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St. Francis Of Assisi

      One reason why those beings who are known to us as saints are so little understood is, that their lives are usually written in one of two ways, both equally unsuited to popular appreciation. Either they are presented in a dry, bare, matter-of-fact manner, which requires all the knowledge and sympathy of the initiated to give it vital meaning; or else they are surrounded with an appanage of portents, visions, miracles, legends--spread before the reader without discrimination or explanation--which confuse the mind and soul, and absolutely repel all who do not share the faith of the subject and the biographer.

      As a matter of fact, no Catholic is obliged to accept these legends and traditions literally, except in those cases where the authorities of the Church, after a scrutiny, which is always deliberate and searching, declare that a miracle was wrought. But every Catholic, by the very nature of his belief in the actual presence of the Divinity among men, must acknowledge and maintain that miracles have been wrought by that supernatural power constantly, ever since apostolic times; that they may and do occur, through the same power, at any moment to-day; and always will occur. In the ordinary gossip of the world, men hold to the maxim that if reports are current, all pointing to one particular fact, there must be truth in them. "Where there is so much smoke there is sure to be some fire." We should at least accord the same, if not a greater, degree of probability and of credence to stories of the saints which have been carefully, competently examined. "The love of the marvellous," says Chavin de Malin, in his book on St. Francis, "is but a remnant of our original greatness. Man was created to contemplate the wonders of the Divinity; and, until he clearly beholds them, he is borne onward by an interior desire to love and admire everything which bears the slightest resemblance to them.... A person utterly ignorant of the practices of a spiritual life can no more do justice to the life of a saint, than a blind man could adjudicate on the merits or demerits of a painting." He adds that, with regard to the religious occupations of the Middle Ages, "the positive bounds of history could not be kept, digressions were made on all sides, and thus around the true history of saints, like a poetic wreath, wonder and amazement were both entwined. Christianity has had its denominated legendary tales, which invariably are based on truth, and should not be rejected by the historian without serious reflection and profound study."

      There is still another way of regarding the saints; the purely material view, which denies the immediate action of supernatural power upon the details of natural daily life, mental or physical. This view--or rather, this abstention from seeing--is futile; because, without a particle of actual proof to sustain its negative, it refuses to admit possibilities of truth to which the really comprehensive and perceptive mind must always hold itself open.

      Saint Francis was born at Assisi, in Umbria, in 1182; near the close of the twelfth century, which has been called a "century of mud and blood, when darkness prevailed over light, evil over good, the flesh over the spirit." Umbria was then, as it is now, a beautiful and fertile valley, rich in citron, almond, aloe, with forest trees of oak and pine and fir, to which long cultivation has added grapevines, engarlanding the elms, and orchards of the pale-leaved olive-tree, that give the landscape a somewhat transparent, aerial effect. The province is encircled on one hand by the yellow Tiber; on the other, by the bluish foot-hills of the Apennines; and it is full of ancient little towns, nestled in the vales, or perched upon the airy hill-crests, with crenelated towers and terraces which command far-reaching and inspiring views. Old Perugia guards the northern entrance to this exquisite region; and five leagues to the northeast of that town is the saint's birthplace, Assisi.

The Vision of St Francis.

      His father was Peter Bernard of Moriconi, better known as "Bernardone," a rich merchant who carried on extensive business with France. In those days Italian merchants maintained a lavish mode of life, resembling that of the nobles; and as the disorders of the period and the perils attending travel compelled them to send armed escorts with their convoys of merchandise, there was something of military daring and display mingled with their business and their surroundings. The wife of Bernardone, however, whose name was Pica (of the noble Bourlemont family of Provence), was remarkable for her piety; the son--in this, as in so many historic instances of genius or distinction--inheriting his rare quality from the mother's side. She had but one other child, a younger son, Angelo, who, notwithstanding his heavenly name, seems to have been a boy after Bernardone's own pattern; since he, later on, reviled Francis and called him a fool for his piety and self-renunciation. Angelo's descendants were still living in Assisi in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Whether they shared their ancestor's contemptuous opinion of the Saint has not been recorded; but it seems probable that the homage of the world, rendered to the poor ascetic for several centuries, may have made some impression on their minds, if not their souls.

