Not a Garden Gnome: Understanding St. Francis

The name, St. Francis, is on everyone’s lips these days – ever since our new Holy Father took Francis as his official name. With this rise in popularity, a saint whose reputation has already been misrepresented, has swung into full blown mischaracterization. As arguably the favorite among all the saints – among Catholics, Protestants and even non-Christians – St. Francis has quite the reputation. But if we are to quell these misrepresentations it might be wise to take a longer look at this multifaceted saint. At first glance, he holds quite the surface image as a kind of garden gnome who holds bowls of water or seed for our feathered friends or perhaps with his arms outstretched as birds land on them much like they did on those of Snow White. I, myself, am guilty of having various representations of him in our vast gardens as mere decoration.St. Francis

But St. Francis wasn’t some hippy, tree hugging monk who worshiped Mother Earth and all of nature. Rather, he fiercely worshiped God while maintaining a healthy respect and sense of wonder for all of His creation. St. Francis’ appreciation of nature and acknowledgment of its grandeur stemmed from his devotion to living a life devoid of the lures of earthly pleasure, instead focusing on service to the poor and outcast.

As a former soldier, St. Francis was also a lover of peace. Contrary to popular belief, however, he neither penned the St. Francis Prayer (it was written much later than his lifetime) nor did he say, “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words“. Although both of these nods to him embody his philosophy, the words are not his own. What Francis did do was amazing enough that there is no need for embellishments. For example, in his fervent pursuit of chastity he is said to have rolled, naked, in the cold snow of winter in order to resist temptation. And although he had many hard sayings and practices, there are also many anecdotes about his life that point to a communion with nature that was unusual to say the least. Yet warm and fuzzy aren’t really a part of his story.

St. Francis and Nature

    • In his quest for following the will of God, St. Francis asked for prayers from Brother Silvester and St. Clare. After having received the answer, given through their prayers, St. Francis set off to preach the Gospel wherever the road led him. On one such occasion, there was a flock of birds noisily chirping and singing. Yet after his command they fell silent until St. Francis had finished sharing the Gospel with the crowd. He was also known to proclaim God by preaching to the birds who would approach him without fear. (From Little Flowers of St. Francis)
    • Suffering greatly due to the advanced disease of his eyes, St. Francis sought to visit a certain Cardinal. Upon his arrival, the crowds of his admirers were so great that the grape vines surrounding the church were trampled. This very much disturbed the Cardinal who depended on the grapes for wine. After realizing this dilemma, St. Francis promised that, when the remaining grapes were harvested the wine would be more plentiful than ever. This was the case for the years following. According to the writings from Little Flowers of St. Francis, “This miracle teaches us that as, in consequence of the merits of St Francis, the vine, though despoiled of its grapes, produced an abundance of wine, so in the same way many Christians, whose sins had made them barren of virtue, through the saint’s preaching and merits, have often come to abound in the good fruit of repentance”.St. Francis
    • There was a fierce wolf who terrorized the village of Gubbio by devouring not only livestock but also the inhabitants. No one could go beyond the walls and so every citizen walked about armed. St. Francis, after hearing of the situation, went out to speak to the wolf. Making the sign of the cross, St. Francis cried out: “Come hither, brother wolf; I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.” From that day forward the wolf walked the streets like a domesticated dog and did no more harm. (From Little Flowers of St. Francis)

St. Francis and Others

    • Actually baptized with the name, Giovanni, Francis came from a wealthy family. His father was a silk merchant who loved all things French, thus, soon after his birth he began calling his son Francesco (Francis).
    • St. Francis understood that the spiritual battle began with mortification and denying our instincts. He once met a leprous man, while riding along the prairies of Assisi. Terrorized by the wounds of the unfortunate beggar, he nonetheless approached and kissed him. This renunciation of his will changed his life. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the gesture was St. Francis’ ‘yes’ which started him on the road to submission to God and therefore, sainthood.
    • At the beginning of the order of Franciscans, St. Francis was teaching some of his companions about God. Driven by the Holy Spirit, he commanded three of them, one after the other, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Their words were so inspired that Jesus appeared in their midst under the guise of a young man and blessed them. (From Little Flowers of St. Francis)
    • A devout young boy had the occasion to follow St. Francis when, as was his custom, he rose during the night. There he observed him in prayer. Suddenly he saw a great light, and hearing many voices he also saw Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other saints talking to Francis. (From Little Flowers of St. Francis)
    • St Francis, through Divine Revelation knew the hearts of all his brethren. This enabled him to deal with each according to his spiritual need. He even knew that one of his Brothers was damned but at St. Francis’ prayer, his soul was restored. (From Little Flowers of St. Francis)
    • Pope Gregory IX initially doubted the authenticity of the stigmata of St. Francis but after he saw the saint in an apparition, he approved the sacred, holy stigmata of St Francis by a special bull.

St. FrancisWith some of these compelling stories in mind, it isn’t too difficult to understand why the image of the warm and fuzzy St. Francis surfaced. He was certainly gifted with an unusual rapport with wildlife and nature. Yet what we must take away from these characterizations is not his love of nature as much as his quest for communion with God – often through His creation. Also apparent is that he genuinely loved the less fortunate – even during his days as a rich young man. His life was far from a fairy tale yet it was one to be admired and emulated. As we enter Springtime, may we find  God’s glory in His wondrous creation and yet not give it more emphasis than the wonders of His love for us. Let us take the example of St. Francis and perpetuate a healthy love of nature, the practice of good stewardship but, most importantly, an unending and unconditional love of others.

St Francis was canonized in the year 1228 by Pope Gregory IX, who came in person to Assisi for his canonization. His feast day is October 4.

  • Allison@totustuusApril 3, 2013 - 2:21 pm

    My pastor thought the same thing! Coincidently he even used the phrase, “garden gnome.”

  • BirgitJApril 3, 2013 - 2:24 pm

    Ha, ha, Allison, that is so funny! The term just popped into my head as I was writing this. As usual, I started out in a totally different direction and then the post started writing itself. Thanks for sharing!ReplyCancel

  • ErikaApril 3, 2013 - 2:32 pm

    Great insights on this commonly represented Saint!ReplyCancel