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Kathleen BradySeptember 14, 2023

In times of reflection, when Francis of Assisi asked himself what would be the most important qualities for his followers to have, he would focus on one or another of the brothers who were already by his side. Then Francis would try to identify one trait that he found to be outstanding in each of them. He singled out Juniper’s perfect patience. He rejoiced in the love of poverty that Bernard of Quintavalle possessed. He hailed the constant prayer of Rufino. Ultimately, St. Francis’ list of desirable virtues came to include devotion to the Lord, simplicity, purity, friendliness and common sense, according to The Mirror of Perfection, a book of stories from Francis’ earliest followers.

St. Francis’ list of desirable virtues came to include devotion to the Lord, simplicity, purity, friendliness and common sense, according to The Mirror of Perfection, a book of stories from Francis’ earliest followers.

I, too, have a list of virtues that I prize. Mine, however, is a list of what I want to see in those I have to deal with when I am trying to get things done. My list includes brevity and getting to the point. Thus it is that many people annoy me; and yes, of course, this is the sin of judging others. Recently I was at a meeting where a founder of an organization I work with was supposed to present our goals. He fumbled, leaving out a key point that illustrated the cause of the problem we were trying to solve. Later he acknowledged that he had explained things badly, but I was quietly angry for days.

St. Francis would have handled this better, and I would have done well to follow his example. Francis usually found the best intentions and outcomes in each and all of his companions. This stemmed from his love for them and also from his often-expressed wish that they be joyful. His exhortations to joy appear throughout early biographies of his life, but they are particularly well-expressed in The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, the second biography of Francis by Thomas of Celano.

Francis could be particularly encouraging when they seemed to stumble. Such incidents among his followers included, in one example, failing to share food, and in another putting the entire community at risk of being driven from the environs of Assisi.

Let us take the case of Bernard of Quintavalle. Before becoming one of Francis’ first followers, he was a wealthy lawyer of Assisi. He was intrigued that Francis had abandoned his prosperous life to preach the Gospel and that he seemed so happy leading a life of poverty and prayer. But was the former merchant who he seemed to be? Bernard invited Francis to stay at his house so he could study Francis more closely. Bernard soon discovered that Francis authentically lived the Gospel as he urged others to do. Soon Bernard sold off his property and distributed his gains to the poor, giving his fine clothes to beggars and joining Francis to live under the open skies of Umbria.

Meanwhile, Francis, who had previously suffered from great loneliness, was so happy to have companions that he told them not to beg, but instead to devote their time to preaching and prayer. He feared that the mortifying task of asking for alms would drive off these untried followers whom he had so desperately longed for. Francis committed to begging for enough food for the entire community. However, he failed to gather sufficient sustenance and they barely had enough food to stay alive. Soon Bernard and the others insisted that they wanted to beg, too. In fact, according to The Legend of Perugia, another account by the early followers, they treated the task as a contest to see who would be the most accomplished beggar.
 
The first day, Bernard had some success, but he returned to Francis dejected, according to a manuscript found at the Royal Library at Munich early in the 20th century. He confessed that he was so starved that he ate what was edible as soon as it was given to him. He apologized for having nothing to share, but Francis told him he was wonderful. He announced that Bernard was a man of perfect faith. He had saved nothing for the future but had trusted in the Lord to provide, as the Gospel admonished. He declared that Bernard was an example to them all.

When his men were weakest, Francis was strong on their behalf. The night one unnamed brother awakened them all with his cries that he was dying of hunger, Francis had everyone arise and partake of what food was available so that their suffering brother would not be embarrassed by his outburst or his frailty. Francis, uncharacteristically, announced that it was as much a sin to harm the body as to coddle it.

When his men were weakest, Francis was strong on their behalf.

He was a special champion of Juniper, who was good, loving and intellectually disabled. According to The Chronicle of the Twenty-Four Generals, an early history of the Franciscan Order by Arnald of Sarrant that tells his story, when an ailing brother said he had a craving for ham, Juniper promptly found a sow, hacked off its leg, and returned with his prize. A screaming pig farmer quickly followed, calling Juniper a madman. Francis, knowing this was a theft, told the swineherd that they would do anything he wished to make up for the loss. The man grew wilder. To no avail Francis sent Juniper to apologize, and he had to send him many times. As the situation dragged on, Francis began to fear that the incident would turn the area against the Lesser Brothers. At least outwardly, however, he had nothing but praise for the singular Juniper. He said the man’s courage was outstanding in the face of difficulty. In time, Juniper’s humble persistence and his sincere apologies appealed to the farmer’s better nature and melted his anger. Deciding that he had been ungenerous, he roasted a pig and sent it to the brothers to apologize to them for his bad behavior.

Under Francis’ influence, the brothers came to call their antic companion the Jester of the Lord. They watched after Juniper as best they could. Once he walked into the city of Viterbo completely naked, except for his underpants, which he wore on his head. Still, he was ever ready to work, and as Francis said, he was patient. He carried a stove because sometimes angry people would drive him from their city walls and into secluded places where he would have to cook for himself.

A quarter century after Francis’ death, when St. Clare, a friend of Francis and one of his first followers, saw Juniper at her deathbed, she asked him what messages he brought from the Savior, according to her earliest biography The Legend of Saint Clare. His words were described as “like burning sparks coming from his fervent heart.” Whatever Juniper said, whether it was intelligible or not, Clare was described as taking comfort from him.

In loving his brothers unconditionally and without judgment, Francis made their foibles and missteps seem like the work of the Lord. Francis had faith in God, but faith in his brothers too.

In loving his brothers unconditionally and without judgment, Francis made their foibles and missteps seem like the work of the Lord. Francis had faith in God, but faith in his brothers too.

Not surprisingly, Francis was right about the holiness of Bernard of Quintavalle. As The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, a 14th-century text with stories of Francis’ life and followers, relates, after Francis sent him to preach in Bologna where he had been a student, he endured insults, often from bullying children. When a judge asked him who he was and why he had come to their city, Bernard drew from his tunic what he called the rule of Francis, the words from the Gospel telling them to sell what they had and give the proceeds to the poor, to trust in the Lord to provide, and to follow him.

The judge said that was the highest form of religious life he had ever heard and gave Bernard a place to live and serve God “in a suitable way.” People soon sought out Bernard to touch him and hear what he had to say, but he found such admiration troubling and possibly tempting. He returned to Francis and asked him to send others to Bologna so that he could return to his simple Gospel life.

Following Francis’ practice of seeing good in someone who may at times annoy me enriches my life and improves my personal and professional relationships. But I am most often like that pig farmer, holding on to my anger or frustration. It can take me time to remember, to let that feeling dissipate and follow Francis’ approach. I am slowly learning to have patience for others, and hopefully, with myself.

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