What St. Francis gathering stones taught me about discernment

August 8, 2012 | 28 comments

This post was originally published on November 3, 2010.

St. Francis at San Damiano

I’ve been thinking about the topic of discernment again lately. How do I know what God wants me to do in this or that situation? If I have a bunch of good options in front of me, which one do I choose? This is the sort of thing I ponder when I’m loading the dishwasher.

Of all the stacks of books I’ve read on this subject, one vignette keeps coming to mind: the famous story of St. Francis of Assisi receiving the message from God in the church at San Damiano.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the life of St. Francis, he was the son of a wealthy merchant in 12th-Century Assisi, Italy. After living a life full of worldly pleasures, he walked away from it all to pursue holiness. One day he was praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, and he heard the voice of God say:

Francis, rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling down.

So Francis went out to collect stones. He gathered them wherever he could find them, even begged for them. For a long time after he heard that message, he dedicated himself to the simple tasks of hauling stones over to San Damiano to literally rebuild this church.

Every time I come across that part of the story, I always feel like shouting, “No, Francis, you misunderstood! God meant capital-C Church!”

Francis lived in a time when the Church at large wasn’t in great shape. In his part of the world especially, corruption and apathy were big problems. And, as we now know, Francis did end up turning it around through his preaching and his radical simplicity. He was arguably the greatest reformer the Church has ever seen. Far be it from me to question the discernment of a saint, but…ya know…it really does seem like God meant Church, not church, in his message at San Damiano. It seems like Francis misunderstood.

Let’s contrast the way he responded to that message to the way someone like me would heed the same call:

Francis: [Gets up, walks out of the church, and gets to work  gathering stones.]

Jen: “‘Rebuild my church’? What church? This one? Or did you mean my home parish church? And what did you mean by ‘rebuild’ — are we talking a symbolic spiritual renewal or physical renovation? If the latter, exterior or interior? Or both? Or, wait…did you mean capital-C Church?!”

Basically, I would have analyzed it, thought about it, talked about it, and done whatever the 12th Century version of blogging about it was. And I would have taken no action until I felt like I had perfect clarity on it — which means I probably never would have done anything at all.

Contrasting my way of discernment with St. Francis‘, it becomes clear that mine is all about control: I feel like it rests entirely on me to get it right. The weight of the world is on my shoulders alone. I act like God is powerless to work things out without me interpreting his call with 100% accuracy. Yet again, my mentality is, “IT’S ALL UP TO ME!!!”

But St. Francis got it right, even if he did misunderstand that message. He understood that the secret to discernment (and, really, the secret to pretty much everything) is humility. He knew that it’s better to get a message wrong and proceed in humility than to get it right and proceed as if it’s all up to you.

The more I look to St. Francis’ example, the more I see that knowing the mind of God perfectly isn’t necessary for good discernment (not to mention the fact that it isn’t even possible).  As long as I am not blocking out God’s voice through intentional disobedience or sin, as long as I am sincerely seeking his will, that’s what matters. Even if I misunderstand some message in prayer and end up taking the “wrong” path, the Lord will work it out, as long as I stay close to him. I pray that I might follow in the footsteps of St. Francis in my discernment with this situation as well as any others. After all, through his humility, God indeed lead him to rebuild the Church…after he rebuilt the church.


  1. Monica

    Beautiful rerun. 🙂

  2. Elisa | blissfulE

    Yes – humble obedience, even if we get it wrong, is the way to follow Christ. I’m not actually following if I’m standing around thinking about following.

  3. Sara

    Thanks Jennifer! Your response is exactly what I do. My husband calls it wishy washy but it is over analyzing. I need to listen & then act.

  4. Ann

    Jennifer, you’re so right, why can’t we keep it simple like Samuel [1 Samuel 3:10] “Speak, for your servant is listening”. God bless love Glory

  5. Shonmarie

    Well said, Jennifer! It’s like I was writing that myself. I tend to get into the “analysis paralysis” thing so many times in my life. And I definitely have the “it’s all on my shoulders” mentality. I am, however, learning to truly put everything into God’s Hands and, when needed, to put everyone at the Foot of The Cross! Really, I just need to listen and heed in a more simple manner. Thank you for this wonderful blog.

