Here's how it happened: God came to Francis in a dream and told him he was going about life all wrong. He told him to turn back and go home instead of going to seek glory as a knight in the Fourth Crusade. So, he returned, and faced a lot of humiliation and the anger of his father. Francis began to pray and wept for his sins. When Francis heard God call him, saying "Francis, rebuild my church" he assumed he meant the physical church he was sitting in, one that was falling apart. So Francis sold some of his father's fabrics to try to pay for materials to literally rebuild the church building. His father was furious and brought him to the bishop, demanding Francis return the money and renouncing Francis as his son.
A normal reaction to this situation would be to be upset or angry, right? Well, Francis gave back the money and proceeded to strip off almost all of his clothes (which his father had given him) and walked off into the freezing woods literally singing with joy because now his only true father was his Father in heaven. He got beaten and robbed and left in a ditch, and what did he do? Got up again and walked off singing!
As people saw how joyful Francis was, they wanted to join him in living as a beggar with absolutely nothing. As he gained more and more companions, Francis took three things from the Gospel to live by: first, he took the passage where the rich man sold all his goods and gave it to the poor; second, he took the passage where the apostles were told to take nothing on their journey; and third, he took the passage that said to take up your cross daily. This is how he and his companions lived, truly according to the Gospel. This is a true example of one of his most famous quotes, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."
Even though Francis was never a priest, he did preach very often. There's even one story that Francis preached to hundreds of birds who stayed perfectly still and quiet until he told them they could leave. This is one of many stories that shows how Francis truly believed every piece of nature was part of God's creation and he treated them as brothers. There was a wolf who was eating humans in a town, so instead of letting the townspeople kill the wolf, he spoke to the wolf and asked him never to kill again. Well, he never did kill again and soon afterwards, the wolf became like a town pet that everyone would feed.
Francis believed in trying to make poverty holy. He and his brothers worked for all the necessities and only begged when they had to, never accepting money. Why would he live like that? Because what can you do to a man who has nothing? You can't starve a fasting man, or steal from someone without money, or ruin someone who hates prestige. He believed that this was the way to be truly free.
Francis was known for acting from the heart, spontaneously and as simply as possible. This is when one of his famous quotes comes to mind: "Start by doing what's necessary, then do what's possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible." When looking for approval for his brotherhood, he went straight to Pope Innocent III and was actually thrown out! But later, the Pope had a dream that a small man in rags was holding up the collapsing St. John Lateran Basilica, so he called Francis back and gave him approval.
When converting people in Syria during the Fifth Crusade, Francis went straight to the sultan, in the midst of battle, to make peace. He was captured and miraculously wasn't killed. The sultan was charmed by Francis and his preaching and said, "I would convert to your religion which is a beautiful one -- but both of us would be murdered."
As he grew older, he became ill from living in poverty and wandering. He began to go blind. He prayed to share in Christ's passion and received the marks of the stigmata, suffering the same wounds that Christ did at his crucifixion.
In classic Francis fashion, he didn't complain about the suffering and blindness, but rather went on to write the beautiful Canticle of the Sun (see below).
If we can pray for one thing today, on St. Francis' feast day, it should be for joy in the midst of suffering. How often do we experience some sort of pain and simply become despondent and depressed? Pray for the grace to be more like Francis, rejoicing in poverty, suffering, and sickness. If we can love the Lord and feel even half the joy that he did, we're sure to be better people and be on the road to sainthood!
Canticle of the Sun
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.