Saint Francis is Teaching Me

Saint Francis is Teaching Me

by Joyce and Barry Vissell

Ever since seeing the Franco Zeffirelli movie, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” when first released in 1973, Joyce and I have been fascinated by Saint Francis of Assisi. Never before or since have I been so affected by a movie. When I left the movie theater, I felt ready to give away all my possessions – actually, I had very few possessions at the time; I was a resident in psychiatry. But still, Joyce was sympathetic yet more rational than me when I shared my radical intentions. “Barry,” she said with gentle love in her voice, “Perhaps there’s a way to live simply and in peace without becoming homeless.”

She was right, of course. Since seeing the movie, we have tried to live the message of Saint Francis, which is so much more than owning nothing and walking around barefoot in a tattered tunic begging scraps of food. The message of Saint Francis is love – love for everyone, everything, all of creation and all that is invisible.

Saint Francis was a tiny man. He stood 4’6”, the size of a child. He was even small for his time in the early thirteenth century in Italy. I remember how shocked I was when I first saw one of his “beds,” a tiny uneven slab of stone in one of his monasteries. Yet, despite his small stature, Francesco di Assisi was a big man. He sang with a big voice. He spoke with a power that opened the hearts of everyone he met. And he loved in a big way.

Besides his universal love, Francis’ message of simplicity has greatly helped Joyce and me. He loved watching the larks soar gracefully in the sky, but he described himself as a sparrow, a simple, brown bird, not showy. He modeled his simple, ragged tunic after this bird. In the movie, Zeffirelli artistically included a touching scene with a sparrow as a catalyst in Francis’ recovery from a long illness. In real life, he saw the sparrow (and really, all birds) as being satisfied with one garment of feathers, rather than needing many different outfits. His early life and teen years, as the son of a rich cloth merchant, included many colorful costumes made from the finest fabrics. During his early awakening, he took two of his first companions, Bernard and Peter, to a local church, where he could have access to the scriptures. He wanted to hear a message from Jesus to guide the rest of their lives together. He opened the book three times and got three different quotes from Jesus that basically held the same message of simplicity: take nothing for the journey, no extra clothes or food, and follow me. On the spot, Francis took this as his vow, to live as a sparrow, never being concerned about food, clothing, or money. Until the end of his life, he would trust that God would provide all that he ever needed.

Francis suffered with illness and pain most of his adult life. Yet he used his suffering to feel even closer to God. He thanked God for his afflictions because they allowed him to feel even more dependent upon his Creator. This fall, I got sick for weeks with bronchitis that weakened me to the point that I couldn’t mow the lawn or do other work requiring physical strength. I felt embarrassed to admit to others that I had physical limitations. I realized how much pride I had in a strong body, that weakness was completely unacceptable. Francis is helping me to learn a deeper dependence upon God for my strength. It’s a big lesson for me, that my greatest strength is my vulnerability and my dependence upon God.

Francis has always taught me about loving service. He lived his life serving God, people, and all of creation. Before his spiritual awakening, lepers repulsed him more than anything else. As he was awakening, he met a leper one day on the road. His human instinct was to get away as fast as he could. But the voice of God in his heart commanded him to embrace and kiss this suffering man. The heart of his mission became loving service to the less fortunate. Like Mother Teresa, he no longer saw lepers, only divine souls suffering in their bodies. Joyce and I, too, are learning the joy of helping wherever needed. All of us have the opportunity every day to do little acts of service that alleviate suffering and make the world a better place.

Francis often referred to himself as God’s fool. He sang when nobody else was singing. He listened to an inner prompting and did things that often seemed to contrast with what was going on around him. What people thought of him was completely irrelevant. I love that! In his later years, before he became too ill, he would meet with men wanting to join his order of brothers. Suddenly, he would run out the door, kicking up his heels and dancing among the trees. Some of the brothers were too embarrassed to join him. The ones who did, however, Francis initiated into the brotherhood.

My father used to embarrass us by acting like a fool in public, and not caring what people thought. OK, perhaps he overdid it a bit. Nevertheless, I find myself in many ways doing the same. Do I ever embarrass people? Sometimes. Yet my goal, like Francis, is more and more to listen to that divine inner guidance and take action that often brings more love and healing.

Perhaps most inspiring of all to me was Francis’ relationship to Clare. I am convinced they were (and are) soulmates. They were hardly ever together which, I have to admit, brings some sadness to me. It was a different time eight hundred years ago. Clare spent her entire life cloistered in the convent at San Damiano. When she wasn’t administering to the sick, and to the other sisters, she spent her time in prayer, a significant part of which was devoted to praying for Francis and the brothers. It was clear that Francis adored Clare, whom he often referred to as his little flower. When he needed encouragement, he sent a message to Clare, and her response, conveyed through one of the brothers, would lift his spirits immensely.

The great love between Francis and Clare is always inspiring to Joyce and me. Their holy model of loving God first and each other second, making the inner more important than the outer, is timeless. We teach relationship as a spiritual path, looking first within ourselves for the true spiritual partner, and thus meeting our loved ones in the highest way. Clare and Francis are two of our teachers. We pray that this vision of holy relationship can spread all over the earth.

Join Joyce & Barry Vissell, along with singer/songwriter Charley Thweatt, for a week of living from the heart in Assisi, Italy, for individuals and couples, Oct 16-22, 2012. Joyce and Barry, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are widely regarded as among the world’s top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom, Meant To Be, and just released, A Mother’s Final Gift: How One Woman’s Courageous Dying Transformed Her Family.


Call Toll-Free 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.

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