Oh the Places You’ll Go: Just Outside & Below Assisi   

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Getting beyond superficial religiosity involves asking, not how to be good, or how God might help you, but What is God asking of me? Every notable Bible character at some point heard God’s “call.” Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Ruth, Peter, Paul, Mary: God doesn’t urge them to be nicer, or feel more spiritual. God has specific, and hard tasks for them. How do we hear God’s call?

I don’t recommend “Bibliomancy,” opening the Bible to any random page – and wherever your finger lands, that’s God’s call. Not wise – but gutsy. Maggie Ross spoke of faith as “a willingness for whatever.” You might land on “Sell all you have and give it to the poor”…

… which is precisely what happened to Francis of Assisi. And he responded, Got it. Done. But his quest to discern God’s will was more complex and took a long time. Feeling restless and unfulfilled, although he was wealthy, hip and popular, he began to walk every day out from the city walls of Assisi down a sharp hill to a little crumbling church, San Damiano. Inevitably, to hear God’s call, we leave our secure place, and go down – like Jesus did! We find a way to an uncomfortable place, and to people and situations the world might deem lowly.

In that low place, Francis prayed – not “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” but this: “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do what is truly your most holy will.” Humble, hopeful, and committing himself to do whatever. He didn’t pray this once and expect a reply. He prayed it repeatedly every day, and for many months. Finally he heard the cross before which he knelt speak to him: “Francis, rebuild my church, for it is falling into ruin.”

Notice his calling, like all true callings, wasn’t for him or even about him. It was outward, other-directed. His task, like ours, was to make the church healthier. He started small, using masonry skills he’d picked up in the military to fix up San Damiano, not yet understanding it was the Church, not just that little church, God had in mind. He got his hands dirty. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us that God’s call isn’t about keeping your hands clean, being good, but getting your hands dirty for God.

I have visited San Damiano a dozen times. I always exit feeling inspired – but then I turn to go back to the hotel, the same turn Francis would have made to return home each day. A long, steep hill, a tough climb. Doing God’s will is hard. It’s an uphill battle. For Francis, at the end of that arduous trek home were his parents, who had very different dreams for their son – good dreams, the kind Americans harbor: more wealth, comfort, success. How often does pursuing what God asks puzzle and even mortify people we love?

Mom and dad, Pica and Pietro, may have forgotten or never pondered what they promised when they took him as an infant to be baptized at the cathedral at the top of that hill, San Rufino. They’d offered that precious life up to God – but once he fulfilled that dream, they wanted him back. His father even sued him in the city square, since Francis had begun giving away the family’s treasures to the poor! When Pope Francis visited Assisi, it was at that square that he said Mass. His vision of how to be Pope wasn’t about finery, pomp and power, but humility, shedding power, empowering the poor, getting his hands dirty, doing what Jesus would do, the things Jesus told all of us to do.

Francis did not know how it would all turn out. He would have blushed and laughed out loud if we could go back in time and tell him he’d be such a great saint, that Church changed because of him – or that little statues of him would function as birdfeeders in gardens! When God called Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, Mary, and those fishermen, he didn’t map out a strategy or pledge how swimmingly well it would all go. Jesus said “Follow me,” and they dropped their nets, their livelihood and security, and traipsed off after him, clueless of what was next or what the end game would be. Jesus hadn’t asked them to be good, to feel more spiritual, or to engage in little spurts of seasonal charity. He’d asked them to have some courage, to go, to stick close to him, not to their cherished ideas of good.

How can you leave what’s safe for you, and go down… and pray Francis’s prayer, and then make the long hard climb back into the world, but changed?