Listen to the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi
Bob and Penny Lord
Copyright 2010 Bob and Penny Lord
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Saint Francis of Assisi
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.”
When a pilgrim goes to the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, he is given a pamphlet which reads, “An Encounter with St. Francis in Assisi.” This is what we will attempt to do in this chapter, introduce you to, and pray you experience such an encounter with the Poverello of Jesus, your heart will burn to learn more about him. There is so much to know about St. Francis that it’s impossible in this short chapter to tell it all. In addition, Francis touches everyone in a different way, as does Jesus. We believe that Francis was the closest human being on earth to mirror Jesus.
Francis draws you like a magnet. That’s how he got to us. On our first pilgrimage to Europe and the Holy Land, a side trip was included to Assisi from Rome. It was our first time in Rome, we had only one day to spend there. We didn’t want to leave Rome; there was too much we hadn’t seen. So when our guide told us that the next morning, we would leave bright and early for Assisi, Penny and I thought to ourselves, in your dreams; we weren’t going. We would explore Rome on our own. But the morning came, and we found ourselves boarding a bus for the three and a half hour drive to Assisi.
We only spent four hours in Assisi, and an hour and a half of that was lunch. So for all intents, we had two and a half hours in Assisi. There’s no way you can even begin to experience Assisi in that period of time. When the bus was ready to go back to Rome, we begged for more time. We didn’t want to leave! But we had to leave. On our way back to Rome, we vowed that if we ever got back to Assisi, we’d spend a day and a half there. As it turned out, we returned the following year. Our planned day and a half extended to a week, and still we didn’t want to leave. From that time, 1977, to this, we have visited Italy at least once a year, but for the most part, three or four times a year. We have never gone there and not spent at least two nights in Assisi, to bask in the illumination of St. Francis.
We’ve been asked many times, and even began asking ourselves, “Why do you keep going back to Assisi?” Is it because of the beauty of the town, and its surrounding area, including Santa Maria degli Angeli, the home of the Portiuncola? There’s no question that it is truly God’s country, but there are many little towns in Europe that are beautiful. We believed then, and we do now, there is an air of Francis about Assisi, which has never left. His presence blankets the town. You can feel him everywhere you go, in the streets, in the churches, among the people, everywhere. And for a few years, we were content with that explanation, because it is true. But it’s only part of the reason. About ten years ago, while we were doing research on this unique Saint, we came across the reason we keep going back to Assisi. Francis instructed the brothers, “Come back to the Portiuncola at least once a year. The Spirit of Jesus and Mary are very strong here.” Yes, then we understood. The same Spirit and power that made Francis the exceptional Saint he is, has never left Assisi. That’s what we felt in the air, the blanket that covers this holy ground. It is the Spirit, Jesus and Mary. Praise the Lord.
Francis of Assisi, God’s Heavenly Contradiction
Francis is God’s heavenly contradiction. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and analysts of human behavior have a field day, trying to determine what it is about this man that makes him beloved of the whole world. It’s a fact that Francis is embraced by Catholics, Christians, non-Christians, atheists, and dictators. Lenin, the major molding force of the Bolshevik revolution, which plunged Russia into more than 70 years of Communism, had an extraordinary admiration for Francis of Assisi. On his deathbed, he said, “If only we had 100 Francis’ of Assisi, the revolution would have been a success.”
Eastern religious leaders go to the Hermitage of St. Francis, on Mount Subasio, high above Assisi, to have retreats, to learn about this man of God.
In Sweden, which has been officially Lutheran for over 450 years, a Franciscan Friar from Assisi, Fr. Max Mizzi, was asked to go there to instruct the people, not in the Catholic Faith, but in the ways of St. Francis. Each of his visits there has been successful; the churches were packed with eager, hungry listeners. A Third Order of St. Francis was established. Conversions to the Catholic Faith resulted. In our last meeting with Fr. Max, he told us his apostolate has extended into Denmark, and all the Scandinavian countries.
During the Reagan administration, while Brezhnev was still alive, relationships between the Communists and Americans were at a boiling point. The then Superior of the Basilica of St. Francis, Padre Michele, issued an open invitation to the two world leaders to come to Assisi, and talk about peace.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II gathered religious leaders from all over the world to Assisi, for a Day of Prayer for Peace. And they all came!
Protestant denominations have named churches after St. Francis of Assisi, and set up Religious Orders, based on the Rule of St. Francis.
These are just random examples that we’ve heard, over the years. There must be thousands of other, more dramatic instances where the name of Francis and his charism, were employed by people or groups outside the Catholic Church.
Who is Francis of Assisi?
