Lesson Eight—Conversion Begins
Lesson: Throughout the year 1205, when Francis returned to Assisi after renouncing his decision to go to battle, he began the process of gradual conversion. His father was outraged at Francis’s decision to turn away from the military honors he could have gained, but Francis had a new mission. Though he continued to spend time with friends and assist with the family business, he began turning more and more to a life of prayer, radical poverty, and solitude.
One day, Francis’s friends elected him as the leader of their revelry. Francis was given the responsibility of planning a great banquet, just as he had done on previous occasions. After the party, Francis and his companions went for a walk, singing and being lively, when suddenly, God filled Francis with an incredible interior consolation. When his friends turned around to see what had happened, they saw Francis standing still with an otherworldly look on his face. Francis could not move because the joy God placed in his heart at that moment was greater than he had ever experienced. From that moment onward, Francis’s relationship with his friends began to change.
Francis began to regularly withdraw to pray and seek the will of God. On many occasions, he would enter a cave to pray alone. He listened attentively to the voice of God and sought to detach from everything in the world. One day, while Francis was deep in prayer, Jesus appeared to him in the form of the Crucifix. At that moment, Francis was changed and began to have a deep love for the Cross. Francis later revealed to his friends that during that vision he heard Jesus say, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This experience moved Francis so deeply that the Crucifix took on new meaning in his life.
Reflection: Conversion was not first and foremost Francis’s idea; it was God’s. God had plans for Francis, and He used Francis’s radical desires to draw him into His holy will. As Francis began to hear God speak, he sought Him out all the more. And the more Francis listened to the voice of God in prayer, the more he turned to God with all his might.
God has a perfect plan for each one of our lives. He wants greatness for us, but most likely not the form of greatness we have conceived of for ourselves. His plan far exceeds what we could ever hope for or imagine.
Reflect, today, upon the voice of God calling you into His perfect will. Do you hear Him? Do you listen? And if you do hear and listen, do you respond to His gentle guidance and direction? Do not be afraid to seek out God’s will with all your power. Francis faced obstacles; he was not supported by everyone, not even by his father. But he chose God and His will above all else. Say “Yes” to God and do not allow anything to deter you from the path He has laid out for your life.
Saint Francis, God spoke to you, and you listened. He called you to a radical conversion of life that required you to completely change direction. Though you faced obstacles and even the wrath of your family and friends, you were not deterred from God’s will. Pray for me, that I may seek out and respond to the will of God with all my strength. May I have hope in God’s perfect plan and respond with the utmost generosity. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Nine—Embracing the Lepers
Lesson: Francis’s newfound love for the Crucifix was not just an interior devotion, he also put that love into practice through his actions. Nothing better illustrates this than his love for those who had leprosy. Francis saw in the lepers an image of Christ in the flesh, especially as He hung upon the Cross. On that Cross, Jesus’ flesh was disfigured. He was reviled, despised, and belittled. By embracing the lepers, Francis was embracing Christ and, especially, Christ crucified.
When praying one day, Francis heard God tell him that he must detach from all things he formerly delighted in and come to delight in all things he formerly despised. Thus, the Cross must be loved, and what better way to do this than to love the lepers as they manifested the Cross so well.
Subsequently, Francis came upon a leper who begged for alms. Overcoming his natural distaste for leprosy, Francis immediately dismounted his horse, kissed the leper’s hand, and gave him a large number of coins. The leper was shocked and overjoyed at the same time, returning the kiss of peace. This had a profound effect upon Francis, perhaps more so than it did even upon the leper.
A few days later, Francis gathered a large sum of coins and visited a leper hospital. He gathered all the patients, kissed each one on their hands, and gave them the gift of his coins. In this act, Francis found great joy in something he formerly found repulsive.
From that day forward, Francis continually sought to serve the lepers, live with them at times, show them compassion and freely bestow upon them all that he had. His love for lepers and all the poor became central to his mission and manifested his interior choice to abandon all out of the love of Christ.
Reflection: Do you love the Cross? On a more “romantic” level, it is easy to love the Cross. We pray before the crucifix, speak of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, and honor His glorious death and resurrection. But do you admire the Cross from a distance, or do you love it by embracing the crosses in your own life with totality and joy?
Embracing the Cross means we see every suffering we endure as a gift and a joy. This can only be done by the grace of God and with the eyes of faith. When embraced, the Cross is painful, and our flesh will revolt. But faith must lead us to see all suffering as a joyous opportunity to become more like Christ. The suffering that results from our embrace of the will of God is especially powerful and transforming.
Reflect, today, on the Cross of Christ and on the way God is calling you to embrace it in your own life. Try to find joy in the sufferings that formerly repulsed you. Seek to embrace with joy all that you have rejected in the past and allow those sufferings to transform you more fully into the life of Christ Himself.
Saint Francis, you discovered joy as you embraced the lepers out of love for Christ. You saw in them Jesus crucified and learned to love God in them. Pray for me, that I may find the suffering Christ in my life and embrace Him in the sufferings I endure. May I imitate you as you imitated Jesus and love God in all suffering I endure. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Ten—Embracing the Poor
Lesson: In addition to his love for the lepers, Francis became keenly aware of the needs of the poor and sought to relieve that poverty in any way he could.
On one occasion, while Francis was riding his horse and dressed in his coat of arms, he came upon a poor knight. Upon seeing him, Francis quickly gave him all he had. His fine clothing, armor, sword, and horse were immediately delivered over to this stranger. This gift to the poor knight was a pivotal moment for Francis, in that he was manifesting his interior decision to choose the riches of Heaven over the glory of knighthood.
