OPENING THE DOORS
St Francis, Mackworth, at their patronal festival 04/10/94
In the middle of one night whilst I was at boarding school there was a fire practice.
The idea was, of course, to make sure that if there ever were to be a real fire the building could be evacuated swiftly and safely.
Well we all went through our fire-drill. We shut the windows, put on warm clothes and did all the other things we had bee told to do and went to the door we'd been assigned to go to leading out into the street.
Here, however, panic broke out. It was found that the emergency key to the door was missing from the glass case in which it usually hung.
There followed some extraordinary examples of schoolboy initiative and enterprise.
Some boys went upstairs to the fire escape. Some tied their sheets to their window fittings and climbed down; there was even one school of thought which favoured climbing out of a first floor window onto a steeply pitched roof. Most of those who did so lost their balance and crashed into the housemaster's much cherished privet hedge below.
Of these hardy souls the housemaster said the following day in his most disapproving voice when he called us up to review how well the practice had gone "If there had been a real fire we should have had three serious casualties and one certain death".
Then he turned to the youngest member of the house and said, "Perhaps you will be good enough, Williams, to say how you managed to get out"
"Well sir," said Williams, "I waited till everyone had rushed away from the street door where the key was missing".
"Yes Williams, And what then?"
"I opened the door, Sir,, and walked across the street to the Assembly Point like the fire instructions said."
"Perhaps you'd tell the others, Williams, how you managed to get the door open when there was no key in the box"
"I turned the handle, Sir, and the door opened. It wasn't locked in the first place".
* * *
This little incident and those words of young Master Williams "I turned the handle and the door opened. It wasn't locked" have a close likeness to the person of St Francis of Assisi and his way of going about things.
Born about 1181, the oldest son of Pietro and Pica Bernadone, a wealthy cloth merchant of Assisi, Francis was destined to go through life "turning handles and opening doors. He opened them for himself. He opened them for others by the simple expedient, as Williams had done, of trying the handle, finding it unlocked and walking through the door himself. They were doors which other, more conventional people, imagined to be locked or otherwise impassible.
Every now and then, it seems, God chooses to create and call people like St Francis to be door-openers. Whilst others are fretting and fussing because of all the barriers that they believe to be standing in the way of doing God's will, the Francises of this world quietly go about the business of turning the handles and walking through them.
Francis found as he did so that other doors started to open up for him. As he tried to discover what the will of the Lord was for him, he detached himself from his family and friends and went for long walks on his own or with a single companion into the countryside.
It was on one such solitary walk that the next door opened for him. Kneeling before a crucifix in the ruined church of San Damiano, he heard a voice saying to him "FRancis, rebuild my church: it is falling down."
So that was what God wanted - at any rate for the time being.
No doubt it all looked a bit absurd: one young man, of a rather delicate physical constitution, with no architectural expertise, set out to rebuild a ruined church singlehanded.
Well, the point is that he succeeded; and then he did the same to another church, and then to a third. Perhaps he might have gone on restoring ruined churches for the rest of his life had it not happened that the reading for the Gospel at the Mass to celebrate the completion of the third church, St Mary of the Angels or the Portiuncula, was from St Matthew and included the commission of our Lord to "go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and preach as you go, saying: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand".
So as one door closed, the churchbuilding door, another one opened. God wanted Francis to become a travelling preacher.
From that time onwards a seemingly endless series of doors opened in front of Francis. He went to Rome to see the Pope; he founded a Second Order for women; he joined the crusaders to preach to the Muslims, only to discover that so far from being the devils they were made out to be there was much to be admired in their way of life; he went to Spain, to Jerusalem, to Egypt, all the time picking up followers who found doors and windows opening for them, looking out on vistas that they didn't even know existed.
Francis was young when he died at the age of 44. Within two years of his death he had been declared a Saint, and we meet here together at the Lord's Table to give thanks for his life and witness.
What lessons does he have for us today?
Let me put together those two phrases "Francis, my church is falling down; build it up again" and "an opener of doors". I would like to suggest that this may be the time to take the simple but decisive action which earned young Williams the housemaster's praise, when the former simply turned the handle, opened the door and walked through it.
The doors which are waiting to be opened in Mackworth I know nothing about. What is plain however from the life of St Francis is that there are times when God needs someone like him, who is prepared if need be to look rather foolish, to try turning the handle and see what happens.
A little foolishness every now and then can do a great deal of good.
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