Francis is everyman. He is the brilliant, multi-faceted diamond of Jesus. He appeals to every aspect of humanity possible. He is Gospel! Francis encompasses every charism that Jesus taught us. He appeals to the rich and the poor, the mighty and the humble, the brilliant and the simple. Everyone can relate to Francis. He is hope! We find ourselves sinking and drowning in our world of today, which has buried its people in the quicksand of self love, consumerism, materialism and permissiveness. The television commercials are lies! We have finally come to terms with that.
All the things we were told we had to possess to live the American dream, are killing us. There’s nowhere to turn. Where is there a voice of sanity in an insane world? We look to Francis. He is proof that we can walk away from all of this, and be extremely happy. It can work. He did it! We turn to him in desperation, and he gives us hope in our hopelessness.
We have a very personal relationship with Francis. This is what gave us the courage to attempt to put the Francis we know, down on paper. As we delved into research on him, more for dates and facts than anything else, we became intimidated. There are so many brilliant people, who have written such intellectual studies on him, anything we would write could only be categorized, in the kindest sense, as simple.
But then the Lord gave us a word. Francis was all things to all people. He was extremely intellectual to those who needed that from him, but he was basically, like us, a very simple man. The only book he considered worthwhile to read, to study, and to fashion his life on, was the Gospel. And we know that the teachings of Jesus are simple; not always easy, but simple. With that encouragement to strengthen us, we invite you to meet, and fall in love with, a very powerful man in our Church, St. Francis of Assisi.
Francis is so touchable. These days, when we see young men dressing in the latest fashions, driving the newest sports car, playing guitars, partying all the time, and chasing girls, we have a tendency to shake our heads, and mumble under our breath, admonitions like, “They’ll turn out bad.” That may be so; but that was also Francis.
Francis came from money. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was in the garment business. The common term for it today would be the rag business. He imported most of his fabric from France. He loved France, because he made so much money there. For that reason, he named his son Francesco, in honor of France. Pietro’s god was money, and he embraced that god with a passion. His wife, Pica, on the other hand, was a very spiritual lady. She was Francesco’s spiritual influence during his youth. The Lord used the strength of his mother to create a balance in his life, and to bring Francis to Him when the time was right.
Pietro had great hopes for his oldest son, Francesco, even though he was a frail and sickly boy. In those days, merchants were not nobility, nor were nobility merchants. Pietro could probably have bought and sold many of the elite in Assisi, but that still did not make him aristocratic. He counted on this son to bring him into that exalted circle of the town. Francis was groomed all his life to be a knight. He wore the finest clothes. He learned to play five musical instruments. He was the life of the party. There were many parties. That was part of the training. Young Francesco di Bernardone was the party-planner of his time, and the most sought-after party guest of his clique. And he loved it! He enjoyed learning the role he was to play.
Signor, che cosa vuole? (Lord, what do you want?)
Although there was not much to wage war over in the little village of Assisi, shiny coats of armor were the fashion statement of the time, and naturally, the son of Pietro di Bernardone had to have the best coat of armor available. He had a handsome horse. He did everything that was required of an up-and-coming member of a noble society. The proper course of action for a young man of Francis’ station was to go off to war, somewhere, anywhere.
He looked for a battle to fight, a cause to champion. A controversy arose between Assisi and Perugia, a nearby town. Francis leapt to the challenge. He went off to war. But the Lord’s plan was not for Francis to be a warrior, by the world’s standards. He was destined to be a warrior for the Gospel. So Francis was captured early in the game. He avoided being killed, but was imprisoned, until such time as a ransom could be paid. It took almost a year before he was released. He went back to Assisi, sick, but not deterred. He was going to find a war, if it was the last thing he did.
The Lord began chipping away at his heart during his recuperation period. He had a dream, in which he saw his father’s house as a palace, with luxurious furnishings, and a beautiful wife. The dream was to become a prophecy, only the palace was the House of God, and the wife was Lady Poverty. One day, he traded clothes with a beggar, in the tradition of St. Martin of Tours. Values were changing for young Francesco. But he was still determined to find a war.
His opportunity came when Assisi joined with the Papal forces to do battle in Apulia, near the boot of Italy. Francis, and a group of young men from Assisi, set out for the war zone. He got as far as Spoleto, fifty miles away, where he stayed overnight. The Lord spoke to his heart. “Francis, whom do you choose, the Master or the servant?” Francis answered, “The Master - Lord, what do you want me to do?”
“Return to your own place,” he was instructed. “You will be told what to do. Your dream has to be interpreted differently; the palace and arms you saw are for other knights than those you had in mind; and your principality will be of another order.”
Francis did not go to war. He returned to Assisi, a changed young man. He was not the party lover he had been in the past. He spent time off by himself, listening, waiting for the Lord to tell him what He wanted of him. The Lord made Francis’ senses very keen. After He had cleared out all the garbage in Francis’ head, his eyes became very clear; his ears sharp; his nose could smell odors, rather than just the sweet fragrances he had been used to all his life. He began to see the poor, hear their cries, and smell the squalor they lived in. He could not reconcile that his family had so much, and these people so little. It didn’t make any sense. He felt the need to balance things. So, in his simplicity, he took valuables from his home and cloth from his father, converted them into money, and gave it to the poor.
