A Meditation on the Life of St. Francis of Assisi
October is a great month for the saints. Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, arguably the most popular and beloved of all the saints. (Arguably.) Here is a meditation on his life from My Life with the Saints. And scattered throughout some recommendations for reading on the saint.
Early in my Jesuit training, if pressed, the most I would have been able to say about him was this: He renounced his father's wealth, founded the Franciscans, loved nature, sang songs, wrote some poems, and undoubtedly died a happy death. (Oh, and he lived in Assisi.)
But as much as I found him a charming figure, my understanding of the world's most popular saint was the rather sentimental one that is common today, as a sort of dopey but well-meaning hippy who talked to birds. As Lawrence S. Cunningham notes in Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life, such a view is "most completely summed up by the ubiquity of those concrete garden statues with a bird perched on the saint's shoulder found in everyone's garden center." In this conception, Francis was cheerful no doubt, but also a little bland. "Such an understanding is coterminous what I would call spirituality lite."
Francis of Assisi is a good example of why the legends should never overshadow the life. For within his life lie many surprises awaiting those who are willing to meet Francis on his own terms. As Cunningham emphasizes in his book, unlike the figure that many wish to claim in for all religions, or for no religion, Francis was deeply and thoroughly Catholic. At the same time, he did not hesitate to travel to the Middle East, during the Crusades, to make peace the Sultan. Towards the end of his life, suffering from great physical torment--including horrible problems with his eyes--he was rejected by some of his brother Franciscans, who found his way of poverty too difficult to live. When riled, he was far less pacific than the garden-variety Francis, once climbing upon a roof in order to tear down a modest house in which his Franciscan brothers were living, which he found inconsistent with their vows of poverty. Throughout his short life, his actions confused, angered and annoyed both supporters and detractors. Happily, his real life, which we know a good deal about, prevents him from ever being completely tamed by the legends.
His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was wealthy. This is at the heart of understanding Francis. Though baptized as Giovanni, he was called Francesco by his father, a cloth merchant who loved all things French. (Pietro was on a business trip there during his son's baptism and gave him his nickname upon his return.) As a youth, Francesco was spoiled and dissolute, spending his early years, running with, as Thomas Merton called his own friends, "a pack of hearties." At the same time, his chroniclers describe him as a charming and generous young man, well liked in Assisi despite his penchant for pranks and love of the high life. In his superb biography, Julien Green writes, "With his seductive charm, Francesco was the king of all youth, and all was forgiven him."
At the age of 20, Francesco is taken prisoner during a war between Assisi and Perugia, a neighboring town. Though he bore the ordeal cheerfully, his time in jail left him sick and weakened. On his release a year later he decides to become a knight. In preparation for his new state of life, he promptly purchases an expensive suit of armor, complete with a lavish cloak embroidered with gold. His father pays for this, of course, as he paid for all of Francis's early interests. The day after purchasing the armor, according to tradition, Francesco comes across a nobleman reduced to poverty and spontaneously gives him his new cloak. In the thirteenth century, this would have been an especially charitable action. It was considered to be "more noble" to come to the aid of the poor nobility, since they were not only poor but also shamed.
One night, in Spoleto, en route to his military service, Francesco has a dream in which a heavenly voice urges him to "serve the master, not the man" and return to Assisi. He does so, and begins to find his old life of partying less and less attractive. Over time, he starts living more simply, praying more, and giving alms.
Riding his horse one day in the plain of Assisi, Francesco chances upon a "leper," as they were called, that is, a person suffering from any of the variety of skin diseases so common in those days. From childhood, the delicate Francesco has had a horror of lepers; his whole being is revolted by the sight of the man. Yet somehow, since his dream, he understands that his life is being changed. Grasping the demands of his new call, Francesco dismounts and prepares to embrace the man.
