From “The Life of St. Francis of Assisi” by Thomas of Celano:
“When he was brought before the Bishop, he would suffer no delay or hesitation in anything; indeed, he did not wait for any words nor did he speak any, but immediately putting off his clothes and casting them aside, he gave them back to his father. Moreover, not even rationing his trousers, he stripped himself completely naked before all. The bishop, however, sensing his disposition and admiring greatly his fervor and constancy, arose and drew him within his arms and covered him with the mantle he was wearing. He understood clearly that the counsel was of God, and he understood that the actions of the man of God that he had personally witnessed contained a mystery. He immediately, therefore became his helper and cherishing him and encouraging him…Behold, now he wrestles naked with his naked adversary, and having put off everything that is of this world, he thinks only about the things of the Lord. He seeks now to despise his own life, putting off all solicitude for it, that he might find peace in his harassed way, and that meanwhile only the wall of flesh should separate him from the vision of God.”
This incident can mean different things to different people. I believe, for St. Francis, it was his final renunciation of all that tied him to his former life. For, just previous to this incident, the Father of Francis had kidnapped his son, abused him physically and verbally, and chained the future Saint in the family home. Francis’s mother, out of sheer pity, freed him, and this led to his dramatic final act of removing his clothes and handing them to his maniacal father. For me, this signals a letting go: a stripping of all past wrongs done against us; a dropping away of old ties to sin, desires, and disappointments. And, although little is known about the early life of Francis, from the few remaining histories, it appeared to be not only privileged and decadent, but also ignorant and wayward. As Celano wrote: “…he outdid all his contemporaries in vanities and he became a promoter of evil…” Not surprisingly, Francis “…had received little to no instruction in the way of God and in knowledge of him when he was young…” Therefore, in this respect, Francis is a very modern person: reared as a sort of “cultural” Catholic, only paying slight lip-service to religion while partaking in every kind of existing hedonism. Here, I can completely relate, as I was a child during the post-Vatican II era – when the American Catholic parochial system underwent radial restructuring and many of the time-tested theories of education and discipline were abandoned. After leaving Catholic high-school, I new practically nothing. Like Francis, I sought solace in the world. Later, like many of my contemporaries, we were left feeling unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and bitterly used. Francis arrived at that same moment. As St. John of the Cross would later describe, Francis chose “nakedness” before God. Yet, this is not just a matter of pulling off the soiled and tattered, but includes making yourself open and vulnerable before God. Because, as all of us have been continually beaten and buffeted by the world – we tend to become more self-protective and guarded. We keep ourselves safe; and that’s a comfortable position to stay. So, in order to truly leave everything behind us, we must take the chance and Trust in Jesus. Just as Francis did, this requires a radical step: a willingness to make the leap of Faith, to rely on God, and to forget about former ways. And at its core – this requires humility.