One time his mother saw him putting many, many loaves of bread in a sack. When she asked what this was for, he replied he wanted to share the bread with the poor. He had made a commitment to give alms to the poor. His mother attributed this strange behavior to the illness he had come down with during his imprisonment. His father was not as kind. He labeled Francis as “pazzo” (crazy).
This was the beginning of Francis’ conversion, his response to the pull, away from the world and toward the Lord. He went to Rome on pilgrimage. He saw beggars on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. He asked one to change clothes with him. He spent hours on those steps, begging for alms, in French. He enjoyed the feeling of being dependent on the kindness of others. After a time, he changed back into his own clothes, and returned to Assisi.
The Lord placed on Francis’ heart, he was to hate the things he had formerly loved, and love the things he had formerly hated. This instruction stayed with Francis all his life. He knew how he had been a prisoner to things of the world, possessions which possessed him. He had to make a conscious decision, every moment of his life, to denounce those things which had owned him. He also had to use the same determination to accept, no, embrace those things which repulsed him. High on this list were lepers. The sight and smell of them had always nauseated Francis. He couldn’t bear the thought of looking at them, being near them, no less touching them. So he knew that he had to do just that, touch them.
He met a leper on the road, who was begging. The same fear and repugnance that Francis had always felt, began to surge up into his consciousness. As the beggar came closer, Francis fought the sick feeling that was overtaking him. At their moment of contact, Francis gave him a coin. As if that was not enough, he kissed his mangled hand. The leper, in return, gave Francis the kiss of peace. As the man embraced him, Francis cringed as he anticipated the smell of rotting flesh invading his nostrils. Instead, he sensed the most beautiful aroma. He could feel the fear peeling off his body. He was overcome by a strong sensation of joy and lightness. He felt as if he could fly. He was light as a feather. Soon after, he went to a leper hospital, and handed out coins to all the lepers, kissing their hands as he did. He calculated the score as one for the Lord, and 9,000 to go. He felt compelled to seek out Lady Poverty, and take her for his bride.
He found himself in the broken-down church of San Damiano, a mile or so from the city. It was falling apart. But there was a beautiful crucifix there. Francis prayed seriously to the Lord. The question was always the same. “Lord, what do you want of me?” The Cross of San Damiano came alive. Jesus spoke to Francis, “Go and rebuild my Church, which as you can see, is in ruins.”
Francis was always a simple man. He took the Lord literally. He began to rebuild the church of San Damiano. He believed this was his calling. He is so beautiful, so simple. This is why we have the courage to write about him. There was nothing confusing about the statement. The Lord asked him to rebuild his churches, so he got mortar and stone, and rebuilt. Was it simplicity, or humility? Did Francis know what the Lord really meant by those words, but thought He could not be asking the likes of Francis to be a major force in reforming the Church? Don’t we all think that way very often? The Lord speaks to us, and we don’t think it’s possible that He wants us to be instrumental in bringing about change in His Church. We go back to Gideon in the Old Testament. We’re not sure if, in his case, it was humility or fear that made him hesitate. In any event, the Lord used Gideon for His glory. He was asking the same of Francis.
Antagonism built between Francis and his father. It came to a head when his father took him to court, for having stolen so many valuables from his warehouse and his home. Francis considered himself a Religious by this time, and therefore, not subject to civil authorities. He refused to appear before a civil court. His father appealed to the Bishop, who convinced Francis that he had better appear before his father. Francis made a prophetic statement at that meeting, which took place in the center of town. He took off all his clothes, gave them to his father, and renounced his heritage. He said, “From this moment forth, I am no longer Francis, son of Pietro di Bernardone, but Francis, child of God.” It was a very dramatic moment, Francis standing in the middle of the square, stark naked. His father became enraged; he tried to punch Francis, but his younger son held his arm back. The Bishop, who had been presiding over the quarrel, took off his cloak and put it around Francis. God was telling the whole world, through this gesture of the Bishop that Francis was truly under the protection of the Father. Although we believe the Bishop was fully aware of Francis’ spirituality, we believe the conscious reasoning for giving Francis his cloak was, he didn’t want him walking around town without any clothes on.
As Francis was stripped of material possessions, he became happier. He took to wearing a coarse hermit’s tunic, tied with a leather strap. He strolled through the town, so joyful, so light and airy, without a care in the world. He begged crusts of bread from the local people. They thought he was crazy. Very often, his begging was returned with insults. He praised God, blessed his attackers, and continued on his way.
