Among the many things St. Francis of Assisi wrote and which we are privileged to still have is a letter he penned around the year 1220 to leaders within the Franciscan movement often called “The Letter to the Custodians.” Two verses in that brief letter have always struck me as important and insightful because they summarize Francis’s Gospel approach in an extraordinary way. He writes:
Know that there are certain very lofty and sublime things in the sight of God that people sometimes think of as worthless and contemptible; there are others that are esteemed and remarkable to people that God considers extremely worthless and contemptible (vv. 2-3).
It’s well known that Francis referred to himself at times as “God’s fool,” as one who was an idiota for the Lord. In other words, the self-admitted logic that Francis appropriated was not that of worldly wisdom or the societal norms of his day. To have done so would have been to continue despising the lepers and the poor, living a life focused on business success and wealth, and living a kind of comfortable existence that came at the expense of those most vulnerable.
Instead, Francis embraced what St. Paul writes about at the opening of his First Letter to the Corinthians; namely, that there are two kinds of wisdom or logic in reality. The first is the wisdom of the world, which so often encourages individualism, selfishness, and greed. The second is the wisdom of God, which seems incredibly foolish, stupid, and a stumbling block to those who subscribe to the wisdom of the world.
Over time, Francis of Assisi became unafraid to appear foolish to the world and those who live according to society’s self-centered logic. Indeed, he was God’s fool, taking seriously St. Paul’s exhortation to put on the “mind of Christ” and to live in a manner befitting God’s logic of graciousness, generosity, love, mercy, healing, and forgiveness.
In his “Letter to the Custodians,” Francis brilliantly summarizes another dimension of this wisdom of God, a truth we see time and again in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection that can be easy to overlook when we have domesticated the Gospel.
Francis’s point in these two verses is that we busy ourselves so often with things that God simply does not care about. Instead of looking to Christ to see what issues are important to God (reconciliation with one another, healing the wounded, caring for the vulnerable, listening to the disenfranchised, associating with the despised, reforming religious injustice, etc.), we tend to focus on our own social or person boutique concerns. Those things that Christians—especially church leaders—spend so much time worried about may very well appear “extremely worthless and contemptible” to God.
I believe that this is something that Pope Francis has reiterated at various points in his ministry as Bishop of Rome. He has called us back to the basics of our faith, insisting that we look to Christ in the Gospel as the model for discipleship and not get bogged down by tertiary concerns and sectarian battles. As he has personally demonstrated, truly following the example of his namesake, Pope Francis reminds us that the poor, the disenfranchised, the ignored and forgotten—these are people we should be attentive to as individuals and as a society. Such efforts are things God finds lofty and sublime, and we know this is true because God in Christ Jesus did exactly these things.
As we enter into the first week of Ordinary Time early in this New Year, may we resolve to be better fools and risk appearing “out of touch” with the agendas that occupy and distract the hearts and minds of so many Christians in order to live according to the wisdom of God.