      Just before the birth of Francis, his mother suffered greatly. A pilgrim, coming to the house for alms, told the servants: "The mother will be delivered only in a stable, and the child see the light upon straw." This appeared strange and unreasonable enough. Nevertheless his advice was followed. Pica was carried to the stable, and there she gave birth to her first son, whom she caused to be baptized John, after the beloved apostle of Jesus. Her husband, Bernardone, was absent at the time on a business tour in France. Upon his return, he was delighted at finding that he had a boy; and he insisted on giving him the surname Francis, in commemoration of that country with which he drove such a flourishing trade. Possibly he was also moved by the thought--albeit the chroniclers do not say so--that his wife's family came from Southern France. At all events, Francis was the name by which the son came to be known throughout his life and in history.

      Under priestly teachers he received an education which, for that time, was a fairly good one, in Latin, French, and literature. At the age of fourteen his father took him into partnership; and for ten years the young man bought and sold with him, or travelled for him. But while Bernardone was a hard, avaricious man, the son differed from him greatly in disposition; being fond of dress, of song, and feasting, gayety, and gaming. He was generous even to prodigality, full of wit and imagination, very sympathetic withal, and compassionate. Thomas of Celano thus describes him: "His figure was above the middle height and well set. He was thin, and of a very delicate constitution. He had an oval face, broad brow, white, close-set teeth, dark complexion, black hair, regular features, expressive countenance, rosy lips, and a charming smile." With all his roystering, dissipation, and extravagance, however, he was a foe to immorality, always rebuked impurity in severe terms, and kept his own purity intact. This lavish and somewhat reckless pursuit of other pleasures gave his parents much anxiety; although his mother, Pica, said in his defence, "I see in him, even in his amusements, a nobility of character which gives me the highest hopes of his future." But up to his twenty-fourth year nothing seemed more unlikely than that he should have any vocation to a holy life. He was called the "flower of the youth" of Assisi, rejoiced in his gay leadership of the rich young men of the place, and dreamed of winning military glory.

      In this capacity of taking the lead, and in the confident belief he often expressed that he would one day receive honor from the world, we see one natural germ of his later spiritual eminence. Another and more potent germ was the love of the poor, and his pity for them, which he manifested from childhood. In 1201, taking part as a soldier in a brief war between Assisi and Perugia, he was captured, with several of his companions, and imprisoned for a year. This experience, his first touch of adversity, sobered him a little; opening his eyes to the contrast between prosperity, with idle amusement and flattery, on the one hand, and on the other, suffering. Soon after his return home, also, he was stricken down by a long and painful illness. When he rose from it and, as a convalescent, took his first walk into the country, he was astonished to find that the beautiful Umbrian landscape which he had always so enjoyed, seemed to him cold, discolored, and sombre. A natural effect of illness, one may say. Yet it more often happens that when a convalescent returns to fresh air and the beauty of the earth, his pleasure in them is heightened. At all events Francis was vividly impressed with the nothingness of nature, as compared with the eternal splendor of God. But presently the passion for warlike renown took possession of him again. In 1206 he volunteered to join the Count of Brienne, a Guelph champion of Italian national independence, who was defending the Two Sicilies against the attacks of the German emperor, Frederick II. Announcing to his friends that he was about to become a great captain, Francis set out for the field of war, richly apparelled and with a brilliant retinue.

      In truth he was shortly to become a great captain, though not as he expected, in war, but in peace. On the way to Spoleto, southward, a voice that seemed to come from heaven sounded in his ears; just as Saul was appealed to while on his way to Damascus and was converted by it into St. Paul. To the young Umbrian, half asleep, the voice said: "Francis, which can do thee most good; the master or the servant, the rich one or the pauper?" He replied: "The master and the rich one." And the voice resumed: "Why, then, leavest thou God, who is both rich and the Master, to run after man, who is only the servant and the pauper?" Then Francis cried: "Ah, Lord; what willest Thou I should do?" "Go," said the voice, "return to thy native city, for the vision thou hast had has a spiritual meaning. It is from God, not men, thou shalt receive its accomplishment."