Francis roamed the fields, looking for stones he could use in his building project. He was shocked to find these stones, laying in the fields, were not free. It was illogical. But when the local people chased him away, he knew he had to devise another plan. He begged for stones! Children of Assisi laughed and made fun of this crazy man, dressed like a beggar, carrying his bag of stones through the streets. But it didn’t bother him. He had become so carefree that none of the world’s problems bothered him.
He grieved for the poor. It was such an imbalance for the rich to have so much more than they could ever use, while the poor could not even feed themselves. But although Francis was considered a radical in his day, he was not about social justice, as we know it today. He didn’t encourage civil disobedience, or strikes. He didn’t make demands that workers be treated more humanely, that salaries and benefits be increased. Francis was about the Gospel. He shared the Kingdom of God with the poor. He talked about the Beatitudes. They didn’t want to hear this, while their stomachs were empty, their clothes were rags, and they lived in hovels. He didn’t have any more money to give them. He followed the lead of St. Peter, who said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have, I give you!” (Acts 3:6) Francis gave them the love of Jesus.
The priest in charge of the church of San Damiano, couldn’t figure Francis out. When he first came to him with his plan of rebuilding the church, the priest thought he was pulling one of the pranks, he and his comrades were famous for. But after Francis insisted that he wanted to do this, the priest allowed him, although he was still very cautious. He wouldn’t take any of the money Francis offered him, for fear of reprisals from Francis’ father. But after the confrontation between Francis and Pietro di Bernardone, the priest was convinced of Francis’ sincerity. He watched as the young man single-handedly worked feverishly to rebuild the church. He let Francis live there at the Church. He even fed him.
Now this is where it gets really interesting. The priest knew Francis came from a wealthy family, and was used to the best food. Francis himself had admitted that he could never eat anything he didn’t like. The priest had special food brought in, which would be more to Francis’ liking. Francis was not aware of this at the time, but soon realized what the priest had done. This was not the way of the Gospel! Francis decided it was time to beg for food. And so he did. He took a bowl, following the example of the poor, and went from house to house, begging for whatever. And that’s exactly what he got, whatever. At the end of his first day of begging, he looked at the bowl before him. It was a potpourri of leftovers, and near throw-aways. His stomach began to do flip-flops. He held his breath, and swallowed the food. It tasted like the most delicious gourmet food he had ever eaten. The Lord had taken yet another crutch away from him. He told the priest not to give him special food anymore . The Lord had cured him of that need.
During this construction period of Francis’ life, one of the broken-down churches he worked on, was the little Benedictine chapel at Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was called the Portiuncola. It had been abandoned, and was in ruins. Francis rebuilt this church in honor of Our Lady, and leased it from the Benedictines for one barrel of fish per year. This became the first church of the Franciscan Order.
The church of San Damiano became the first church of the Poor Clares, in fulfillment of a prediction made by Francis. It was also during this time, after listening to a priest preaching the Gospel account of Jesus’ sending out the disciples, two-by-two, without staff or bread or shoes, or any second garment that Francis changed his leather strap for a cord of rope. He was coming closer and closer to union with Lady Poverty.
Francis really had no grand ideas. There may have been a time when he fantasized how the palace he had dreamed about, would be filled with brothers and sisters, who had turned their lives over to God, as he had. But he never thought in terms of a huge Fraternity, which would then become a major order. He never considered that the Lord would use him to be the driving force behind the reform of the Church of the Middle Ages. He never thought his mission was to change the world. He was a simple man in love with Jesus, and His teachings in the Gospel. But we never stand still; we either go forward or backward. Francis was not one to go backward.
An extraordinary event took place. The young men of nobility of Assisi began to follow Francis. They saw something in 16
this little man, call it joy or abandonment, but they wanted it. All of a sudden, their fine clothes and horses, their coats of armor, and trappings of the day that they’d considered so important, became so unimportant. They took on a dull, shabby color. Meanwhile, Francis, in rags, had a sheen and lustre that was blinding. The parents of these young people were completely dumbfounded. They could not possibly understand the attraction this demented young man could have on their children. Francis di Bernardone became a dirty word in Assisi.
Within a short period of time, he had six followers. One followed quickly on the heels of another, and then it was twelve. Now, they were like the apostles. Only the twelve included Francis. So, for all intents and purposes, they eliminated Judas Iscariot from the count. They went out, two by two, throughout the countryside, striving to refocus people on the Gospel, penance, and the Kingdom of God.
The world of Francis was not much different from our world today. No one was running around the countryside preaching repentance, or the values of the Gospel. These beliefs were not being practiced either. As a matter of fact, they were so out of mode that the people thought Francis and his followers were either drunks, or crazy. Ethics had gone topsy-turvy. Everything that was illegal and immoral was embraced as being the proper behavior, as if it were their God-given right.
