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Francis: a word from the doctor – Simon Cocksedge TSSF

What would it have been like to be the family doctor for Francis of Assisi?  How would you handle having responsibility for the health of a saint?  I suspect it would be an interesting but demanding role.  A place to start might be the World Health Organisation definition of health:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

We don’t know much about Francis’ childhood, but his teens might give his family doctor cause for concern.  His continual rebelling might simply be boisterous teen antics but could he have a mental illness?  He is reported as being immobile and in a trance, unresponsive to others, hearing voices, being drunk (with the spirit), and giving all his money and expensive equipment (armour) away in dramatic gestures.  Certainly at that time, he might have been said to have a dysfunctional family – a loving mother but a domineering and often absent father, perhaps more concerned with business, image and power than with his family’s needs.

As Francis’ GP, we might overlook teenage follies, but the events of the next few years shaped Francis’ life for ever with consequent risks for his health.  He started to nurse people with infectious diseases.  He had no home and slept outside or in caves wearing inadequate old clothes.  He became anxious; he seemed not to care if he became deformed or hunchbacked.  He insisted on eating scraps or mixing ash with what little food he ate.  Alongside his frequent strenuous physical exercise, this meant he lost weight.  His activities led people to treat him badly, insulting or attacking him, or refusing him shelter.

All of which would undoubtedly concern his family doctor.  But if Francis attended the surgery, the writings suggest we would be struck not only by his indifference to his physical health, but also by his focus, inner determination and joy.  We might approvingly note his respect for authority, and his regular routines and rule of prayer, worship and work.  We would be encouraged that he had such good social support from his close friends, for whom he cared deeply.

Francis, like most men in mid-life, would have visited the doctor very infrequently.  As time went on, our Umbrian GP would most likely observe this patient from afar, perhaps with a mixture of worry and pride:  worry for Francis’ persistent disregard for his own body and health, his lack of sleep, and the consequences of his insistence on a life of complete poverty (hunger, cold, poor accommodation); worry also at Francis’ indifference to his own personal safety such as travelling on dangerous overseas journeys or going unprotected into a conflict zone; but pride at the effect of the actions of Francis and his followers on the health – physical, mental and social well-being – of the local community: healing illnesses, preaching a life-changing gospel, influencing people of power for good, caring for the sick and so on.

Like most of us, Francis needed clinicians towards the end of his life.  He had eye disease, which they tried to help with the latest (ineffectual) treatments.  The reluctance of the Stigmata wounds to heal would have defeated his nurses.  He was in constant pain.  And yet, from that time, we have evidence of great personal joy (the Canticle of the Sun), of concern for others (the Blessing for Brother Leo), and of acceptance (“whatever the Lord my God wishes … I desire”; “welcome, Sister Death”).  His death was similarly recorded as joyful and peaceful, listening to singing and reading, surrounded by people he loved.

Given the WHO definition, what can we learn from considering health in the life of Francis?

Most family doctors’ advice for a healthy lifestyle centres on getting a good balance – moderate exercise, alongside moderate calorie and alcohol intake and so on.  Francis was a man of extremes, single-minded in his pursuit of his bride, Lady Poverty.  It is this single-mindedness which perhaps helps us to understand why Francis might not be an easy patient.  The writings suggest he would smilingly and joyfully ignore advice based on moderation.  Arguably, and paradoxically, that is both strength and weakness.

A weakness firstly because his repeated abuse of Brother Body over the years led to pain and illness in his last years.  Secondly because, as we have seen, clearly he was frequently not in a state of physical, social or mental well-being, as our definition demands.

Was his disregard for his own health a strength?  Yes, undoubtedly, in overcoming his own desires and self-will as part of his spiritual journey in following Jesus Christ.  Yes, in his disregard of self in favour of others – loving service and humility being the result.  Paradoxically, perhaps, not in ignoring Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

Medical research tells us that religious belief is good for our health.  Given Francis’ lifestyle, single-mindedly aspiring to be a saint may not be a healthy choice.  But in the example of his life, Francis challenges our contemporary conventional, moderate, carefully balanced definitions of health and well-being.  In our earthly life, he seems to suggest, the only journey worth making, and the only health worth having, is spiritual.  f

Dr Simon Cocksedge is a priest, tertiary and GP.  He is the SSF Community Medical Advisor and the author of Francis of Assisi: Living Prayer Today in the Grove booklet Spirituality series.