When I hear Jesus’ words, especially hard words like the Beatitudes, I sometimes dismiss them: “Impossible! Maybe Jesus could live them—after all, he was both God and man. But not mere mortals!” This baneful theology I readily reject with my mind but all too readily accept with my heart, and thus my moral resolve slackens.

Then I read about Francis of Assisi and discover something discomforting: Francis apparently lived the Beatitudes. He was poor as well as poor in spirit. He was meek and in a perpetual state of self-denial. He mourned his sins as few have ever mourned sins. He was ravenous for righteousness. He practiced mercy, even bathing lepers. He had a pure heart, and when he didn’t, he immediately purified it by public confession. He made peace between quarreling factions. He suffered mocking and beating—with joy.

He wasn’t perfect, and Protestants may not embrace all of his beliefs. But he shows me—and here I squirm—that Jesus’ commands are not wild fantasies of a dreamy idealist but hard-headed guides to a life of freedom and joy. And for mere mortals, no less. Because of Francis, instead of ignoring Jesus, I repent and listen anew to the one who has, as Simon Peter put it, “the words of eternal life.”

Such is my experience with “the little, poor man of Assisi.” Whether you see Francis as an eccentric or the closest imitation of Christ, he still, eight centuries after his passing, continues to intrigue, and sometimes discomfort.

After reading this issue, let me know how Francis strikes you.