Author’s Note: Doesn’t that sound like our world today? Famous actresses bring their children to abortion rallies, stating that they support abortion because of their children. That doesn’t even make sense. Others claim abortion to be their sacred rights. Today, people practice open-sex, male with male, male with female, female with female; they shoot up with drugs, using infected needles. Then they blame God if they are contaminated with venereal disease or AIDS. Mother Angelica made a very simple statement not too long ago. She said, “If you drink a quart of bourbon every day for twenty years, there’s a good chance you’ll get Cirrhosis of the Liver. Don’t blame God.”
But pretty soon, Francis and his followers became accepted by the local people. Their words began to strike home. Conversions 17
came about, on a very minor scale. Little by little, people came back to Jesus and His Church. But, oh, so slowly. While we look at the growth of the radical teachings of St. Francis as being rapid, it still took years of high visibility for change to come about.
They were most effective, not by what they said, but by how they behaved. This was the prime cause of conversion. In the early days, when they entered a town, no one knew who they were. They experienced much difficulty getting anyone to house or feed them. They wound up sleeping in the cold and rain, with no protection from the weather, but the warmth of the Love of God. Then people would see them in Church, praying fervently. Moved with pity, some would go up to them and offer them money, which they refused. This made absolutely no sense. But soon, sympathy was replaced by trust, and then wholehearted interest. The Lord was converting His people through these simple Friars.
The Brothers become legitimate
The Lord put on Francis’ heart that it was time to place the Fraternity, and his Rule, at the feet of His Holiness, Pope Innocent III. After that first big “Yes” to Jesus, everything came easier to Francis. There was such joy and anticipation in the twelve, as they walked merrily towards Rome and the Vatican. They shared their dreams, their prayers, their expectations. They were excited.
They met the Bishop of Assisi in Rome. When Francis explained what their mission was, he helped them to meet the Pope. Pope Innocent III was a very wise Pope. But his thinking was of the world. When Francis presented his dream to form a Fraternity, based on the Gospel, His Holiness thought it was virtually inconceivable for men of that time to live the way of the Gospel.
There’s a moment in Zefferelli’s film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” about Francis and Clare, which deals with this apprehension of the Pope. In the film, when the Pope questioned the feasibility of anyone living the Gospel life, a Cardinal next to him, whispered in his ear, “Sire, you’re suggesting that the Gospel is ancient history.” Is the Gospel ancient history? Can a man live his life as prescribed by Jesus? Francis was convinced it could be done. The Pope was not so sure. He asked Francis to go and pray, and come back again in a few days.
That night, as His Holiness slept, he had a dream. In it, he saw a young man in pilgrim’s garb, holding up the Church of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome. That man was Francis. The Pope pondered on the meaning of the dream. Was the Lord trying to tell His Pope that this raggedy young man and his motley group, somehow, were going to be instrumental in holding up the Church? When Francis and his followers returned, some days later, His Holiness regarded them with renewed interest. Even though his humanity could not equate Francis with the salvation of the Church, he allowed the Lord to decide for him. He embraced Francis, and gave him verbal permission to follow the unpretentious Rule he had written, using mostly passages from Scripture.
As Francis and his band of disciples headed joyfully back to Assisi, they were amazed that their request had been granted so quickly. In his simplicity, or humility, he didn’t realize that there was so much work to do, and so little time to do it. The command the Lord had given him in the dilapidated church of San Damiano was truly taking shape, “Go and rebuild My church, which, as you can see, is in ruins.” It all made so much sense now.
But there was a problem. Francis and his followers had been given authorization from a Church in Rome, which was burdened down with materialism. The basic premise of the new Fraternity was to renounce wealth and possessions. Many of the brothers had given up massive wealth to follow Francis and the Gospel life. How could they reconcile with a rich Church? Would they become embittered with the traditional Church, because of its non-compliance to the commands of the Gospel? Would they go around the countryside, pointing accusing fingers at the established hierarchy, thus causing dissension?
That’s not what Francis wanted. That’s not what he wanted from his brothers. He didn’t want to separate himself from the Church, or from the rich. He wanted to minister to them. The Lord gave Francis a word, the smallest. He wanted him and his companions to consider themselves as the least of the brethren, the lesser brothers, the Friars Minor. He wrote in his Rule, “and let them be lesser brothers,” and in another place, “I wish that this Fraternity be called the Order of the Friars Minor.”19
The brothers took up residence in a hovel at Rivo Torto, about a mile from the Portiuncola. But the Lord didn’t want them there. One night, while they were praying, a farmer brought a mule into the hut. While Francis’ temper flared momentarily, he knew the Lord was calling them to another place. That place was the Portiuncola, around the Church of St. Mary, which he had rebuilt. They constructed little huts, which looked like Indian wigwams. It became the official headquarters of this new movement. It is still the headquarters of the Friars Minor, while the great Basilica of St. Francis, on top of the hill at Assisi, is the home of the Conventuals.
