Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Social Justice and Saint Francis

This excellent biography of the much-beloved but oft misunderstood Saint from Assisi is often bundled along with the biography on Aquinas that Chesterton wrote as well. Such was the case with the book that I read. It came with both biographies bundled into one bound edition. In my discussion on the Aquinas biography, I spent more time talking about Chesterton as a biographer, trying to explain the traits and qualities that make him one of the most respected biographers of these two individuals. In this little review, I want to focus much more on the actual Saint Chesterton wrote about, Francis from Assisi.

Chesterton points out early on that it is hard to find a person who doesn’t like St. Francis if they know even the slightest bit of information about him. He is thus too-often over generalized and claimed as a champion of certain causes just because of the aura of his persona. He is the ultimate poster-boy for environmentalists, animal right’s activists, and the followers of the now trendy social justice movement in evangelical Christianity. It’s easy to see why when thinking of Saint Francis in only quant and idealized images. After all, he talked to the birds and renounced possessions in favor of spending time with the poor and outcast around him.

But to boil him down in such a narrow fashion misses the larger point that Chesterton makes so well. We like to focus on the Saint Francis who talked to the birds and hung out with the poor, but we don’t like as much to talk about his strict observance of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, or even his deeply devotional asceticism. Many people want to boil down St. Francis to some mystical animal lover, with a rather detached sense of reality, more in line with a hippie of the American tradition than the actual vagabond that he was.

In reality, St. Francis was not detached from reality but rather so attached to it that we moderns have a hard time even understanding how someone can achieve such a state. When we boil him down we take for granted that he was a devout follower of Jesus Christ, who based his entire life around the concept that God created the natural world and we should thus revel in His creativity. We would rather point out his environmentalism and his social justice than his intense devotion and discipleship to Jesus Christ.

After reading this wonderful little account of the life of Saint Francis, I’m convicted to re-examine my own life and the reasons I do certain things. It was an unforeseen encouragement to read this book and discover, in so doing, that the devotion and relationship that Francis had with Jesus is something that you and I can cultivate deeper in our own lives. The Saint from Assisi lived his life in complete praise and thanksgiving before His Creator, and we who live in the Age of Progress would do well to spend a little time studying this man from Assisi who seemed to have his priorities in the right place.

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