I was 19, and living back home with my family for a while, when, coming in one evening, I found everyone very bemused with me.
“We got a call from the Christian book store that the book you ordered is in…….?” My mom queried.
“We thought it might be a wrong number……?”
“No, that’s the book I ordered about St. Francis.”
They all looked at each other.
As I headed down the hall to my room, I heard my brother ask, “What? Did you hear that?”
My step dad said, “Well… you never know what Shawn is going to do.”
At that time I was getting ready to go to Corpus Christi to spend some time with my Granny.
I planned to re-paint the St. Francis statue she had in her back yard while I was there.
Someone had given it to her in the distant past, to set at the grave of a beloved family dog who had died long ago. The worn, concrete statue was of a serene faced man in a tattered habit, a hood drawn over his head. He is holding a small, trusting bird against his chest, his eyes closed in prayer, or perhaps gazing down tenderly.
This statue had stood under the cottonwood tree year after year. It was a marvel of Granny’s household, having survived three major hurricanes without even tipping over.
One night, however, it had been vandalized; spray painted an ugly red and black. I planned to fix that.
None of us knew much about St. Francis the person.
We had heard he had been known to communicate with animals.
Granny was in the habit of adopting injured, stray and abandoned animals to the point her house was filled with them. (It’s a good thing she cleaned all the time!) Most of her grocery bill was for pet food, and the veterinarian down the road heard from her often.
Generally Granny had a rough, colorful exterior. However, she would break down sobbing over the suffering or death of an animal.
She had a special love for birds, and daily fed the ones who frequented her back yard. Crowds of them weighed down the branches of the giant oleander bushes, and sang in the orange and mulberry trees around her garage each evening. A few sea gulls usually circled above. She would hear their “racket,” and go out to her waiting admirers.
She would raise a baking dish of food high above her head, and a whirl wind of wings would surround her. Some of the birds settled on her shoulders, or even in the palm of her hand. It looked like magic.
She had the quaint habit of talking to animals seriously, as if they were people, and they seemed to listen to her.
A saint who could commune with animals would naturally interest her. I had only recently begun to believe in God, and to learn to pray and meditate a little. I was not open to religion.
I thought it would be nice, however, to learn about St. Francis while I worked on his statue.
So we would put on a pot of coffee now and then each day, and as she worked her trade of re-weaving,* I sat on the floor by her work table. As I had done since I was a little girl, I read aloud to her.
I don’t know what I expected, but The Way of St. Francis by Fr. Murray Bodo, was a very reflective book. Reflective Christianity was a new experience for me.
I was impressed with the author’s depth, warmth, humility, and spirituality.
St. Francis surprised me, too. His Christian faith made him more authentic rather than less so. His unabashed love for Jesus led him to embrace people and ideas he had always been afraid of, and to renounce social acceptability when it got in the way of going where God, where love, was leading him.
Because he wanted to be a faithful Christian, he practiced radical inclusiveness, and unconditional love.
Because He loved God, He loved the created world for His sake.
He did delightfully crazy things.
He was charming and challenging.
He was adventurous and full of joy, love, and humility, ready for anything.
I had never heard of living simply, in solidarity with the poor, out of love for “the poor Christ,” or of voluntary poverty as a spiritual discipline.
It was healing for me that he did not seem to trample on other people’s feelings or their sense of self. Instead, they were won over by his kindness and love, his respect, his happiness, and by the fact that he really did visibly live what he believed in, even down to his love and obedience toward Church authority.
He knew suffering, but he found inner joy from knowing God, and from loving with abandon.
I felt very impressed with the beautiful, joyful life of love St. Francis lived.
As I sanded the statue, and carefully painted it in calming shades of blue and gray, I found myself thinking about him and smiling.
I had not known it was possible to listen for the voice of God in one’s heart, and to actually be inspired be that.
Striving for a certain type of life was also a new idea for me.
I loved learning about Francis’ soul friend, St. Clare. I had never heard of contemplative Christianity before. What a deep, poetic, courageous woman. She was the first of many women mystics I would read from or about in the years ahead, opening my heart, a little more at a time, to God and prayer.
Granny and I both loved the stories about St. Francis. Of course she really liked hearing that he had preached to the birds, and tamed the wolf of Gubio. My favorite was the surprising story of Francis and the Damietta prostitute.
I was inspired to memorize the St. Francis prayer, and to use it as a point of meditation for years to come. Later, Granny sent me a prayer card of it that I still have.
Over the next several years, I would sand down and re-paint the statue on my lone visits to Granny. It became a kind of ritual for me.
Granny started to talk to St. Francis over her morning coffee on the back porch before she got to her work, and at other times during the day, and to pray more often.
I earnestly tried to begin to live a spiritual life and to learn to love, little by little.
I don’t know if all of my attempts were directly inspired by St. Francis, but I think he and his example had a lot to do with it.
I tried several things that changed the way I lived and saw the world.
I began to try to reach out and connect with people even though that was hard for me, and to try to see the good in everyone.
I got over my embarrassment and started to talk to homeless people whenever I saw them, to give them what I could, to hug them if it was OK with them.
I attempted to smile from the heart at every human being I saw. I still try to do that.
I became more interested in prayer.
I made conscious efforts to live more simply, as a spiritual practice, and so that I could share more with others.
I recognized joy, love, and humility, as virtues to respect, to look for and see in others, to hope for, for myself.
I rediscovered my childhood connection to nature and to animals. I saw beauty more and more, and learned how to drink it in and enjoy it.
I started to notice my hardness of heart and to try to become more open and loving.
I was not about to become a Christian, (so I thought.) But getting to know St. Francis began to give me new ideas about life and about God.
Many things happened over time that drew me slowly into the Catholic Church, and inspired me to live the faith as fully as possible. Maybe my friend, St. Francis was helping me along.
Eventually, my granny was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic. She chose the name Francis at her Confirmation.
When she was asked, “Ruth, what do you ask of God’s Church?” She unconsciously went “off script” and answered from the heart, “I want to love and to be loved.” Everyone smiled.
That St. Francis statue stands faithfully at my grandmother’s grave today. It is even more worn by the weather now, into a wonderful blend of shades and textures from years of being outside, and from my different loving restorations of it. Since I set it there beside her head stone, I have chosen not to repaint it anymore. It is beautiful just as it is.
*Re-weaving was the trade of re-weaving cloth that had holes, flaws or tears in it, making it look new. My grandmother was the last re-weaver in Texas.