“In other respects an exquisite youth, he attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.”
So goes the description of Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadorne, in 1181, by his biographer and contemporary Tom Celano. Today is his feast day. St. Francis of Assisi, now the patron Saint of animals, merchants, and textile workers, started life as the privileged son of a textile merchant. However, Francis showed signs of disillusionment toward such privilege, “evil” and vice” early in life and an impulse for something more. While selling cloth in the marketplace in service of the family business, a beggar approached him. After finishing his business deal, Francis cast his wares aside and ran after the beggar, giving him everything in his pockets. For this, he was mocked by his friends and berated by his father.
“I Will Return a Prince.”
The first time Francis went to war, he spent a year in a dungeon awaiting ransom and release. The second, he left for the Fourth Crusade, declaring that he would return “a prince.” One day’s ride from Assisi, he had a dream in which God told him to return home. Doing so earned him, again, the wrath of his father and derision of the village. Francis was expected to at the very least help run the family business, but he spent more and more time in prayer and exhibited such strange behavior as retreating to a cave to weep for his sins or embracing lepers he met on the road. Obviously this was not becoming of the son of a wealthy merchant, who was expected to marry well and take over the family business one day. As friction with his family increased and his previous identity fell away, Francis’ gradual conversion led him to spend time in the nearby ancient and dilapidated San Damiano church. While praying and gazing upon the crucifix, Francis received a vision of Christ exhorting him to “repair” the church.
In order to fund the repair of San Damiano, Francis simply took fabric from his father’s shop and sold it. This act, along with his perceived cowardice, increasingly strange behavior, and lack of interest in the family business, drove his father Pietro to drag Francis before the bishop and all of Assisi, demanding that Francis return the money and renounce his rights as an heir.
The Bishop patiently explained to Francis that he must return the money and that as far as church repairs, God would provide. In response, Francis returned the money, stripped off his clothes, and said to the crowd:
“Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.'”
St. Francis of Assisi, from the 2016 series. After a statue.
Those Hands Had Held God
Francis had assumed his call was to repair the San Damiano church. In hindsight, his vision is generally interpreted as a call to repair the Church at large, which was marred by scandal and corruption. But Francis as anti-authoritarian maverick is a modern invention: he was not a reformer and did not appeal to those who would become schismatic extremists, but exhorted all- Church hierarchy included- to return to God and obedience to Christ’s Church on earth. His faith in the entire Body of the Church, and his respect for the essential magisterium and for the Eucharist itself is evident in the story of a wayward priest. When Francis was asked if the Mass was polluted, having been celebrated by a priest who was known to be living openly with a woman, “he went to the priest, knelt before him, and kissed his hands, because those hands had held God.”
Treat Coins as if they were Pebbles in the Road
Within a year of devoting himself to a life of poverty as described in Matthew 10, ten more had joined Francis in an abandoned house near Assisi. Poverty was central to the character of the order,. The brothers worked for what they needed and would beg if necessary, but they would not accept money, and were told to treat coins as if they were “pebbles in the road.” His final work, the Testament, reminds his followers that absolute personal and corporate poverty is essential to the nature of the order. When a Bishop expressed concern at their harsh life, Francis replied:
“If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Much has been written of Francis’ love of nature and his association with the environment, especially most recently by those who would recast him as a sort of hippie outlaw while relegating God to some abstract personal idea to be found “in nature.” But Francis did not “see God in nature” in the popular, modern, quasi-animist sense, so much as he saw all of God’s creations as being part of his own brotherhood. It is no wonder, as the brothers spent much time out of doors, in the hills, and at the mercy of the elements.
Pope Innocent and St. Clare of Assisi
In 1210, with the help of a sympathetic Cardinal, Francis and the original 11 brothers managed to meet with Pope Innocent. This strange band of mendicants almost weren’t allowed audience, but the Pope agreed to the meeting after having a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome. As a result of this meeting, the order was endorsed and officially legitimized.
St. Clare of Assisi, from the 2016 series.
After the Simone Martini painting.
Clare of Assisi, a young noblewoman, heard Francis preaching in 1211. By 1212 she left home for her vocation, forsaking all possibility of marriage and wealth. Francis gave Clare a rough garment not unlike his own, and she was sent to stay in a nearby monastery of Benedictine nuns. Eventually Clare and several other women went to live at San Damiano, to be joined by even more women of Assisi. The Order of Poor Ladies, later called the Poor Clares, was established for the women. The Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance was also formed for the laity and clergy, in order to live the principles of the Rule of the order in the world. Clare would became a force for the Franciscan order in her own right, and her letters and writings have been published around the world.
The Seraph and the Stigmata
On the day of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and in the midst of a forty-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas, Francis and Brother Leo went to pray on the mountain of Verna. Brother Leo gives an account of what happened to Francis there, and the first definite account of the phenomena of stigmata:
“Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.”
Suffering from these wounds and trachoma, Francis sought medical care. As his condition worsened, he was brought to a hut in town. The end of his life was approaching. This was when Francis he dictated his spiritual Testament. He died on Saturday evening, October 3rd, 1226, singing Psalm 142 (141), “Voce mea ad Dominum”.
The St. Francis prayer, inaccurately attributed to Francis (it was written in the 19th century) is nonetheless fitting and beautiful, so I will include it here:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
“St. Francis of Assisi.” Catholic Online. n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 02 Oct. 2016.