      Heedless of whatever taunts might be flung at him, he turned back. But the youth of Assisi, though surprised, were rejoiced to see him, and begged him to preside once more at their revels. He gave them a final magnificent banquet, at which they noticed that he was silent and preoccupied. Immediately afterward he retired to a grotto, where he passed his days alone, entreating God to pardon the misspent years of youth and to direct him in the right way. Here he had a vision of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. It is probably impossible to prove a vision; but that this one was real to Francis, at least, we may judge by its effects. Thenceforth he devoted himself to a pious life of marvellous self-abnegation. Seeing the change that had come upon him, his former friends fell away; but he, undisturbed, went on performing works of charity; making gifts of money, food, and even his own clothes to the poor. Again a voice spoke to him, from the crucifix of the dilapidated old church of St. Damien: "Francis, go and repair my house, which you see falling into ruins!" The young ascetic obeyed literally, and, passing through the streets, begged from all whom he met a stone or two to help rebuild the old church. Bernardone had been absent several months on one of his business trips; but his home-coming, this time, was not so pleasing to him as when his boy had been born. For, seeing the young man's complete transformation, all his selfish love of him turned into rage. He imprisoned him for a while in his own house; but Pica, recognizing that it was useless to oppose her son's religious vocation, finally set him free, and Francis took refuge in St. Damien's church. His father pursued him there, and brought before the Bishop of Assisi a complaint against him, demanding that he should give up all the money in his hands. Francis not only surrendered his money, but stripped off his clothing and gave it to his father, saying: "Until now I have called Peter Bernardone my father. Henceforth I can boldly say, 'Our Father, who art in heaven,' in whom I have placed all my treasures and my hopes."

      The bishop covered him with his mantle and held him clasped in his arms, until the by-standers brought Francis the cloak of a poor peasant. "Oh, what a grand bankrupt this merchant becomes to-day!" Bossuet wrote of him, long afterward. "Oh man worthy of being written in the book of the evangelical poor, and henceforward living on the capital of Providence!" From that time Francis wore mendicant's garb and begged his food in the streets.

      What did he accomplish by all this? To begin with, he succeeded in rebuilding three churches. But his influence was destined to be much more far-reaching than that, and of a very different nature. One day, while he was supplicating in church, his brother Angelo passed near him, and said to a friend, scoffingly: "Go, ask him to sell you some drops of his sweat." "No," said Francis; "I shall not sell my sweat to men. I shall sell it at a higher price, to God." He gave his sweat, his toil, his sufferings, and his renunciation to God, in exchange for the regeneration of men in a corrupt age.

      All Europe, at that time the whole civilized world, was suffering. The mass of the people were the poor, who were in deep distress, ground down by the pride and oppressions of the barons and the rich. The country was devastated by wars, large and small. The emperors of Germany were trying to establish their dominion over Italy and to control the Pope. The Church itself, after emerging from an heroic struggle with centuries of barbarism, had been obliged to accept and use the feudal system as a means of self-defence; and now the wrongs, the injustices, the selfishness of feudal society were beginning to exercise a corrupting influence on the exterior of the Church itself. Unselfish and holy men in ecclesiastical places, both high and humble, preserved the spirit and sanctity of Christian faith, but were not able wholly to counteract the evils of pride, wealth, and luxury that invaded the Church from the worldly side, and infected its unworthy servants. Francis perceived that the only hope or relief possible to that age lay in a decisive spiritual revolution, to be effected without violence, which would recall people to the primitive simplicity, unselfishness, and absolute devotion of the time of Christ and the apostolic period. This revolution could be accomplished, he saw, only by a personal example so strong, so undeviating, so entirely free from self-seeking, that all men would be compelled to pause and consider it, and then to act upon it. He therefore sacrificed his whole life for the good of the race. In the end he achieved his aim, single-handed, single-souled. No one who believes in God and in Christianity throughout, can maintain that Francis of Assisi brought about these results by mere unaided human power. The human element relies upon will, coercion, manoeuvre, and even intrigue. Francis gave up all these means. He first served the lepers for a month, living with them and taking care of them. This should especially interest us to-day; since Father Damien's self-immolating life among the lepers of the Hawaiian Islands in recent years is so well known to us, and since the first refuge of Saint Francis from the world was St. Damien's church, in Assisi. Portiuncula, "The Little Portion," was one of the churches which he had rebuilt, and was his favorite. While he was listening to the Gospel there, one day in February, 1209, these words were read from the altar: "Do not possess gold nor silver, nor money in your purses; nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff."

