If you visit the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, you will find a small museum containing some of the most famous relics of the saint. The finest is the patched robe Francis wore to cover “Brother Body.” It was a sign of his poverty vow, certainly, but a plain brown robe would do for that purpose. The patches go one step further. They are an outward sign of inner, unseen things—the little rips and tears, the weakness and worn-outness of the self.
In other words, all the things we try to keep unseen, Francis was showing the world.
That was his paradoxical power. He made the invisible visible. Like a clown he took literally the words of Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Before we show the world all those rips and tears of the soul, all those patches on our heart, we have to see them ourselves. We live largely ignorant of what happens beneath the surface of our self. We don’t want to look down there because we don’t know how we would “deal with” all of that. It seems overwhelming. Best to put on a face that says, “What patches? Who has any rips and tears? Not me.”
All the saints who have ever lived—not only Francis—assure us that we don’t need to “deal with” our weakness and worn-outness. We couldn’t if we tried! The secret, they all keep telling us, is simply to look deep within, to bring light into our dark corners, to make the invisible visible. And then trust that it’s ok. That’s the first movement: it becomes ok; we don’t have to worry about it and it can’t really hurt us. But the second movement is even more astonishing: it becomes precious and beautiful and powerful beyond belief (“so that the power of Christ may dwell in me”).
A few weeks ago I bought a new sport coat, one with patches on the elbows. When I was trying it on in the store, I commented to the salesman that I hadn’t seen a coat with elbow patches for decades. “Oh,” he assured me, “patches are hot these days—on sport coats and sweaters.”
I know what I am going to wear today.