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Getting Naked with Saint Francis

Getting Naked with Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O divine master, grant that I may not

So much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive,

In pardoning that we are pardoned,

And in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Peace Prayer of St. Francis

For me, the name “Saint Francis” brings to mind all sorts of interesting images. Having spent thirteen years at a private Catholic school bearing his name, when I hear “St. Francis,” images of uniforms, pompous jocks and rich snobby girls come before my eyes. My first encounter with St. Francis, the school and the saint, was that of exclusion; exclusion on the basis of clothing, of money and of spiritual mystery.

The original St. Francis had a similar start.

Assisi Abercrombie

Born to Pietro and Pica Bernardone, Francis was born into a world of wealth and opulence. His father was a cloth merchant, sort of an ancient Abercrombie and Fitch dealer.

Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, the shin of Italy’s foot. In the fifteenth century a legend arose that he had been born in a stable to allude to his Christ-like nature. As an infant he was baptized and given the name Giovanni, but his father changed it to Francesco because of his partiality for France.

Francis’ parents did not shield him from the wealth they had acquired. In biographies he is often regarded as somewhat of a playboy. Although he went to school, he did not take school seriously. He was known for his humor instead. Francis was a well-dressed teen who threw large parties, living the life that many young men dream of, where money is no object.

At War with Himself

During this time period in Italy, there was much infighting between cities that were like little states in their own right. Francis participated in one of these raids with his fellow Assisians. Unfortunately Assisi lost and Francis spent a year in prison, where he became sick with a fever. During this time he began to contemplate his reason for existence. It was in prison that he had his first encounters with God. Although he continued to fight in other wars following his release, a new journey had begun in Francis.

During this time of contemplation, God spoke to Francis twice through dreams. In the second, God called him to turn from his military endeavors. He still enjoyed times with his friends, but they would often mock him because of his absentmindedness. They mistook this for love and asked him if he was to be married. His reply, “Yes, I am about to take a wife of surpassing fairness.”

Leaving the Riches

His seemingly off-handed remark was a foreshadowing to the vow of poverty that he was debating. Through an encounter with a leper—made while visiting St. Peter’s tomb in Rome—and other visits with the poor, this rich son of a cloth dealer began to change. Francis exchanged his expensive clothes with a homeless man in Rome and began to beg. Thus, beginning his "marriage" to God.

When Francis returned home, he went to a rundown church to pray. There he heard God say to him, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” He believed this was referring to the Church that he was in. Thus, he took cloth and a horse from his father, sold it and tried to give the gold to the priest. However, the man would not take it. Francis hid from his father for a month in a cave. But when he wandered into town, his father found him, beat him and chained him in a closet in their house. Through a long string of events, Francis escaped and his father asked him to renounce his inheritance. Francis, desiring to serve the poor and leave his father’s riches behind, agreed.

Francis’ ministry began, and he continued to build churches.

During mass one day, the verses read were in Luke 10, when Jesus commands his disciples to take neither purse, bag nor sandals. According to Catholic records, this would have been on February 24, 1208, when Francis was 26 or 27 years old.

Francis took this verse seriously and began wearing the most un-hip clothing of the day. What he worn was called “the beast color,” which was a wool tunic. In his day, wearing brown and wool was a sign of the poor. A modern equivalent would be the most out-of-date threads in the free section of Goodwill.

During this time, a transition happened, not just for Francis, but also for the whole community. People began seeing him less as a crazed man, and more as someone fully dedicated to the will of God. Men began coming to him for direction.

In search of a mission statement, Francis opened the Bible three times to random passages in the gospels. All three had the theme of leaving everything to follow Jesus. At that moment, Francis and his followers went to the public square and gave all of their possessions to the poor.

Starting an Order

By 1212, Pope Innocent III had sanctioned Francis’ order, some women followed Francis, and the small group was gaining humble influence around Italy. After starting the order, Francis and his fellow disciples preached throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their basic goal was always the same: "Whoever may come to us," Francis wrote. "Whether a friend or a foe, a thief or a robber, let him be kindly received."

Obedience, chastity and poverty were the three rules of Francis’ followers.

When St. Francis died he is said to have recited Psalm 141 over and over. His last request was that he be stripped of his clothes and be allowed to die naked on the earth, like Jesus.

Getting Naked

Francis was canonized as a saint less than two years after he died, quite a feat as the canonization process typically takes a minimum of five years, though usually longer. St. Francis was known for seeing God in everything. He lived in a time when there were clear divisions between rich and poor, kings and beggars, sacred and secular.

Leaving clothing behind was not a mental exercise for St. Francis. He left his father’s rich clothing business. He gave his rich clothes to the poor on numerous occasions. He was robbed and left to die in the snow naked. At his death, he asked to die humbly without clothes on, just like his hero, Jesus.

No matter what your style, clothing gives us identity. Our clothes seem to define what we want others to know about us. St. Francis challenged Christians to a higher calling, a calling where our service to the poor and love of God’s world speaks our identity. Maybe it is time to get naked with St. Francis.

Further Reading

Peace Prayer of St. Francis, 2005, Province of St. John the Baptist of the Order of Friars Minor, available at:

Foley, L., O.F.M. (1994), Who Was St. Francis, St. Anthony Messenger Press, available at:

Knight, K., 2003, St. Francis of Assisi, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, Robert Appleton Company, available at:

The writings of St. Francis have been published in "Opuscula S. P. Francisci Assisiensis" (Quaracchi, 1904); Bˆhmer, "Analekten zur Geschichte des Franciscus von Assisi" (T¸bingen, 1904); U. d’AlenÁon, "Les Opuscules de S. FranÁois d’ Assise" (Paris, 1905); Robinson, "The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi" (Philadelphia, 1906).

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