Even saints sin. Like most of us, they often sin with the best of intentions. Saint Francis of Assisi was no exception.
There’s one notable example from his early life.
One day Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, was praying in a little church on the outskirts of town when he heard God telling him to rebuild His Church. Francis, thinking small, thought God meant the little church in which he prayed. Ever the man of action, he acted on God’s order.
Unfortunately, there was a complication: in order to rebuild the church, Francis needed money he didn’t have. Never one to wallow in doubt or confusion, he thought of an easy solution. Surely his wealthy father, Pietro di Bernardone, had money and goods to spare. Surely the old man wouldn’t mind if his son put his property to good use.
Working on that charmingly innocent assumption, Francis took some of his father’s cloth and one of his father’s horses, sold them, and used the money to buy stones and materials for the church. To procure the rest, he started begging in the streets.
It was a brilliant idea. Only one problem: Francis never asked his father.
If Francis thought Pietro would understand, he was wrong. Indeed, the patriarch was downright livid, hauling Francis in front the local magistrate and accusing him of theft. Francis was humiliated. Insulted. Hurt. After receiving generous protection from the local bishop, he renounced his father and all of his worldly possessions.
It was a big moment: the moment when Francis decided once and for all to abandon his worldly ties and instead embrace the call of God. It was the most dramatic turning point on his road to sainthood.
But was it right?
A Fight Over Possessions?
I think it’s fair to say the theft was one of the unfortunate, if endearingly characteristic acts of Francis’ overzealous youth. While his intentions may have been praiseworthy, the way in which he went about it was hardly commendable. In fact it was downright sinful.
That being said, it’s hard to sympathize with the elder Bernardone, whose reaction was that of a hard and worldly man. A more spiritual man would have appreciated such a gesture. A more merciful man would have forgiven the theft in light of the intention.
But what is a Christian mediator to think of such a tangled conflict, and what in the world does it have to do with Franciscan peacemaking?
Actually, quite a bit. Last week I wrote a post on a Franciscan approach to fights over possessions. The main point was that fights over possessions are rarely fights over mere possessions; typically there’s more going on under the surface. The fight between Francis and his father was just such a case.
Christian Peacemaking – A Matter of Respect
Looking at the conflict from the viewpoint of a Franciscan peacemaker helps us see what it was really all about. We can recognize that there was more to Pietro’s anger than the loss of a few yards of cloth and a horse to ride on. In other words, the dispute was about more than just material goods.
So what was it about, over and above the loss of some inventory?
Well, perhaps most importantly, it was about respect. For some reason Francis didn’t see fit to ask his father to lend him some money. Perhaps he thought his father would say no, but to deny him the opportunity of being charitable was, I think most would agree, a blatant sign of disrespect. It was a denial not only of his father’s authority, but also of his goodness. A theft not only of his property, but also of his dignity.
Indeed, according to some, Pietro was upset not so much with the loss of his goods as with the loss of face that came with having such an eccentrically wayward son. Imagine: the son of the wealthiest man in town, pawning goods and begging in the streets! Francis’ theft was merely the last, most unbearable act in a series of gentle humiliations. It was too much for the proud father to bear.
Perhaps that was Pietro’s greatest sin: his pride. Either way, this story is about more than a greedy old man versus a saintly young man. Rather it’s about that tangle of motivations and emotions that so often trips us up and sends us headlong into a battle we neither seek nor want. It is about respect, dignity, authority, love, and mercy as well as possessions.
In the end, as with so many conflicts, there is enough wrong to go around, and both sides deserve their share of blame, but a mediator who approached such a conflict with the attitude that it was about simple theft is liable to miss the real issue, and the real solution.