During this time of Francis’s conversion, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. While there, he came across a group of poor beggars at the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. When he saw them, he exchanged his fine clothing for the rags of one of the beggars. He then deposited all the coins he had into the church and sat at the door with the other beggars, begging himself. In doing this, he made himself poor, just as the Son of God had become poor by becoming human.
He also manifested his love for the poor when he would regularly gather all the extra scraps from his family dinner table and bring them to those who were hungry. This act, along with all his acts of love for the poor, transformed Francis into one who exemplified the Beatitudes.
Reflections: Francis did not only have an interior conversion, it was also an exterior one. He made concrete decisions in his heart and backed them up with actions. He heard God calling him to radical poverty, and he did not hesitate to embrace that new call immediately and completely.
Often, God speaks to all of us in gentle and subtle ways. It’s easy to submit to God interiorly, but it is difficult to submit in action. But the truth is we must embrace without hesitation whatever God calls us to do.
Reflect upon your willingness to embrace the full will of God in your life. What is He saying to you? What are you reluctant to do? Choose the will of God in your heart and then live it radically and completely in your actions, and you will find the freedom God wants to bestow upon you.
Saint Francis, your love for the poor was made manifest in your actions. You became poor to love the poor more fully. In so doing, you imitated the poverty of the Son of God who became one of us to love us. Pray for me, that I may love God in every person I encounter. May I love those who are physically poor, as well as those who are spiritually poor. May I more fully identify with those in need so that I will become more like Christ. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Eleven—His New Mission
Lesson: Francis’s newfound love for the Cross was deepened while praying at the church of San Damiano. As he passed by this ancient and dilapidated church one day, he went in to pray and laid prostrate before the Crucifix. As he lay there in prayer, he heard the words, “Francis, go and rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” This voice so affected him that he entered into ecstasy and remained deep in prayer for some time.
Afterward, Francis went home and gathered some cloth, as well as the rest of his belongings, and rode his horse to the nearby town of Foligno. There he sold all he had, and taking the money, he returned to the church of San Damiano. Upon arrival, he met the priest and tried to give him all the money he gained from the sale of his belongings so that the priest could use it to repair his church. The priest, however, was surprised and also feared Francis’s father since he knew the father would not approve. Eventually, Francis convinced the priest to allow him to stay at the church, but the money sat on a windowsill untouched. Neither Francis nor the priest wanted anything to do with it.
Reflection: Once again, Francis heard the voice of God speak to him and he responded. At first, Francis misunderstood the voice of God, thinking that God wanted him to physically rebuild the church in which he was praying. He responded fully and radically to that call.
As time went on, Francis realized that the call to rebuild God’s Church was deeper and more spiritual. As Francis continued to pray and grow in holiness, he continued to say “Yes” to all God asked of him.
God is also calling you and says to you, “Rebuild My Church!” Are you willing to embrace that calling? Each one of us has a responsibility to participate in the upbuilding of God’s Church in our unique way. Some are called to do so through constant prayer, and others through preaching. Still others raise holy families and actively participate in the various apostolates of the Church.
Reflect upon those words of God, “Rebuild my Church.” Reflect upon that invitation over and over and allow God to show you your unique responsibility in the fulfillment of this holy task.
Saint Francis, you were generous in the total gift of yourself to the call of God to help to rebuild His Church. Pray for me that I may also respond to that calling in the way God is leading me. May I hold nothing back and do all I can for the greater glory of God and the good of His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Twelve—Attacks of the Devil
Lesson: Many people became aware of the changes that were slowly transforming Francis into a new creation in Christ. One of those who noticed was the devil himself.
One day, the devil brought to Francis’s mind a certain hunchbacked and deformed woman in Assisi. The devil threatened Francis that he would remove her deformity and impose it upon Francis if he didn’t stop doing the good he was doing. But Francis paid no attention to this threat and continued to seek the will of God through prayer, solitude, and works of mercy.
Francis’s companions and friends did not understand his change either. The former worldly Francis soon began to fade away. In varied and often subtle ways, his friends tried to dissuade him from his transformation.
His father was one of the fiercest opponents of Francis’s change. His father was a good man, but he was focused on his merchant business and his ambitions to gain societal status. When Francis started to live contrary to his father’s desires and began to renounce earthly possessions, his father wouldn’t stand for it.
Reflection: The evil one attacks us in many and varied ways. Sometimes these attacks are direct, through thoughts or images that he brings to our minds to tempt and frighten us. At other times, the devil attacks us through other people, even our family members.
Francis overcame the attacks of the evil one by staying focused on the will of God and by refusing to give in to the fear he was being tempted with. Fear often paralyzes us as it turns us in on ourselves.
Reflect, today, upon any unhealthy fears that you struggle with. Holy fear is a gift from God that leaves us with such a love of God that we “fear” doing anything that would lead us away from Him. But unhealthy fears are also temptations to turn away from God to avoid persecution and suffering. Prayer and confidence in God transform unhealthy fear into the gift of holy fear and enable you to embrace God’s will with confidence, joy, and hope.
Saint Francis, you conquered all unhealthy fear in your life through hope and trust in God. The devil tried to dissuade you, but you did not listen to his lies. Pray for me, that I may ignore all temptations to fear, and may instead, seek to embrace the spiritual gift of holy fear. May this gift instill within me trust so deep that no struggle, suffering, hardship, or lie will ever keep me from fulfilling the will of God. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.