“Lord, What do you Want of Me?”: The Poor Saints of Assi

Saint Francis is one of the most popular and well loved Christian figures. It’s easy to find children’s books about Saint Francis in which stories of Saint Clare are often easy to find. Saints Francis and Clare (one of Francis’ followers) were both a tremendous challenge to the church in their time and continue to be so for us today. Below, I include excerpts from Holy Women, Holy Men on each of their lives. Since our time with students is brief, I recommend selecting an activity below (from the “Respond to the Story” section), as each is paired with a story from the lives of Francis or Clare and giving an overview of their lives plus the story for your selected activity.

Saint Francis of Assisi
 from Holy Women, Holy Men

Francis, the son of a prosperous merchant of Assisi, was born in 1182. His early youth was spent in harmless revelry and fruitless attempts to win military glory. Various encounters with beggars and lepers pricked the young man’s conscience, and he decided to embrace a life devoted to Lady Poverty.

Despite his father’s intense opposition, Francis totally renounced all material values, and devoted himself to serve the poor. In 1210 Pope Innocent III confirmed the simple Rule for the Order of Friars Minor, a name Francis chose to emphasize his desire to be numbered among the “least” of God’s servants. The order grew rapidly all over Europe. But by 1221 Francis had lost control of it, since his ideal of strict and absolute poverty, both for the individual friars and for the order as a whole, was found to be too difficult to maintain. […]

Not long before his death, during a retreat on Mount La Verna, Francis received, on September 14, Holy Cross Day, the marks of the Lord’s wounds, the stigmata, in his own hands and feet and side. […] Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated; few have attained to his total identification with the poverty and suffering of Christ. […]

Saint Clare of Assisi
 From Holy Women, Holy Men

In the latter part of the twelfth century, the Church had fallen on evil days, and was weak and spiritually impoverished. It was then that Francis of Assisi renounced his wealth and established the mendicant order of Franciscans. At the first gathering of the order in 1212, Francis preached a sermon that was to make a radical change in the life of an eighteen-year-old young woman named Clare.

The daughter of a wealthy family, and a noted beauty, Clare was inspired by Francis’ words with the desire to serve God and to give her life to the following of Christ’s teaching. She sought out Francis, and begged that she might become a member of his order, placing her jewelry and rich outer garments on the altar as an offering.

Francis could not refuse her pleas. He placed her temporarily in a nearby Benedictine convent. When this action became known, friends and relatives tried to take Clare from her retreat. She was adamant. She would be the bride of Christ alone. She prevailed, and soon after was taken by Francis to a poor dwelling beside the Church of St. Damian at Assisi. Several other women joined her.

She became Mother Superior of the order, which was called the “Poor Ladies of St. Damian.” The order’s practices were austere. They embraced the Franciscan rule of absolute poverty. Their days were given over to begging and to works of mercy for the poor and the neglected. Clare herself was servant, not only to the poor, but to her nuns.

Clare governed the convent for forty years, caring for the sisters, ready to do whatever Francis directed. She said to him, “I am yours by having given my will to God.” Her biographer says that she “radiated a spirit of fervor so strong that it kindled those who but heard her voice.” In 1253 her last illness began. Daily she weakened, and daily she was visited by devoted people, by priests, and even by the Pope. On her last day, as she saw many weeping by her bedside, she exhorted them to love “holy poverty” and to share their possessions. She was heard to say: “Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for he that created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be God, for having created me.”

Hear the Story

Use the excerpts above from Holy Women, Holy Men to share the life stories of Clare and Francis. We also have some wonderful books in our Christian Education Library about Clare and Francis, including: Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi by Tomie de Paola, Saint Francis by Demi, Saint Francis by Brian Wildsmith. We also have several books that use the Canticle of the Sun. They can be found under the saints and Christian Life sections in the library.

