Little children are all literalists. Tell them that you’ll be a minute, and they’ll watch the clock till 60 seconds have ticked by. Ask them to hop to bed, and off they’ll go on one leg. They live up – or down – to our expectations as literally stated, so we have a responsibility to remember that they believe us when we say they’re smart, or frightened of mice, or prone to car sickness. And as parents, we’ve greatly enjoyed the signs of budding irony; of a developing appreciation for nuances, of the foundations of a sense that not everything is intended to be taken literally.
Some people never quite make that shift, and today’s saint was one of those. There were no shades of grey in St Francis’ enthusiastic adoption of the Way. ‘ “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins”,’ said the crucifix at San Damiano. And he started picking up stones and piling them one on the other. He heard a sermon on the text from Matthew about setting off to proclaim the Gospel without a walking stick and shoes, and was inspired to devote his life to holy poverty. Indeed, his obedience to this text led in time to the whole Franciscan order. ‘Preach the Gospel to the heathen,’ he read, and set off to Egypt to preach to the Muslims.
And, of course, there was the famous incident where his father, frustrated to have his son becoming a laughing stock, complained to the bishop. Francis was told that even the clothes he stood in belonged to his father. So he took them off and gave them back.
You’ve got to love a literalist.