October is a great month for saints: St. Therese Lisieux (the Little Flower), St. Boniface, St. Damien of Hawaii, St. Teresa Avila, St. Luke, St. Jean de Brebeuf of Canada, St. John Paul II and several more. And October is also the month for the second most popular Christian ever, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). But is St. Francis relevant?
No, not unless the goal is for young adults to quit their jobs, abandon their cell phones, roam about begging and maybe repairing a church building here or there. All the while dressed in a long hooded jacket.
Wait a minute: young adults do wear hoodies. Back in the old days a hoodie was called a capuche. St. Francis never picked a standard color, sometimes appearing in black or dark green. He didn’t intend to establish a uniform for his friends and he hardly was making a fashion statement, even a counter-cultural one. Eventually one group among his followers picked a standard color that reminded people of coffee mixed with foaming cream. That type of coffee, now popular with young adults, was called cappuccino. Thus, that group of followers were then and now called the Capuchins.
St. Francis never did anything; he never launched a project; he had no four step program. Instead, he spent his career extending gestures. And for some reason, the young adults of his time thought he was interesting. So much so that hundreds joined him, creating the Francis movement.
His gesture toward the latest innovation in town summarizes all his others. You see, before the 13th century few people needed any time-keeping device other than direct observation of the sun. But when the mercantile economy emerged in Europe, people wanted to keep appointments. So a clock tower was installed in the public square. St. Francis turned his back to the clock to remind people that a life fixated on clocks (be they now a cell phone app) and tight schedules and transactions is not ultimately satisfying.
It was the same message he tried to impart by disrobing in front of a church tribunal that was mediating a dispute between St. Francis and his father, a prominent clothier. St. Francis took off all his clothes. Fashion, ornaments, car accessories, and mansions are all ultimately unsatisfying.
St. Francis once made a courageous anti-war gesture. It was during the Crusades. He and a friend decided to walk across enemy lines and meet with Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. In a surprising return gesture, the sultan conversed with St. Francis during an entire week. The gesture did not dissuade the so-called Christians from continuing their wrong-headed attacks. But once again, many young adults saw an alternative to senseless war.
Young adults today are understandably disenchanted. Star athletes betray their profession by abusing other people and by cheating in the very nature of competition. Prominent business leaders engage in pseudo-commerce, peddling products that are unhealthy and some that don’t even exist. Bishops cover-up the egregious behavior of some employees. Politicians needlessly stoke resentment and racism.
To be disenchanted means to be away from the magic. Who wouldn’t be jaded when it comes to the magical or miraculous in daily life? Disenchantment is a fixed by-product of modern life. People assume that modern culture will provide meaning, but in its drive for efficiency our culture must dispel enchantment. We are left with, at best, an upbeat and vacuously positive approach to life, otherwise known as self-help.
Science and technology and individuality are gifts that come wrapped within the modern and they are to be cherished. But we need also to be caught up or taken up or drawn in. Enchantment means to be aware of the alluring and mysterious; to be awake to hues, shades, dialect, mood and gaps in sequence. Enchantment is outside of clock time. It is a belief that the so-called past is existentially present and that the current moment has a future.
St. Francis was enchanting to many young adults. We need him today.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work