There he was, looking thin and insignificant next to his hulking father. Surrounded by a surging crowd of townspeople, St. Francis stood before the Bishop of Assisi while Peter Bernardone continued to pour out complaint after complaint against his wretched son. The people wondered: “Surely the Bishop will agree?”
Only a few days earlier Francis was bound by fear and doubt. His father’s anger, the mocking of his former friends, the scorn of the people of Assisi — all of these and more kept pummeling his soul. Satan sensed trouble ahead and wanted to keep him bound. But out of the darkness came a great wave of light and strength. He now knew what Jesus meant for him to do — to imitate the Lord in His poverty and humiliation! He returned to Assisi with joy, all the while expecting ridicule and a beating from his father. He wasn’t disappointed.
Now, before the Bishop and ready to do whatever God asked of him, he gladly gave up his inheritance and the money his mother had given him. He would serve the kingdom of God! His father, driven into a rage by the ease with which Francis let go of possessions, continued to demand more. Francis, repelled by his father’s crazed love for money, stripped off every bit of clothing. Having returned the last of his belongings to his father, he left Assisi singing in joy — a Troubadour of the Great King!
A Saint Who Held Nothing Back
When I first read the story of St. Francis of Assisi, I was struck by three things. The first, some might call idealism. He took these truths of the Gospel to heart and threw his whole self into acting on them. But it wasn’t just an ideal that moved him — it was love for God. When he experienced his conversion, he acted with abandon and held nothing back.
The second quality of note was his courage. He fearlessly put himself before his father, the town of Assisi, and the whole world, allowing them to do with him as they willed. But upon rereading Felix Timmerman’s account, The Perfect Joy of St. Francis, I saw how he portrayed Francis as struggling greatly with fear. As his gaze turned to Christ and his calling, he was no longer perturbed. He saw only the freedom and joy that came from following Christ.
Finally, you could call Francis impulsive. His decisions — like trading his fine armor for an old, rusty set, or going back to embrace a leper — seemed to come without much deliberation. If it were me, I would have stewed and agonized over these things while weighing the pros and cons. Francis’ heart led more than his mind, allowing him to do the unthinkable!
Revisiting St. Augustine & St. Thérèse of Lisieux
When St. Augustine had his conversion experience, he immediately went to action. He first shares his experience with his friend, Alypius, and then the two of them proceed to tell his mother, Monica. Next, the new convert decided to end his career teaching rhetoric because it would only serve a carnal purpose. He goes on to tell his other friends about his conversion, and he ends the illicit union with a woman — the relationship that had held him back from his conversion.
My experience reveals a parallel. My first act after my conversion was to publicly announce what God had done. I followed through on engaging my parents in a conversation that I dreaded. I began to attend retreat follow-up meetings. God gave me a hunger for the Scriptures, and I satisfied that craving by feasting on God’s word every evening. When I did or said something stupid, I admitted my error rather than take the easy way out because of fear.
St. Thérèse also shows a readiness to apply what metanoia had wrought in her heart. Like St. Francis, she would take her obstacles head-on rather than avoid them. Her love and determination drew her onward. She, too, desired to imitate Christ. Once recognizing her weakness, she immediately moved to act in a way opposite to the temptation. If tempted by pride, she welcomed humiliation. If a more comfortable option were available, she would choose the most difficult. No act was too small to make, for, after all, she was little herself.
What Can We Learn?
1. Action always follows a change of heart.
If conversion means turning from one thing to another, something always gets left behind. Our love for God will not allow us to do otherwise. If we’ve been lying, we’ll have to set the record straight. If our speech has been hurtful or offensive, we’ll seek forgiveness and put an end to that behavior. If prone to passive-aggressiveness, we put it aside and speak directly to others.
2. Conversion leads us to act in opposition to the flesh.
Let us follow the example of St. Thérèse: give glory to God by reversing the inclination of our sinful nature.
3. No action is too big or too small for conversion.
We see St. Francis taking on the inconceivable and St. Thérèse doing the “inconsequential.” The approval of others has nothing to do with our responsibility to act.
4. Act wisely, but don’t let excuses deflect your resolve.
Remember what I said about St. Francis acting with his heart before his head? Sometimes the good we intend inadvertently causes harm. So act wisely. But I have found my hesitations more often motivated by fear than prudence. If you find yourself making excuses, it’s time to move forward.
5. Tell others of your decision and seek their help.
Going public helps to strengthen our resolve, and it opens us up to receive material and spiritual aid from others. Those we tell receive a benefit, as well. Seeing a brother or sister in the Lord acting in obedience encourages me to do the same, so let us encourage one another through speech and action.
6. Once you know what you should do, do it anyway.
I suppose this is a restatement of Lesson 4, but with a different focus. Sometimes I don’t have a particular excuse, but fear or complacency still paralyze me. Or I’ll tell myself: “No one cares,” or “It won’t make any difference to anybody anyway.” That may be true, but what we do will always make a difference to two persons: you and Jesus.
Having taken action, we have one last leg of the journey to make on the way to conversion. Join me next week as we look to St. Teresa of Calcutta for direction in the final part of our series on conversion: surrender.
Conversion 101: Action is the fifth in a six-part Conversion 101 series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion.