Eight centuries hence, what will be remembered of 1981? Probably nothing; certainly nothing we know of today. If 1981 is remembered in 2781, it will be because a child born this year will lead an amazing life. Such a child was born in 1181 (perhaps 1182, we can't be sure) to the Bernadones in Assisi.
Medieval Italy was an archipelago of fortified towns surrounded by a sea of dangers and enlivened by violent feuds. But Chesterton exaggerated only a bit when he said three-quarters of the greatest people who ever lived came from such towns. One was Francis Bernadone, perhaps Europe's greatest Christian.
Christ became the most potent figure in history not so much because of what he said as what happened when he said it. He issued history's most obeyed command: Do this in remembrance of me. It has been obeyed countless times, every day, for nearly two millenia.
But he gave more demanding directives, such as: Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor. St. Francis, in his headlong way, suddenly did.
Actually, he began by selling what his father had. This liberality with his father's property caused father to take him to the bishop for disciplining. What happened is one of the most famous scenes from the most frequently painted life of a saint. Francis shed his fine frocks, revealing a hairshirt underneath. He chalked a cross on an old smock and embarked upon a life as God's vagabond. A Christian ideal, which saints approach in different ways, is immortality achieved through abandonment of all the self that could think itself worthy of immortality. But Christianity claims to be the ultimate realism, and God's great gift to the world; and the world cannot live that way. It is all very well for a few people to live like the lilies of the field, without a thought for the morrow, but that would be a calamity for the GNP. Nowadays, national happiness is jeopardized if the commercial activity occasioned by Christmas is less than orgiastic.
Today, asceticism is usually an affectation and a protest. For Francis it was spontaneous orthodoxy, and praise. The radical insecurity of poverty was a form of devout irresponsibility. It was a trusting, thankful dependence on the sufficiency of God's provision.
The doctrine of the Incarnation was, for him, a charter for a democratic life: every creature is dignified, every person is infinitely valuable. Yet he was neither a political nor a church reformer; he did not believe that democratizing church structure or liberalizing tradition would cause anyone to treat others better. As Professor Lawrence Cunningham writes in a new book, Francis understood that Christianity is not made more credible by rearranging its institutional furniture.
He was a catalyst of the Renaissance, and of a religious movement that now is older than many European states. He was this, not because of his few writings, but because he was a living sermon. He was, as Chesterton wrote, "a wandering fire." Every act in his life of impetuous action expressed his feeling that reality is sacramental through and through. Everything tangible was, to him, evidence of the intangible; the plainest fact about the world was God's presence in it. He was not a nature worshiper; he did not confuse the gift with the giver. Rather, he sensed, as a Jesuit poet (Gerard Manley Hopkins) wrote seven centuries later, that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God" in "the dearest freshness deep down things."
No doubt the enthusiastic early accounts of his life, packed with too many miracles, did to him what Parson Weems did to George Washington. However, his reputation rests not on what others have said about him, but on what he did. In the second half of his 43 years his personality set thousands of persons in motion around Europe, practicing evangelical poverty.
In an age when charitable impulses often are bureaucratized in efficient and kindly but cold Welfare State arrangements, Francis exemplifies the warmth of charity without any arrangements whatever, face-to-face. He was a wanderer but not homeless, because he felt utterly at home in the world. He was the rarest radical, without the slightest sense of alienation from his setting.
The odds are against anyone born in 1981 doing for this year what Francis did for 1181, causing it to be remembered 800 years later. But it is oddly agreeable to know that if this year is remembered then, it will be because of someone who today is too young to believe in Santa Claus.