      That precept decided him. He saw his vocation as a devotee of holy poverty. Straightway he began preaching everywhere the duty of poverty and love of the poor; and gradually he drew to himself disciples, until they numbered twelve; sometimes accosting his old friends, sometimes strangers, who immediately joined him and consented to give up all worldly things, for the love of God. Most of them were men of rank and wealth, who had never known privation; yet they gave up social positions where they had been accustomed to command, accepted dire penury with him in a hut at Rivotorto, and submitted themselves to him in entire obedience. "Bread begged from door to door is the bread of angels," said Francis. They went barefoot, wore a coarse gray tunic with a cincture of cord, prayed much, helped the sick and needy, discoursed to and exhorted the people, and lived on bread and water chiefly. Amid all these austerities they thanked God that they had been chosen to give an example of perfect happiness! Their leader insisted upon incessant industry and unfailing cheerfulness. "Think of your errors in your cells," he commanded. "Weep, kneeling before God. But before others be gay, and maintain an air of ease." At first they called themselves simply "penitents from Assisi," and for a time they were treated with ridicule, scorn, and even violence. But their mission was to suffer everything, to rejoice at insults and injuries and, by patience, compel recognition of the dignity of every human creature under whatsoever guise he might present himself. In this they succeeded.

      To a novice he said one day, "Brother, let us go out and preach." Taking him along, he went up into Assisi and they walked through the streets without saying a word; then returned to the convent. "And our preaching, father?" asked the novice. "It is done," replied the Saint; implying that a modest, thoughtful exterior and the force of example are often the most eloquent kind of preaching. But in 1209 it became clear to him by an inward vision in which the Christ came to him as a shepherd, that great numbers would flock to follow him; and, though he had not thought of founding an Order, he now saw that it would be necessary. He therefore drew up a simple Rule in twenty-three chapters; the gist of which was that they were to possess no money, no property whatever; that they were neither to blame nor to judge any one; were to hold themselves profoundly respectful toward all members of the clergy; to say not a word against the rich or against luxury; to preach, everywhere, concord and the love of God and one's neighbor; to bind themselves to obedience and chastity, as well as poverty; to do penance and persist in the perfect faith of Christ. Not until sixteen years later did the Lateran Council ordain that all religious orders must receive the approval of the Holy Father. But Francis did not wait for decrees. His humility, obedience, and loyalty to the Vicar of Christ led him to repair to Rome with his companions and there ask the permission of Pope Innocent III., which he quickly obtained. The Rule was rewritten in 1619. Some of the brethren suggested that he take the advice of a cardinal in formulating his rules; but the Saint declared that God had willed that he should "appear as a new sort of madman in the world," arresting the attention of the people and bringing them to reflect, without qualification, upon "the folly of the cross," and that he alone must direct the manner in which this was to be done.

