A French writer once called Francis’s attention to mimicking the life of Jesus, “naïve, almost manic imitation.” The Poverello followed Christ quite literally, doing the very things that Jesus did. Another explanation, rather than manicness, is that Francis was both unaware of more complex ways of reading the Scriptures and uninterested in discovering them: “The son of a prosperous merchant who had passed his youth in irresponsible and extravagant gaiety, he was ignorant of the theological commentaries on the words that might have slurred over their challenge, and he accepted, impulsively and with joy, their literal, practical application.” (Rosalind Brooke, Early Franciscan Government).
For example, in his Later Rule, Francis instructed all of his brothers to not only preach in language that is well-chosen and chaste, but to always preach with brevity: “because our Lord kept his words brief while on earth.” Bringing healing comfort to lepers was an imitation of Jesus, who healed ten lepers in Luke, chapter seventeen.
Francis’s rebuilding of the San Damiano church was his first act of spiritual literalism. He was always one to do precisely what was asked, spending little time trying to discern more subtle meanings to what he felt God had said directly to him. “Go and rebuild my church” was what the crucifix said as he knelt before it seeking meaning for his life. And so literally, Francis rebuilt the Church by first rebuilding churches.
Here’s what I think: Francis would not have gained the followers that he did if he had not been literal in his commitments. It was precisely his idealism that drew people to join him. There is simple beauty and attraction in doing what needs to be done regardless of other consequences.
There is an art to spiritual imitation, and it isn’t only done through the physical details of life. Trying to be like the great saints that have come before us is part of Christian discipleship. Imitation of Jesus is more important than praying to him—more important, even, than holding certain beliefs about him. As Simone Weil once argued in a letter to a priest, “Christ does not save all those who say to Him: ‘Lord, Lord.’ But he saves all those who out of a pure heart give a piece of bread to a starving man, without thinking about Him the least little bit.”