Clare the Fairest in the Land
St. Bonaventure, in his Major Life of St. Francis, refers to Clare as “the first flower in Francis’ garden, and she shone like a radiant star, fragrant as a flower blossoming white and pure in springtime.”
Thomas Celano describes Clare as follows, “...the most precious and the firmest stone of the whole structure (the Poor Clares)...She was of noble parentage, but she was more noble by grace; she was a virgin in body, most chaste in mind; a youth in age, but mature in spirit ...Clare by name, brighter in life, and brightest in character.”
Both men knew Clare, but St. Bonaventure didn’t know her when she was a young girl. He was born four years before Francis died. But you can see from the flowing references to her, and from all we’ve ever read about her, she was a breathtakingly beautiful girl and woman. She was also exceptionally strong-willed. Francis knew this about her, but we doubt if he realized during his lifetime, how that uncompromising persistence would be his voice after his death, trying to hold onto the Rule he envisioned for the Fraternity.
The love story of Francis and Clare was as tender as that of Romeo and Juliet, except theirs was a spiritual love, which went far beyond the conjugal. Also, theirs had a very happy ending, because it was Christ-centered. Assisi is a small town. At the time of Francis and Clare, it was even smaller. As Clare was growing up, Francis had attained a certain notoriety in the town. But he was exciting! He spoke words she had never heard before. Her heart raced as she listened, and pondered on them. The Lord had placed Clare in that 20
place, at that time, to be a spiritual partner to Francis. She said yes, and embraced the ideals that Francis espoused, possibly even more than he. When it came to Poverty, she outdid all the brothers.
When Francis had rebuilt the church of San Damiano, he had made a prediction that it would house holy religious women. He didn’t know at that time, Clare would be the first, and the leader in this movement. But the Lord had given Francis many insights. Was his prediction part of the dream, or had he always considered that women would be a natural part of the evolution of the Fraternity? When Clare first came to him, to hear about his teachings, did a spark light in his heart? Did the Lord tell him that she was the one? We can only muse.
But from that first moment, their lives were eternally meshed, in the service of the Lord. Clare became the first woman to join his Community, followed in short order by her sister, St. Agnes of Assisi. He kept his distance from her the rest of his life, very often to her displeasure. His reasoning was that he would not allow the slightest hint of scandal to invade the fraternity of men, and most especially that of the “Poor Ladies”. He found a strong ally in this child-woman. When Celano uses flowery terms like “the firmest stone” and “mature in spirit,” he’s really talking about a tough lady. Clare upheld the vision of Francis all her life, to the extent of bucking heads with Bishops, Cardinals and Popes, and she got her way. There were times during Francis’ lifetime, and especially after his death that Clare stood out as a very sore thumb to the Friars who were trying to reform the Rule.
The closest words we can find to define the relationship between Francis and Clare, would be those given us by Sirach 6: 15-17.
“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
he who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy,
such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly,
and his friend will be like himself.”21
That was Francis and Clare, only more. Clare was a friend in the truest sense of the word, most likely the best friend Francis ever had.
Francis was always very focused. He insisted on being focused. We believe he feared that if he veered even a micro-millimeter from his focal point, he was lost. He never considered himself very intelligent, or an eloquent speaker. But when you have a direct pipeline to the Holy Spirit, how smart do you have to be? You just let God’s Words flow through you, and you will be considered the most brilliant of all men, and perhaps the most despised.
An excellent example of Francis’ focus was his definition of Perfect Joy. It’s an outlook that, if adopted, is almost a guarantee that you’ll never be disappointed. Francis and Brother Leo were returning to Santa Maria degli Angeli. Francis said to Brother Leo,
“Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb, and what is still more, brings back to life a man who has been dead four days, write that perfect joy is not in that.”
They walked along silently for a short distance. Francis was becoming emotional. He cried out loudly,
“Brother Leo, if a Friar Minor knew all languages and all sciences and Scripture, if he also knew how to prophesy and to reveal not only the future but also the secrets of the consciences and minds of others, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.”
Then once again, a little farther on, Francis cried out to Brother Leo,
“Brother Leo, little lamb of God, even if a Friar Minor could speak with the voice of an Angel, and knew the courses of the stars and the powers of herbs, and knew all about the treasures in the earth, and if he knew the qualities of birds and fishes, animals, humans, roots, trees, rocks, and waters, write down and note carefully that true joy is not in that.”
Brother Leo knew that Francis was on a roll. He also knew if he didn’t finally ask the question, this would continue on until 22
they reached Assisi. But he remained silent. Then Father Francis called out again,
“Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor could preach so well that he should convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that perfect joy is not there.”
