May 1, 2007

The Dreams of St. Francis

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.



The dream at Spoleto
The dream keeps unfolding


St. Francis of Assisi had many different dreams during his lifetime. Some of his dreams were fulfilled while others were dashed. As a youth he often dreamed of becoming a knight and finding glory on the battlefield. Francis’ first adventure in pursuit of glory took place when he joined the Assisi army against the army of the neighboring city of Perugia. This turned out to be one of his failed dreams. His side lost, and he spent a good deal of time fighting depression in a Perugian prison.

Christ tells Francis that his dream means more than his becoming a knight in battle. (Photo by Jack Wintz)

But this did not stop Francis from dreaming more about knighthood. His next dream took place one night in the house of his father, an Assisi cloth merchant. In this dream, Francis saw himself in a magnificent palace with walls covered with shields and military banners. Francis believed the dream was telling him that he would find glory in battle. In the painting (right), Jesus explains to Francis the dream’s meaning.

Having already given thought to joining the papal armies of Walter of Brienne, the dream convinced Francis that he should immediately set out for Rome and then to Apulia in southern Italy. “Surely, I will become a great knight on the field of battle,” he thought.  So Francis procured a horse and suitable armor and set off toward Rome.

The dream at Spoleto

Francis’ interpretation of his dream was not fully on target. He had not traveled too great a distance when he stopped at Spoleto for the night. There God spoke to him again in his sleep: “Who is it better to serve,” God asked Francis, “the Lord or the servant?” Francis answered, “The Lord, of course.” God responded, “Then why are you obeying the servant and not the Lord?”

When Francis asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” God told Francis: “Go back home. It will be revealed to you what you must do.” The ride back to Assisi was not a happy trip for the dejected Francis. He trembled at the prospect of family and friends calling him a coward because of his disgraceful retreat from the march to battle.

Photo by Jack Wintz

The stage has now been set for us to reflect on this photo of Francis on a horse, which presently stands near the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. In this artwork, the would-be knight sits slumped down in his saddle with head and shoulders drooping, his depressed spirits echoed by the grey skies. It’s a poignant portrait of an idealistic young man with dashed dreams.

The dream keeps unfolding

It is the nature of Francis’ dream, however, that it continued to develop and unfold as the Spirit of Christ guided Francis into the future. Most of us already know that Francis became a glorious knight in a much different way than he first expected.

Because of his experience in Spoleto, Francis was motivated to turn his life around. He began to experience God’s goodness in frequent prayer. He met and embraced a leper on the road and began a life of service to lepers and other down-and-out people. He prayed in the tumbledown chapel of San Damiano and heard Christ tell him from the crucifix to “repair my Church, which is falling into ruin.”

So Francis became a restorer of abandoned churches, as well as of the larger Church of his day. One of the smaller churches was tiny St. Mary of the Angels, which would soon become the cradle of the whole Franciscan family. Francis was inspired to embrace a life of Gospel poverty and to found (or help found) communities of men and women who strive to live poorly and humbly in joyful service to the poor. 

Without retelling the whole story of St. Francis, we know that his original dream was fulfilled in wonderful ways. In brief, Francis became a glorious knight of Christ and “the herald of the great King.” His message was that of peace, brotherhood and nonviolence. Brother Francis and Lady Clare and their followers preached the Good News of the Gospel with happy and humble hearts. They saw God’s goodness shining through Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and with great joy they praised the Creator through brother and sister creatures everywhere.

My musings on St. Francis and his dreams end with another photo of Francis, the wannabe knight on his horse. The photo (below) was taken last October 4, 2006, the feast of St. Francis. It’s a photo of wonderful irony and contrast. Though it shows Francis in a moment of near despair, we know that it represents just one fleeting moment of his life—a moment that transformed him and led him to a vastly more glorious dream. The irony is that this sad saint on a horse now stands before a magnificent basilica that Francis would have never designed to honor himself, but where thousands upon thousands come each week to honor one of the world’s great saints and to pray at his tomb.

Photo by Jack Wintz

And on Francis’ feast day itself in 2006—like every year—people came from all over Italy to honor their native son. They carry banners from all the regions of his native land. On and on, the various groups of people process by the sad statue of St. Francis. Take note of the brightly colored banners carried along in this procession, which is honoring Francis of Assisi. In our mind’s eye, we can insert each of these bright banners, even now, alongside the banners in Francis’ original dream—a dream that keeps unfolding through the centuries.

Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “Catechism Quiz: Does It Matter What We Do?”

Dear Friar Jim: Thank you for your beautiful explanation on being accountable before God. My question: Are those who suffer from mental illness (i.e., depression, mania, etc.) accountable to God for the behavior they have displayed toward others throughout their lives? dnc37

Dear dnc37: All people are accountable for their actions, but the amount of accountability will depend on their ability to understand their actions and choices. People truly mentally ill have little freedom in making choices, and at times it may seem like they are making others pay the price. It is difficult to tell. That's why I said that only God can know the human heart and the whole person. For our own selves, we are urged by Jesus to be as loving and supportive as we can. We, who are free of mental illness, cannot imagine what it is like to be clinically depressed or controlled by impulses. Hope this helps. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Thank you for your words today. I wish I knew who I could talk to. I get very depressed especially when I go to Mass and have to leave, because of the pain I have when sitting or standing for a while. Sometimes I feel as though I don't really belong in Church since I cannot stay for the entire Mass. I feel so down because I cannot talk to my boys about it because they feel depression is a weakness. They are good sons, but they are strong and motivated, not like me. My husband died five years ago, and I feel so alone. I will keep reading your messages and try to find my sense of belonging somewhere. Thank you for listening. Lucy

Dear Lucy: I'm very sorry for your situation in life right now. Don't worry about leaving early Mass if you need to. The Lord surely understands. It is also unfortunate that your sons don't understand what you are experiencing. I was a chaplain for 11 years at a large nursing home, and there were elderly patients there, often unvisited by family, who were in bed for years. They were given good care, but the aloneness was surely something no one could understand. I would ask these patients to remember that the Lord sits right on the edge of their beds; he never leaves, day or night. When you feel alone, you are not alone. This is faith, of course, and faith is a gift. But the Lord will not refuse such a request from you. What I suggested to these people in nursing care was that they offer all their pain, suffering and aloneness to the Lord, and ask him to use their suffering for someone else who needs help. Doing this makes one an instrument of peace. Friar Jim

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