  6. Benedicte

    Hi Jen, this is yet another great entry by you!
    I have never read anything about St Francis, but I would think that he did not misunderstand God by starting to rebuild the local church…on the contrary, what other way would God have told him to start rebuilding His Church, than by starting with what’s in front of him, ie the old church? What woudl anyone say or do upon hearing “rebuild My Church”!? I think God knows that would freak anyone out, He knows to ask us small things, relative to each individual’s ability and intelligence, while He’s got the Big Plan in mind. Even the most able, holy and intelligent person on earth cannot get the full “Big Plan”…St Francis did rebuild the Church, but we only know this in hindsight, I’m not sure he even realised it himself when he was alive. A bit like St Thomas Aquinas saying all his work amounted to nothing…whereas we know now that it is the corner stone upon which our civilisation is built!
    Just a thought. Your blog is inspirational!

    • PJ

      Unfortunately I don’t know the whole story either, but the movie is entertaining, slowly but surely he finds help, one stone at a time. Stones are strong and reliable, among other things.

      I think some simple principles are best learned through repetition. The physical act of finding a strong stone, studying its shape, thinking of where it would fit, carrying it, doing that thousands of times perhaps gave them a mutual understanding for how followers would fit the community. This also reminds me of Shaolin Kung Fu training which I hear involves climbing 1000 steps every morning–it seems to me that would make an impression on a young student–the seemingly overwhelming training ahead of them can indeed be surmounted one step at a time, we follow in the footsteps of those who went before us, etc.

  7. Katie

    Your re-post today is certainly timely, Jennifer. Off and on over the past few months (and longer, for other questions), I’ve been wondering (aka half-heartedly praying) about what God wants me to do with a particular informal relationship. I found myself asking the “What if…” questions last night and this morning, looking for a clear indication of anything. I’m an analyst by trade, so I’m somewhat handicapped in this area, though the good news is that I have realized this fact.
    This post (along with the song “Open Wide” by Future of Forestry) are bringing me back from my near-panic about not knowing what ‘the right thing’ is. It reminds me that I only need to be concerned with my next actions, right now. It also brings to mind your post on “Rocking the Present Moment”. My worries and fears need to get nailed to the Cross of my Savior and left there, while I cling to His Feet.

  8. Jessica

    What comes to my mind with the story of Francis is his absolute sense of commitment, and making a commitment so readily and immediately. I feel that in today’s culture people fail to make commitments, from the large scale inability to go into a vocation, to the small scale, I can’t RSVP to your party because something better just may come up. The greatest saints saw a need and just simply DID something about it. No questions asked.

    But, Jen, I LOVED the new perspective on humility in this familiar story; interesting component for sure!

  9. Catholic Bibliophagist

    Yes, well, and when you don’t hear any message at all? And it’s not a yes or no question that can be decided with a toss of a coin? (I’m not complaining about your blog post. It’s good, and I agree with what you’re saying. I’m just wondering if anyone has written about trying to find out the answer to an open ended question of “How do I serve God in my current stage of life?”

    • Amanda E.

      I agree: my very-Catholic grandmother was fond of quoting very-Methodist John Wesley, “Do all the good you can by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” It’s still at the forefront of my mind most days.

  10. Jamie

    It sounds like I’m not the only one who needed to hear this right now. I’ve been thinking a lot along these lines myself, but sometimes my thoughts aren’t completely coherent, so thanks for putting them into words (and reposting those words)!!

  11. andrea frazer

    This was a very timely message for me. Thank you! I sometimes wonder if I’m just OCD nutso ruminator or critical thinking Christian. I’ll go with the second, but just as there is a fine line between blind faith with no introspection, there is also paralysis by analysis. It’s so hard to do the most important thing which is: pray to God first, then act, not the other way around.

    I so badly need Christ in my life, but sometimes I am so swept up in everything around me – our culture – that I worry about getting it wrong. Prime example: Chic Fi A controversy. I can see why people are up in arms about not being accepted, and yet, if the Word of God is going to center my life, don’t I need to accept ALL of it? Not just the easy parts? How can I, stone by stone, build an armor of Christ around me that takes both my intellect and my need for spirtual structure in my life?

    A step at a time. A stone at a time. A prayer at a time.

    Anyone reading out there? Prayers for discernment would be graciously taken!