By this time, the discourse had been going on for two miles. Leo decided it was time. He cried out to Francis, whom he loved more than life. “Father, I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is!” That was all Francis needed. He cried out with such delight,
“When we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of the Place and the brother porter comes and says angrily, `Who are you?’ And we say, `We are two of your brothers’, and he contradicts us, saying, `You are not telling the truth. Rather you are two rascals who go around deceiving people and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away!’ And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, until night falls - then if we endure all those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and charitably that that porter really knows us and that God makes him speak against us, oh, Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there!
“And if we continue to knock, and the porter comes out in anger, and drives us away with curses and hard blows like bothersome scoundrels, saying, `Get away from here, you dirty thieves - go to the hospital! Who do you think you are? You certainly won’t eat or sleep here!’ - and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts, oh, Brother Leo, write that that is perfect joy!
“And if later, suffering intensely from hunger and the painful cold, with night falling, we still knock and call, and crying loudly beg them to open for us and let us come in for the love of God, and he grows still more angry and says, `Those fellows are bold and shameless ruffians. I’ll give them what they deserve!’ And he comes out with a knotty club, and grasping us by the cowl throws us onto the mud and snow, and beats us with that club so much that 23
he covers our bodies with wounds - if we endure all those evils and insults and blows with joy and patience, reflecting that we must for love of Him, oh, Brother Leo, write, that is perfect joy!
“And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God’s, as the Apostles say, `What have you that you have not received?’
“But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions, because that is ours, and so the Apostles say, `I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!’”
Francis’ philosophy was simple. He wanted to live the Gospel life. True, he wanted to go out to teach all nations, and there must have been a certain amount of joy at the beginning, when the fraternity grew so rapidly. Brothers were going all over Europe, preaching the Gospel. But he knew why he had to be a ramrod in his persistence. He knew he could not go to the right or to the left; he had to remain in the center of his vision, or he would lose it.
Francis considered anything other than the basic, ground-zero commitment to poverty and the Gospel, as distraction. He feared that distraction would lead to division. Too many books would clutter the mind; the Gospel would become vague. He didn’t want his Friars to read too much. There was nothing that could top the Gospel, was there? And that’s what their calling was, wasn’t it? He was happy with the little huts they had begun with, nestled all around the Portiuncola. He and the brothers could go off preaching for months at a time, and come back, to find that nothing had been disturbed, because there was nothing of any value to steal.
A perfect example of Francis’ philosophy took place when he was invited to have dinner at a Bishop’s home. Francis asked for the discarded bread. The Bishop asked Francis to at least eat the fresh bread. Francis’ reply was, “If I eat the fresh bread, I will want to eat the gravy. And if I eat the gravy, I will want to eat the meat.” Francis knew exactly who he was. He knew who his Friars were. Theirs was such a rigid, difficult road to walk, the slightest breach of a rule could make the entire structure crumble. Francis knew that. Unfortunately, others of his Fraternity did not.
Francis was not a great organizer. He wasn’t meant to be. He was a leader, a father figure. But there were others who joined the Fraternity, who were good at organization. Francis was happy to have these devoted Friars take over the job of setting up provinces, and actually running them. The Fraternity had grown rapidly; there were too many Friars to be supervised, there was no way that Francis would have been able to handle it by himself. The original twelve were not prone to administration. That was too much like the world they had given up for the Gospel life. When eager new faces were willing to take on these loving tasks, and the Fraternity agreed that they were capable, the supervisory jobs were gladly given over to them.
But with such an influx of new people, at such a rapid pace, came different personalities. Many of the brothers brought new ideas with them, of how the Fraternity should “interpret” the Gospel life. They may have been good ideas, but they were not what Francis had envisioned. Many disagreed with the idea of the brothers not learning too much. They sincerely believed that without knowledge, they could not really understand the Gospel, nor could they defend the Faith against its persecutors. Francis did not trust books. He believed that, too often, good people put too much time and effort into the search for knowledge, and lose their desire for prayer and the holy life. Then, when they have been praised for their eloquence, pride takes over, and they go off on a bad track. Sometimes, even the quest for proficiency in Scripture, will leave a person more concerned with the study, than the Author. In our own time, we are told that some theologians have lost their focus, and even become atheists.
Others felt the Rule, as written by Francis, was too severe. Who could live in huts, on a starvation diet? No one could live this way. But, Francis pointed out, they had been happy living this way, thank you very much! The brothers pointed out to their Father in Faith, how other communities lived, such as the Benedictines. Father Francis praised St. Benedict, and the brother Benedictines. But he was not a Benedictine. He was a Friar Minor. 25
One area of contention which was sure to send Francis into orbit, was the mention of money or property. People wanted to give donations to the Friars. They were exhilarated by the work that was being done. Some Friars believed the money and property could be used to house the ever-growing Fraternity, and help the poor. Francis was adamant about not owning any possessions. As for money, it was dirty.
