conversion’ possibly look like for us today? What shape can it take - this turning around of the whole self towards God? Not here so much the implications for our subsequent living out of such an experience, but how can we know such an experience and trust it?
St Francis would have come to know the Rule of St Benedict, who placed a lot of emphasis on conversatio morum - cultivating that disposition which turns our hearts and minds towards God. I recently heard a quote from Calvin (of all people) who believed that ‘people need teachable hearts.’ Teachable hearts are open hearts, and open hearts are free to hear God speaking in whatever word or form that takes. They are hearts open to discerning the will of God. A God whose will is an affirming source of my identity, who strengthens and nourishes me; who is not a power of coercion, nor a willed governance of regulations.
I have four suggestions about my understanding of conversion which are reflected in the story of St Francis. My first suggestion is that it isn’t the same for everyone - conversion is both particular and personal. We could sit before the same crucifix of San Damiano and have no sense of Christ speaking to us at all. God reaches into our hearts and speaks to each one of us, where we are at. Not where we would like to think of ourselves as at. And not where our neighbour is at. And though hearing God’s word may not be as dramatic for us as this moment for St Francis before the San Damiano crucifix, our task is to stay open.
In a sermon at St Peter’s Eastern Hill a few weeks ago, our theological student Colleen Clayton talked about how conversion is not always a comfortable experience. CS Lewis, the English 20th century Christian writer said he felt hunted by God:
You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. (Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis, p266)
CS Lewis claimed that his conversion was logical and rational, not emotional, but like St Francis, at some level before his conversion he stayed open to the approach of Him. How often I find it very easy to be cynical of even the possibility that God or Christ could ever want to speak to me. I keep my eyes shut and ears closed. This inner movement of turning towards God may involve questions and wrestling, but we also need to stay open to God’s response. God is not only personal to the saints or others. But God invites you, us, me even, into a personal relationship.
Secondly, what happened before the cross for St Francis didn’t just happen in a vacuum. It was one of a series of responses in a relationship which God had already set up. Soon after becoming the ‘most reluctant convert in all England’ CS Lewis also describes another moment. With a friend he travelled to a zoo in London:
“When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did." (The Pilgrim's Regress, CS Lewis)
Like St Francis, moments of conversion are part of a continuum. Some of these conversion moments can certainly have major ramifications in terms of the trajectory for our lives from that time forward. But for both CS Lewis and St Francis, motions that have already been happening in the heart play a part. For St Francis, his own story: his earlier extravagant, indulged lifestyle, the longing to be a knight, the period of time spent in a dungeon, the embrace of a leper, his frequent visits to the caves - all these informed in some way, this moment before the crucifix. And this moment went on to inform future struggles and encounters.
And thirdly, coming out of this, the story of St Francis shows us how we need to, as Rowan Williams phrases it, give credibility to the taking of time. It is tempting to pin St Francis to a fixed identity and actually forget that he grew and changed throughout his life as any one of us do. I like to nail saints down: St Anthony - patron saint of lost things, St Christopher - patron saint of travellers, St Francis - patron saint of animals.
One of my favourite phrases about faith had been said by Franciscan Richard Rohr: ‘we get it, and we lose it, and we get it, and we lose it.’ We like to think St Francis always ‘got it.’ But his life story shows us that he didn’t always ‘get it.’ As he travelled later with his brothers and set up his Order, he had to continue discerning what he believed the will of God to be. Conversion for him was an ongoing process.
So, conversion isn’t about suddenly getting God, like acquiring a new house. We don’t remain in a fixed permanent state of ‘fully converted.’ The movement toward God is inner, and anything to do with what is happening inside us takes time to germinate and grow. By letting God be God, by entrusting ourselves into the bigness of God, not wrapping God up in a package, we can find ourselves growing in all sorts of unexpected creative ways. We risk making God too small; a designer God to suit our desires. There is a strong desire in our contemporary culture for neatly planned lives: packaged holiday deals, retirement plans. But the life and teachings of Jesus, even by coming to us in four very different Gospel voices, is neither neat nor clear-cut.
Currently, I’m part of an online reading group and we are focusing on a work called: We Make the Road by Walking. (We Make the Road by Walking Brian McLaren Jericho Books 2014)
Sometimes I wish that God’s Highway was set before me and all I am called to do is just walk it. But walking in God’s ways is much harder than this: the road itself only happens each step of the way as we encounter what happens to us, each day, what decisions we make, and live with the consequences of these decisions. St Francis didn’t know the contours of his own road of life before he walked it. This took reflection and discernment and the taking of time. Real conversion is a lifelong ongoing process.
And fourthly, conversion involves an understanding that God doesn’t speak to us literally, but through hints and guesses, through story, through the Gospels, through other people, through art and music…… I think that it doesn’t take a lot of study of the stories even in the Old Testament to recognise that God often does not speak literally to a person, a community or a nation. Sometimes for the Old Testament prophets, there were sudden moments of clear connection with God. But most often the message of the prophets to the people of Israel was a reminder about how important it was to remain faithful to God’s ways. For them it was a call to see through the illusion of the god Baal, for us it’s a call to recognise the hold that money and transactional interpersonal dynamics can take hold of our hearts, and turn back to the law of Love.
This story of St Francis before the Crucifix is not telling us to find a cross, sit before it and wait for it to speak to us. This may happen, or it may not. But essentially to me it’s a story about how God speaks to us where we’re at. And God’s word, like Christ in the Gospel stories, is most especially found more often than not, when and where we least expect, in the broken and ordinary. Perhaps especially in the broken and ordinary and overlooked. What better metaphor for us today, a crumbling ruined church?
So, Francis came very slowly to understand that conversion in a person’s life happens slowly, haltingly, and by letting God be God. Walking the road of life means being energised, passionate, alive to the senses, and free to make choices and decisions. Conversion means becoming more who we are, and who we want to be, in a deeply true way. It’s not about willed control. Conversion also means being fully alive in the present moment, with our five senses, and attuned to all of life’s ambiguity, complexity, pain and delight. It means stepping forward in faith, with courage, but also a preparedness to be wrong. To make mistakes. Conversion means developing habits of the heart, practising patterns of speech, realigning our actions day by day. And by practising tuning into God, we very gradually develop a relational way of being not only in God, but with one another.