  12. priest's wife (@byzcathwife)

    I agree with a commenter above that he needed to rebuild the church before he could rebuild the Church- I think stacking those stones would be like washing the dishes, giving the mind time to think and pray

  13. Erin

    I think a good take away from this story is it’s the little things that make the big things. Mother Teresa used to say we can’t all to great things, but we can all do small things with great love. Combine that with St Francis’ quote “Start by doing what is necessary; Then do what’s possible; And suddenly you’re doing the impossible,” and I feel the message is clear: No matter the size of the task, if it is a step towards accomplishing that is Good, it is the will of God. It is Holy. When God told him to rebuild his collapsing church, perhaps He did mean the greater Church and not the building he was in, but was Francis then equipped for that? Would anyone have listened? Or was it in collecting stones that he laid the spiritual foundation that would allow him to rebuild the Church more effectively. Maybe Francis knew exactly what God meant, but thought something like, “Well, this is all I know how to do, so I’ll start with it.” We’d do well to follow that example.

  14. Jessica J

    I have exactly the same over-analysis and “it’s all up to me!!!” problems. Thank you so much, this was an excellent, concise, and helpful read.

  15. Ginny Jaques

    Such a good instruction to us, Jennifer. It reminds me of a time I asked a spiritual leader how he knew if something he heard in his heart was a message from God that he should follow up on, or just his own idea. He said, “I don’t always.” He went on to say that if he wasn’t certain, but he felt the urging he just would “tumble in and fumble around.” He was certain that if he stepped out in obedience and made a mistake, God could fix it. Just like what you’re saying here. Our biggest failure is not in making mistakes, but in failing to step out in faith and obedience in the first place.

  16. TracyE

    Wondering why I’ve not really “heard” this before…but what a GREAT story! I, too (Like you and many of your followers), really analyze and doubt that quiet still Voice, BUT….when I step out in trust, WOW….God really blows my socks off. Now to just get out of that “busy” trap and settle down and listen more….I can’t even begin to imagine what He has in store for me. Thanks for the reminder to be like I am always hounding my children to be….obedient without questioning!

  17. Debbie

    I would have been like you, too. Trying to get everything right before I start. Now I try to listen and get started. Sometimes the journey take a fork in the road.

  18. Alan Munday

    This also reflects what one or two others have commented here, but I thought I would quote from my Facebook link to this page anyway, for what it may be worth. Thank you for your lovely article, though Jennifer and for being you writing it.

    “I am not convinced that St Francis did misunderstand when he thought of church rather than (the) Church. What he was doing in rebuilding that little church was symbolic of what he intended for the whole church, a practical expression of his prayers, that would also be useful and helpful to him, his followers and the local people for worship. Perhaps what he did was an important part of his learning curve, without which he could not have been so effective otherwise. Sometimes I find that God writes straight with crooked lines. Even if my ideas, on this aspect, are slighty different on this from Jennifer Fulwiler, I still very much like her article and agree with her otherwise”.

  19. Tim Ohmes


    I have been struggling for some time with this same problem and responding in exactly the way you do.

    I think St. Francis was doing exactly what God wanted in ‘physically’ rebuilding San Domiano first instead of “the capital-C Church”! In starting small he gave God a chance to develop the strength, discipline, humility, perseverance, and patience he was going to need later.

    In addition, his labor attracted others helpers and proved his intentions to doubters. Had he merely started preaching his rule without rebuilding San Damiano first I suspect we would never have heard of Francis of Assisi.

    Boot camp precedes becoming a soldier.

  20. Kate

    I have been a fan of your blog for awhile now, and what I love most about it is that the messages you convey about faith transcend the labels we put on ourselves as Christians (Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Baptist). The insightful messages you share speak truth to my heart, regardless of the fact that I am not Catholic. Because we share the most important truth of all: we are all children of God and believers in Christ. Thank you!

  21. Dreena Tischler

    When I visited this church in Assisi, I remember loving St. Francis all the more for being as dense and literal as I am. I don’t know if I would have caught on as quickly as he did though. I’m TOO quick to act sometimes. I would say no one ever accuses me of over-thinking; I swing too far the other direction.

    These lines really spoke to me:
    “As long as I am not blocking out God’s voice through intentional disobedience or sin, as long as I am sincerely seeking his will, that’s what matters. Even if I misunderstand some message in prayer and end up taking the “wrong” path, the Lord will work it out, as long as I stay close to him. ”

    Amen, sister!

  22. Shalom

    Love this article! I’m a big fan of St. Francis. 🙂

  23. CC Jen

    Wow. Thank you for this!

  24. James

    This blog post made me smile.I’m exactly like that.I think i get a message and then i analyze it to death; to the point of crippling any action on my part. You are right. It really does stem from a ME centered mentality.

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