St. Francis Got it Wrong!
January 9, 2022
Living in Italy during the High Middle Ages where battles, feasts, jousting, heroic actions, chivalry and honour were the aspirations of many a young lad, Francis of Assisi often dreamed of obtaining great glory on the battlefield. As a youth, he yearned to gain fame and renown as a great knight fighting for some just cause, so when he was old enough, he eventually joined his city's army to fight against the neighbouring city of Perugia. Unfortunately, his side lost and he ended up spending quite a bit of time imprisoned in one of their cells. Once he and the other men were released, Francis none the less continued to pursue a career as a knight, undaunted by this initial failure.
He eventually purchased all the gear he needed as a knight going into battle, but while he was setting out to join the army in Rome, he had a dream. Some say he had his first dream when still in his father's house and others say that he had the dream in Spoleto on the way to Rome. However it was, the details of the dream may differ a little but they do not alter the basic message.
In his dream, Francis saw himself in a fine and grand castle where the walls were covered with shields and military banners. He was feasting with some knights and somehow, these men were his knights.
Sounds like a wonderful dream, doesn't it? Well, Francis thought so at all events! He believed that through this dream, the Lord was confirming his long heartfelt desire to become a great knight, to fight glorious battles and to win great renown as a top-notch warrior of the military elite. He would be a warrior and he would be a leader of warriors. He really, truly thought that the dream was confirming a life-time calling. But Francis got it all wrong; he truly missed the mark in his interpretation of this dream because the dream had not been literal but very much symbolic! However, despite all this, this dream was truly a calling dream.
In order to set him right, the Lord granted Francis a second dream in which our young lad was forced to look at the elements of the first dream in a different fashion and let go of all his preconceived notions as to how these would be actualized. That is why we find a statue of Francis on the grounds of his basilica in Assisi, with our future saint heading back home, sitting slumped down on his horse, totally dejected and depressed. Even his horse looks dejected!
While still in Spoleto, the Lord sent Francis a second dream: God spoke to Francis and asked him, "Who is it better to serve, the Lord or the servant?" and Francis answered, "The Lord of course". Then the Lord said, "Then why are you obeying the servant and not the Lord?" At this point, Francis, asked a very good question: "Lord, what do you want me to do?" and the Lord told him, "Go back home. It will be revealed to you what you must do."
That too was quite a wonderful dream and what a grace it is when the Lord actually speaks to us in a dream! But it was also difficult because it seemed to contradict his first dream! It must have been a very hard thing for Francis to obey the Lord because it seemed as though he was being called to completely abandon his heart's desire. Going back home might have led his family and friends to believe him to be a coward, afraid of going into battle and lacking in manly courage. He must have returned home discouraged and disillusioned, thinking that the Lord was asking him to let go of all that he thought was at the deepest centre of his heart. To top it all off, while on his way to Rome, the story goes that Francis gave his armour to a man who wanted to join the army but who was too poor to purchase all the needed gear. So the statue depicts Francis not only looking sad and defeated, but stripped of all his glorious armour! What a way to go back home!
But we know the rest of the story and we can see, from our vantage point in history, how his first dream was realized. Francis did indeed become a knight, but a knight of the Kingdom of God, fighting a battle for the salvation of souls!
So what can we learn from these two dreams?
Well, the greatest "take-away" from these dreams is to realize how our deep-seated desires can sometimes lead us to interpret some of our dreams in too literal a way when all along, the Lord is showing us a much more symbolic and spiritual view of things. The Lord was telling Francis that his plans of knightly chivalry and of great deeds would indeed be fulfilled, but not in the way that he had thought. He would come to see that his literal ideal of chivalry was but a poor shadow of a far greater spiritual reality; that of being a great knight for the Lord. Francis would eventually be given his knights, but they would be men who would be given the grace of embracing humility, poverty, criticism, deprivation, scorn and ridicule for the sake of the Kingdom. To the natural eye, they didn't look very glorious at all! Even the name they eventually chose denoted their humble stature: the Friars Minor.
The second thing we learn is that Francis gave his dreams quite a bit of weight. He really believed that God had spoken to him in his dreams so he actually obeyed the Lord by abandoning his life-long quest and going back home to await further instructions. His belief that the dreams were truly from God literally changed the course of his whole life and ultimately the course of Church history! The second dream that he had would be called a guidance dream because it's in that dream that the Lord tells him what to do.
Finally, we see that Francis already had in him the seeds of abandonment to Divine Providence. He didn't argue with the Lord saying, "Look, what about the first dream and your promise of castles, military shields, banners and great feasting with my men? Why did you give me that dream and then come in another dream and tell me to abandon the very journey that would enable it all to come true?" Well, who knows; maybe he did say those things to the Lord, but the point is, Francis did go back home, and this difficult obedience catapulted him into an amazingly great adventure, one that he never could have foreseen while dreaming of deeds of chivalry! In essence, by giving credence to the dream and obeying the Lord by returning to his home, Francis agreed to walk in 'unknowing', in a kind of 'darkness of faith'. To walk in this kind of obscurity is a difficult thing to do because when the Lord asks this of us, we need to make many, many acts of faith and hope in order to keep believing that this dashing of all of our hopes is actually leading us somewhere! Our minds tell us that all is over, but faith and hope keep bubbling up from deep within, helping us to stand firm in this state of unknowing.
Francis and his men became great and glorious knights of Christ by winning over a multitude of souls to the Kingdom of God and by re-establishing the Church on more solid foundations. And they received the greatest honour bestowed upon men: that of being called a Saint in the Kingdom of God!
But, did you know that another dream by another man played a significant role in the life of St. Francis?