The Transitus of St. Francis of Assisi
A reading from the Holy Gospel according to John (13:1-17)
1 Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5 Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.”
12 When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Homily by Fr. Paschal Mary
Unless we surrender ourselves to Christ, we will be tormented by tempest of our own desires.
Francis grew up the son of an ascending cloth seller, he learned the trade of his father, Pietro Bernadone, and was considerably successful at it – affording him the ability to be a spendthrift. Often the young Francis would go out reveling with his peers – elected “king” because of the exuberance of his personality and (let’s be honest) his willingness to pay for the excesses of fine food and drink. His penchant for patchwork costume and dressing up for festival ran throughout his life – at times he would even show up to a friary in cloth disguise.
As often happens to youth, Francis placed himself at the mercy of his desires. In the Testament he simply says, “When I was in sin.” His journey progressed with fitful start and miserable failure. The buoyant youth, subjected to the thrill of victory at the Rocca Majore and the brutal reality of war in the fields, had to enter into a period of intense searching that, in a sense, was to be the foundation of the rest of his life. In truth, Saint Francis never stopped exploring the depths of his heart.
What changed was not this restless search, but the values which were to inspire his program of life. Shining out of the torpor and melancholy of youth are flashes of gold. Francis, kept his innate affability and generosity. He also never quite lost his desire to be a knight. A few years into this period between his imprisonment and his “conversion Francis set out for Apulia to join the army once more. The Legend of the Three Companions relates, “he was completely preoccupied in carrying this [plan] out, and was burning with desire to set out, when, one night, the Lord visited him in a dream. Knowing his desire for honors, [the Lord] enticed and lifted him to the pinnacle of glory by a vision. That night while he was sleeping, someone appeared to him, a man calling him by name. He led him into a beautiful bride’s elegant palace filled with knightly arms and on its walls hung glittering shields and other armor of knightly splendor. Overjoyed, he wondered what all this meant and asked to who these brightly shining arms and this beautiful palace belonged. He was told that all these, including the palace belonged to him and his knights. Awakening in the morning, he got up with great joy. Since he had not yet fully tasted the spirit of God, he though in a worldly way that he must be singled out magnificently, and he considered the vision a portent of good fortune” (L3C II).
Fortuitously, the interlude of confusion and physical weakness was to return. Yes, “serve the Lord, not the servant;” but how? Francis returned to Assisi only to find himself still in the torment of his desires. He had not yet overcome the fear of derision from friends and even family. Giving himself over to prayer and to journeys in the country side, things became clearer. The moment of grace could come – he could hear the Word of the Gospel and seek to live it out; he could embrace the leper; he could rejoice to be counted among those to whom no worldly honor is bestowed: “the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside” (ER IX.2). His good fortune was the transformation of his worldly desires.
According to Francis’ own words in the Testament, “The Lord gave me … to begin doing penance … And the Lord Himself led me among [the lepers] … And the Lord gave me such faith in Churches … Afterwards the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests … And after the Lord gave me some brothers … [and] the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel” (Test. 1, 2, 4, 6, 14). And, as Thomas of Celano states of Francis, “In his desire for holiness he was simple with the simple, humble with the humble, and poor with the poor. He was a brother among brothers, and the least among the lesser.”
The “Transitus” of his conversion was brought about by the Lord Himself in the call to radically live the Gospel, not just the ideal or according to an acceptable form, but to live it “radically” – from its roots. What the Lord had done for the apostles – on the seaside, at the collector’s booth, along the way – the Lord had done for him personally. How many times our Lord had to correct the desires of the apostles until they were finally led by the Spirit of God. What mattered most was to receive the seed of the word of God and to let that “Good News” bear fruit – “This is what I want, this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.”
His desires did not decrease – no, as Celano relates, “He was so filled with fire that, even if in preceding ages there had been someone with a purpose equal to his, no one has been found whose desire was greater than his. He found it easier to do what is perfect than to talk about it… thus he remained undisturbed and happy, singing songs of joy in his heart to himself and to God” (1Cel93).
Through joyful surrender, Francis found the calm. He could step out onto the water with Christ, Francis could strip himself down and kneel at the feet of the brothers and lepers and wash them, he could lay in the dirt of the earth, counting everything as a grace, returning it to the good God. The portent of good fortune came to pass. Saint Francis, poor and humble, yet rich and merit, has received an honored name greater than any knight in shining armor. God has shown forth from him, in his very body made like to Christ by the stigmata. Everyone who lovingly draws near to God desires more not less, we follow in the footsteps of Francis when we attentively live out the rule of the Holy Gospel, desiring with all our hearts to live out that deceptively simple prayer, “My Lord and my God. (ER 23):
let us desire nothing else,
let us want nothing else,
let nothing else please us and cause us delight
except our Creator, Redeemer and Savior,
the only true God,
Who is the fullness of good,
all good, every good, the true and supreme good,
Who alone is good,
merciful, gentle, delightful, and sweet,
Who alone is holy,
just, true, holy, and upright,
Who alone is kind, innocent, clean,
from Whom, through Whom and in Whom
is all pardon, all grace, all glory
of all penitents and just ones,
of all the blessed rejoicing together in heaven.