Young Francis had for some time been the topic of conversation around the hearths of Assisi undoubtedly. Some must have pitied him for what they saw to be the ravings of a madman. For others his “antics” were the source of amusement or scorn. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Francis had not been the same since he returned from the war with a deadly fever. But all that had gone before would seem tame in comparison with this moment. How fast did word spread around town that there was some commotion down at the cathedral and that Francis was at the center of it? How quickly would the townspeople gather to witness this latest chapter in the ongoing scandal of the Bernardone family? What did they think when Francis dropped his cloak? What emotions did they feel when he stood naked before them all? Did anyone there in the courtyard, Francis included, really understand the significance of what they saw? Do we?
The story of Francis stripping himself naked in the bishop’s courtyard conveys to us an essential moment in his conversion process. As Francis stood there naked, completely vulnerable before the bishop, his family, and the people of Assisi, he divested himself of much more than just his clothes and belongings. In effect he relinquished family identity and reputation and the security of his economic status. For Francis this moment was a literal and symbolic letting go of his former life.
But we misunderstand the significance of this moment if we think that it was for Francis as end in itself. Francis did not pursue poverty as an ascetic ideal of self-denial. For Francis this relinquishment was a practical means of relocating himself in relationship to the poor. His break from his former life and status in Assisi was the prelude to his life and work among the poor of the leper colony. Indeed, one cannot distinguish Francis’ conversion experience from this journey toward the poor: they are one and the same. His encounter with the leper, selling of his father’s goods, and stripping himself naked are all symbolic moments, steps in a conversion process. For Francis it is relationship to the poor which provides the genuine context for conversion.
In our own time, does relinquishment play an essential role in our own ongoing conversion as people of faith? This story from the biography of Francis has much to teach us, the non-poor, about the nature of our discipleship. But to understand Francis and the role of relinquishment in our own faith journey, we must look beyond Francis to the gospel upon which he based his life and witness. Several gospel texts became absolutely normative for the life and practice of the early Franciscan community. The text from Mark cited above is one of those. Our purpose here is to continue our dialogue with Francis about the creative ways in which he followed Jesus in his own place and time. Hearing this story of how Francis lived his radical discipleship, we gain new perspectives on how to live our call to follow Jesus. Now we delve more deeply into this gospel story to see from another perspective how this word can become flesh in our lives and in our place and time.