In her book Salvation, Valerie Martin traces the story of St. Francis backwards in time, beginning with his death and ending with the meeting of the leper on the road, an encounter which she describes in mystical terms. The embrace therefore becomes the poetic climax of her narrative, and is indeed a pivotal event in the conversion of the rich young man. Her lovely retelling deserves to be quoted at length:
Carefully Francesco places a coin in his open palm, where it glitters, hot and white. For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back; it was only so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow, found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire. Tenderly he takes the lepers' hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness, which pours over his tongue, sweet and hot, burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. The tears moisten the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this moment, which he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might not live through it.
From this time forward, Francesco begins visiting hospitals, giving even more of his money to the poor, and sometimes even his clothes. Walking outside the walls of Assisi one afternoon, Francesco, still wondered what path his life would take, stumbled into an old church that had fallen into disrepair, called San Damiano.
As he stares at the large crucifix hanging in the church, he begins to meditate on the passion and death of Jesus, and he weeps for his own sinfulness. In the midst of this meditation, Francesco hears Christ speaking to him from the Cross. "Francesco," the voice says to him three times, "Go and repair my house which you see is falling down."
Francesco is thunderstruck. But he is certain about what he needs to do. God has asked him to repair the church at San Damiano. So he confidently goes to his father's warehouse, steals away a bolt of scarlet-colored cloth, sells it, and brings the proceeds to the parish priest and asks to stay there in order that he might help rebuild the church. But here the saint is mistaken. God is asking him to repair the church, not a church.
By now Francesco's appearance appalls the people of Assisi. Dressed in rags and begging for his meals, he brought shame to his family. His father, furious over the loss of his money, and probably equally upset about his son's ignominious behavior, carries Francesco home, shackles his feet and locks him up, until his mother sets him free. He promptly returns to San Damiano to begin his repairs. Further enraged, Bernardone brings public charges against Francesco. He insists that his son either return the money he had stolen or renounce his patrimony and return home.
On April 10, 1206, after being summoned by the bishop to account for his actions, Francesco stands before a crowd of townspeople in the square of Assisi, not very far from his father's house. The bishop tells Francesco to return the money, and place his trust in God. Francesco does what he was told and "with his usual literalness," as Butler's Lives of the Saints says, Francis adds this: "The clothes I wear are also his. I'll give them back." With that, he stripped off his clothes and laid them at his father's feet, and stood naked in the square.
The gesture would be just as shocking today. The bishop wept, stunned by the force of Francesco's actions, and wrapped the young man in his cope. The symbolism is thus complete. Francesco has stripped himself of his allegiance to his father (and, incidentally, to his father's business as a cloth merchant) and is wrapped in the protection of the church. He has thrown himself entirely on God's providence. He has abandoned the pride of his youth. He has embraced a life of radical poverty, in imitation of Christ. Sister Poverty would be, "the fairest bride in the whole world, in imitation of Christ." And he has engaged in what would have been seen at the time as an act of public penance.
But there is more to it than even that. As Julien Green notes in his biography, "The renunciation in the presence of the crowd was in itself, according to medieval mentality, a juridical act. From now on, Francis, with nothing to his name, was taking sides with the outcast and the disinherited."
After his conversion, St. Francis of Assisi conformed his life to the example of Jesus and, as Lawrence S. Cunningham notes, offered his life "as a gift to others."
In the spring of 1208, during a Mass in Assisi, Francesco hears the Gospel story in which Jesus asks his followers to "take nothing with them for the journey." Taking this as a personal call, he throws away his shoes, tunic and staff, and put on instead the simple garb of a shepherd--what would become the familiar Franciscan tunic and hood--tied with a cord around his waist. The poor man and his preaching are so compelling that he begins attracting adherents immediately. By the following year there are already 12 followers, who become known as the fratres minores (Latin for "lesser brothers"), better known as the Franciscans.
In 1210, Francesco presents a formal petition to found a religious order to Pope Innocent III in 1210. Some of the papal advisers scoff at Francesco's simple plans for his "rule," finding its emphasis on radical poverty overly idealistic and almost willfully impractical. But so impressed is the pope with the man who stands before him that approval is granted swiftly.