      His order multiplied rapidly, and convents were established in all parts of Europe; although he was inclined to object to costly buildings, and was prevailed upon to let them stand on the plea that they were needed to shelter travellers and pilgrims. He established also the order of Poor Clares, so called from a noble maiden, Clare, who became its first superior. This was, for women, what his order of the Friars Minor was for men; though the Clares remained strictly enclosed, while the Friars went abroad preaching, and established missions in various quarters of the globe. Finally, he formed his Third Order, which included laymen and laywomen living in the world, who bound themselves by simple vows of virtue and charity, while continuing in their accustomed phase of life. Thousands joined the Friars; and probably millions were enrolled in the Third Order. It has been said that Francis first made known to the Middle Ages the power of association among the weak and humble, and that from the pages on which he inscribed his institutes sprang modern democracy in Italy. Certain it is that the Emperor Frederick II. received a letter from some of his Italian feudal supporters, saying: "The Friars Minor ... have raised themselves against us. They have publicly condemned both our mode of life and our principles, they have shattered our rights, and have brought us to nothingness." Yet the Franciscan Friars and the Third Order had done this only by the contrast of example, of poverty, fasting, prayer, self-denial, and charity of the heart as well as of the hands.

      The work of Saint Francis did much to undermine feudalism; and it almost regenerated the spirit of Christianity in the thirteenth century. "Man of the people," writes R. F. O'Connor, "he did more for the people than ever yet had been done by any one; whose vocation was to revive in the midst of a corrupting opulence the esteem and practice of poverty, which he ennobled, ... and, without setting class against class, or violating the least point of the divine or human law, levelled every social barrier and united princes and peasants in a bond of union which neither time nor eternity was to sever."

      This phase of his influence should interest us of to-day, when the same problems of wealth and poverty and of superficiality in religion confront our arrogant modern "civilization." That St. Francis was not a madman is evident from the orderliness of his work, his clear legislative and administrative capacity, his calm, powerful, amiable sway over all sorts of people. Yet he was possessed by an absolute passion and ecstasy of charity and universal love, which raised him above the apprehension of the gross, material mind. It was this supremacy of the spiritual in him which enabled him to accomplish marvels of practical result. Toward the end of his life, this exaltation of the spirit produced upon his body a singular phenomenon. His hands and feet appeared to be transpierced by large nails, and a wound opened in his side, from which blood frequently flowed. In a word, he bore the wounds, or "stigmata" of Christ, on his own body. The nails were distinct from the wound, but were apparently blackened flesh; being inseparable from the hands and feet. This phenomenon was well attested at the time. Within the present century several similar cases have occurred, under the observation of modern and approved sceptical men of science, who find that they occur when there has been much fasting, loss of sleep, and constant meditation upon the Passion of Christ. Their testimony states the conditions and verifies the fact, but does not explain it.

      He died at his convent of St. Mary of the Angels (Portiuncula), October 4, 1226, in perfect lucidity of mind, with patience and simple resignation, while giving good counsel to his brethren. Of death he spoke gently as "our sister death;" and when, during his illness, his physician was obliged to cauterize him with a red-hot iron, he blessed the iron, speaking of it as "our brother fire," and submitted to the cauterization, or moxa, without a murmur or sign of pain. One remarkable thing about him was his extraordinary recognition of all the powers and elements of nature as related to man in one family under God. This was the origin of his famous short "sermon to the birds," which has been preserved. He talked to them and to all other animals as though he firmly believed that they could understand him, and could adore their Creator as well as he; though it is not probable that he supposed they would understand him precisely as men would, or adore in the same way. It is clear that St. Francis had a great influence over animals, even over wolves.

      Nowadays we have many lion-tamers and tiger-tamers, who rely simply upon human will and craft. Therefore it is not astonishing that St. Francis, who relied upon Divine power, should have been able to tame beasts. What is surprising is, that he should have been able to control men, who are so much harder to tame.

      The poems of St. Francis--his "Canticle of the Sun," "Canticle of Love," and "Canticle of Charity"--exemplify the immense and tender scope of his exquisite love and good-will. His Order continues, and has given rise to subsidiary organizations such as the Recollects and the Capuchins. Thousands of people in common life belong to his Third Order, now, and continue his work unostentatiously. His spirit is alive and operative in the world to-day, nearly six hundred and seventy years since he left this earth.

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