Respond to the Story

  1. Rebuild my Church: Soon after Francis returned to his hometown of Assisi after a year as a captive of war, he was praying in a church when he asked God: “Lord, what do you want of me?” At that moment, Christ, from a crucifix on the wall, spoke to Francis and said: “Rebuild my church. It is falling apart.” Saint Francis began to rebuild the churches, first by using his fathers assets and later by singing in exchange for the large stones that would be used to build and repair the churches on which he worked. Respond to this story by playing one of the following versions on a “rebuild the church” game (based on the ages in your class). Go outside if the weather is good!
    1. Pre-K Class Game: Use the cardboard bricks (supply closet on the nursery side) to build churches. Children can divide into two teams and line up to build churches relay-style. One brick per child. The next child can take their brick once the first child returns. When the churches are complete, discuss what else your churches might need in order to be finished (a cross, font, pulpit, altar, pews, people).
    2. K+1 grade/2+3 grade/4+5 grade classes: Use the relay rules from the pre-k guidelines above except modify by having the children carry cardboard bricks on their back (bent over at the waist). The student behind them in line can help them balance the bricks before they walk toward the build site. If the carrier drops the brick before they make it to the build site, they must go back to the line without adding a brick to the church.
  2. Rich to Poor: If it so happens that we are rich, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to us intentionally to become poor, especially since status/power/respect in our culture are tied to ownership and the ability to consume more things. Going from rich to poor voluntarily is exactly what both Francis and Clare did. Based on the story of Jesus sending out his disciples in pairs of two with the command to take nothing with them and to accept the hospitality of others, Francis believed God wanted from him and those who committed to following God to become poor.
    1. “If you wish to go the whole way, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, then you will have riches in heaven”
    2. “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave himself behind; he must take up his cross and come with me.”
    3. “He… instructed them to take nothing for the journey.”

Discuss what would be most difficult to give up in order to become poor. What would one gain? Are there opportunities to give up things we love so that we may come to love God more? What do we own that gets in the way of our love of God and neighbor?

3. The Rule of Saint Francis and the Rule of Saint Clare: On our first day of classes, students helped come up with rules and guidelines for behavior and life together in Church School. The purpose of these guidelines is allow for a place in which all students can actively participate in creating space where they and others experience the good news of God in Christ without behavioral distractions, conflicts, and chaos. When Francis founded the Order of the Friars Minor and Clare established the Poor Clares, they each wrote a rule of life. These rules helped the communities reflect the message of the Gospel and live in accord with one another. What is the rule in your classroom? How is it helpful? Revisit your rule and make any changes you feel are important.

Students can make an illustrated or designed version of your classroom Rule. Alternatively, each student can decorate one of the guidelines so your class rule can be posted on the wall.

Francis’ rule involved simplicity of life, restrictions on ownership, begging for food, and living in complete poverty. How are our guidelines similar and different from Clare and Francis?

4. Blessing of the Animals: Saint Francis was known for his love and care for creation and his recognition that animals were beloved creatures made by and for the worship of God. In one the most famous stories of Francis, he preaches to a tree of birds (sermon below). In another, he asks a wolf who poses a great danger to a nearby village to be at peace with the people. In turn, he asks the people of the village to care for the wolf and ensure that it has enough food so it does not need to live desperately. These stories and others like them explain why Francis is the patron saint of animals and why it is traditional in many Episcopal Churches to have an animal blessing on the feast day of Saint Francis (Oct. 4). Take one of our Francis animal stories from the library and your class outside to the memorial garden. Gather around the garden altar (it’s made of rock and is at the side of the church. Let me know if you need help finding it) and discuss some of the stories of Francis and animals. How do we know that God cares for animals? While your class is in the garden, look for Holy Family’s two statues of Saint Francis and play a round or two of wolf tag. Instructions: One student is a wolf. Another is Francis. All others are villagers. When the teacher says “go” the wolf tries to tag the villagers who sit where they are as they are tagged. While the wolf tries to tag villagers, Francis tries to tag the wolf. The game is over when Francis tags the wolf.

Francis preaches to the birds

Sister birds, you owe God much thanks and ought always and everywhere to praise him. He has give you the joy to fly freely. The whole sky is yours. He has given you warm feathers like thick cloaks. You do not have to sew or spin for your living. God feeds you and gives you water to drink from the rivers and streams. He gives you tall trees to nest in, mountains and valleys for shelter. Each of you has a song. Do you see how God loves you? So, watch that you are never ungrateful. Stay simple and poor as an example to people. And praise and thank our Father everyday. Your song is your prayer. So, sing, m sisters, Praise Him.”

Conclude with prayer and a snack

Stigmata (art project?) Canticle of the Sun? Thanksgiving for creation?


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