Francis returns to Assisi to reside with his brothers in a small rural chapel in the countryside. From there, they fan out through central Italy, preaching, begging for alms and performing simple manual labor. In 1212, a women's division of the order is founded under the leadership of his close friend Clare, a young woman of Assisi. Francesco himself cuts off her hair, marking her for a life of poverty. The group became known as the "Poor Ladies of San Damiano," called today the Poor Clares.
In 1219, during the middle of the Crusades, Francis journeyed to Egypt and was received by the Sultan Mulik al-Kamil, detailed to great effect in Paul Moses’s new book The Saint and the Sultan. It is an expression of his desire for nonviolence, peacemaking and reconciliation in the midst of an era in which "sacred violence" was embraced even by religious leaders. Francis places himself in a dangerous place and employs his body as an instrument for peace. His hopes to convert the Sultan are unrealized, but al-Kamil listens to Francesco with good will. At the end of their lengthy discussion he is supposed to have said, "I would convert to your religion, which is a beautiful one, but I cannot: Both of us would be massacred."
After his return to Italy, the number of friars grew, as did tensions among the new Franciscans, who had competing ideas about what it meant to lead a religious life. Seeing he was not up to the challenges of running a rapidly growing religious order, Francis resigned, turning over the management of his group to another brother.
With his health failing (he suffered from a particularly virulent eye infection as well as tuberculosis during much of his later years) he spends increasing lengths of time in prayer. During one retreat, at Mount La Verna, Francesco has a deep mystical experience in prayer and feels an intense identification with the sufferings of Christ. During this retreat, he becomes the first person to receive the "stigmata," as the wounds of Christ's Passion are imprinted in his hands, feet and sides. Greatly embarrassed by this, he conceals them for the rest of his life by covering his hands with his habit and wearing shoes and stockings on his feet. Much of his time was now spent in prayer.
Francesco's last few years were filled of pain and discomfort, from both his eyes and the stigmata. Still, he composes during this time his joyful "Canticle of Brother Sun" during a final visit to San Damiano. It is a final expression of his lifelong love of creation and his innate sense of the sacramentality, or holiness of all things, animate or inanimate.
At his death, Francesco asks to be laid on the bare earth near a favorite chapel in the woods and to be dressed in an old grey habit. On October 4, he welcomes "Brother Death." Though he requests burial in the Criminals' Cemetery the next day his brothers, who loved him so much, went against his wishes and took his body in solemn procession to the church in Assisi. There it remained until two years after his canonization in 1230, when it was removed to the basilica that still holds his body.
On my way back from East Africa, after working with the Jesuit Refugee Service, while stopping in Rome, I was urged by the Jesuits to visit Assisi.
I had only one day in Assisi, which was easily reached by bus from Rome. But there, in that little town in Umbrian countryside, surrounded by pilgrims, threading my way through the narrow streets, standing in the very places that Francis stood, I was overwhelmed with the holiness of the place. All of Assisi seemed like a church: the very paving stones seemed holy. Though there for only a few hours, I spent most of the time wandering around inside the great basilica, staring at the gorgeous cycle of frescos of Francis's life, painted by Cimabue, and, most of all, praying near his tomb. One portrait of Francis is almost life size, with Francis's feet painted very near the floor. Staring into the flecked eyes of the fresco I wondered what it must have been like to meet him here in Assisi.
Under the church Francesco is buried, and the area surrounding his earthen tomb has been opened up and turned into a little chapel, with simple wooden pews for the pilgrims. You can even touch the cool, wet dirt that surrounds his remains.
After I returned from Rome I began a long reading tour, which has never really ended, of the many biographies of St. Francis, each shading his portrait with different colors: Adrian House's factual account, Nikos Kazantzakis lively portrait of a vibrant man, G.K. Chesterton's affectionate one, Valerie Martin's poetic narrative, and Lawrence S. Cunningham's more theological consideration of the world's most popular saint. Along with these I read through the collection of popular stories about Francis, some true, some probably legendary, called the Little Flowers of St. Francis. One of my favorites biographies was by Julien Green, which combined both fact, legend, theology and personal experience. It was originally published in French under the name Frere Francois. But I liked the English name much better: God's Fool.