My Misunderstanding

There’s a funny misunderstanding in the life of St. Francis of Assisi that I got a new insight to during our recent retreat. 

You might know Francis’ story. He was praying in a little, rundown, abandoned church in the valley below Assisi, and the painting of Jesus on the crucifix spoke to him, by his account, saying “Francis, go rebuild my church, which as you can see is being destroyed.” That crucifix is still around – it’s in a chapel in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi, and you can pray in front of it, just like he did. 

So Francis did what the man (well, the piece of centuries-old wood) said; he rebuilt the little, rundown, church, San Damiano. First he did it by stealing some of his dad’s stuff, selling it, and giving the priest who ran the church the money. The priest, no fool, wouldn’t take it. So Francis begged people for stones to use in rebuilding the church by hand, and he did it himself. He even got so carried away that he rebuilt two other little rundown churches in the area. You can go to San Damiano and sit in that same chapel, and you can go to one of the other little churches he rebuilt, called the Porziuncola, which sits inside the middle of a huge basilica, Santa Maria degli Angeli. 

As cool as that is, Francis missed the point.

Over the course of Francis’ life and mission, it became clear that the church that crucifix told Francis to rebuild wasn’t the decrepit little chapel, but the capital-C church. He was called to something a lot bigger than he knew.

So, me? I apparently was called to something a lot smaller, I have learned.

Maybe my most essential brokenness is that I am always searching for how to prove myself, hunting for the specific way God is calling me to earn my existential keep. I have said this before, but I really think that being the result of an unwanted pregnancy, pre-Roe, has always left me aware of the many who have been similarly unwanted who have not had the gift of living. So, my whole life, I’ve been thinking that I must have made it to this point because God had some major thing for me to do. Maybe lead some people out of Egypt, or rebuild a capital-C church. Something big enough to warrant being here.

In 2014, the first time we really spent time in Assisi, I went to that crucifix and those little churches and I really wanted to hear what that something was. I mean, I was 45, and while I had kind of settled into a groove by that point, my head continued to be on a swivel, looking for whatever it was that God had put me here for.

The crucifix Jesus did not speak to me. Yeah, I was bummed, too.

I was talking with my spiritual director after I got back, and I told him about not getting any talking-crucifix messages, but that I kept feeling like there was something about being a peacemaker in all the time we spent there, and he said, well, maybe God is calling you to be a peacemaker.

That sounded pretty big, because, you know, look around. And I think when I got the inspiration to start Love Not Fear a couple years later, and when I really started digging in to how to disrupt despair a few years after that, those were expressions of me trying to be a peacemaker, in the big sense.

I put the Love Not Fear organization to rest earlier this year, because I just couldn’t figure out how to make it into what it needed to be. And I never pulled together the big idea on disrupting despair. And, honestly, when we went back to Assisi this summer for a more intense retreat, peacemaking had not been on my mind for a long time and was not part of the retreat plan at all.

Until it kept coming up. The first day we were there, being a peacemaker came back up in my prayer. The next day was a feast day, for Mary, Queen of Peace. The next day, the homilist at Sunday mass preached on peace. The next day, US Independence Day, the readings were all about peace, like, in an overabundant way. After which I noticed a prayer for peace from my favorite actual saint, Saint John XXIII, in the prayer book. A couple days later, another reading I hadn’t planned was on peacemaking. That kind of thing makes you laugh after a while, and I laughed a lot.

But along with that came a message that was the opposite of what Francis dealt with in the whole church-rebuilding fiasco: 

Think small.

A couple of the other main messages I got in that retreat?

  • To make peace, be at peace.
  • To be at peace, consider yourself nothing.
  • To consider yourself nothing, be in love with the Ultimate Something.


Savor your marriage.

Not “Write a book.” Not “resuscitate the 501c3.” Not “launch a social movement.”

Be at peace. Go deeper with God. Savor your marriage. The nonscalable stuff.

My misunderstanding.

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