We have to remember that Francis came from money. Most of the early followers had plenty of money. Poor Bernard, his first companion, had to go into the center of Assisi, with all his money and possessions, and physically give it all away. That money could have been used to build Friaries, and feed the poor. But Francis had an instinct about ownership in the early days. It had not changed. Money corrupts! Was it right for the early disciples to give up everything, but not these newcomers?
Francis went through this struggle with the brothers for the rest of his life. But he could not deal with this problem on a daily basis. Francis had to be who he was, and do what the Lord had called him to do. He went off preaching, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, converting sinners, turning the hearts of men back to the Lord. It was only when he got back to Assisi, or traveled into one of the provinces, and saw the way the new breed of Friars Minor were living the Gospel life that he went into a rage, followed by a deep depression. But he couldn’t spend his life fighting that battle. There were too many other conflicts that the Lord had for him to handle.
He never lost his focus; he never changed his values. And although he was a brilliant speaker, he was unpretentious. We believe he spoke pure Holy Spirit. He was not commanding, except in his Holiness. What attracted so many to him, even those who would change his dream, was who he was, not what he did. They became enraptured with his consistency. He was never anything other than what he projected, and he only projected what the Lord had given him.
He received Heavenly insights. He was so open to Jesus, he could absorb all the instructions the Lord poured into him, and share them with the people on such a basic level. Everyone could 26
understand him. He was simple for the simple-hearted, and educated for the astute-minded. A doctor of Theology from Siena once asked him to explain some difficult theological issues. Francis spoke the Holy Spirit so profoundly that the theologian blurted out, “His theology soars aloft on the wings of purity and contemplation, like an eagle in full flight, while our learning crawls along the ground.”
Francis goes to the Holy Land
The Crusades had become a way of life in Europe. No sooner had one ended than preparations were made for another. This had been going on for over 100 years when Francis decided the Lord was calling him to die a martyr’s death in the land of our Savior’s birth. He set out three times to get to the Holy Land, but was blocked twice, once by conditions, and the other by his own bad health. Nevertheless, he was resolved to try again. Finally, in 1220, after the bodies of the first five Franciscan martyrs of the Holy Land were sent back to Europe, he forged ahead. He was determined to suffer a martyr’s death for Jesus.
However, the Lord had different plans for Francis. It may have been for Francis’ benefit; it may have been for the Saracens of that time; it may have been for the Crusaders, who had long since forgotten why they were in the Holy Land. In any event, the Lord guided Francis and a companion, Brother Illuminata, through the battle lines, to the Sultan of the Saracens. There are two very exciting stories of Francis’ time with the Sultan, one of which is documented in the history of St. Francis, the other is told at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem.
Francis and his comrade were caught by the Arabs, beaten, and put in chains. Then they were brought before the Sultan. When asked why they had come, Francis shared his love of the Gospel and Our Lord Jesus. He was so simple, so sincere, so understandable, the Sultan was captivated by him. Francis was going after mass conversion. He offered to walk through burning coals with the Sultan’s priests, if the Sultan agreed that he and his people would convert. The Sultan’s priests were not too happy with the idea of walking on hot coals; in fact, they disappeared as Francis made the suggestion. The Sultan is said to have told Francis that if he were to convert, both he and Francis would be killed. But he offered Francis treasures, which had no interest to the Poverello.
The legend at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is that Francis asked the Sultan to come into the Church with him, to pray at the tomb of Jesus. The Sultan replied that if he were to enter that church, the Moslems would make it into a mosque. Instead, the two prayed outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Today, right at the edge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, stands a very small mosque, erected in honor of the Sultan, who had prayed there. The Sultan was so impressed with Francis, he would have converted, had not the threat of death hung over both their heads.
We have to stop here for a moment. Christians were being slaughtered in the Holy Land. Franciscans had been martyred there. Yet, Francis was able to go into the jaws of hell, and not only come out unscratched, but having successfully spread the Word of God to the Moslems. Why is that? We know for sure that he was protected by the Angels. But there’s more. What did the Moslems see in Francis that they did not see in the Crusaders, or in the other Franciscans who went to the Holy Land to convert them?
We believe Francis had the ability to empty himself almost completely, and let Jesus reflect through him. It was no longer Francis who spoke to the Moslems; it was Jesus, through Francis. Very possibly, in this place and time, Francis put into practice his simple prayer.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, unity.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is error, truth.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Where there is darkness, light.
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.
It is in dying, that we are born to eternal life.
Francis gives up his last possession
It’s hard for us to picture Francis going through the roof. But that’s exactly what happened. Before he returned to Italy, word came to him in the Holy Land that during his absence, brothers were changing the Rule without permission, buildings were going up, property being donated and accepted. It was almost as if his time in the Holy Land had been a vacation. Now, the real world of his Fraternity came crashing down on him, long distance.
His initial reaction was to fight. He was good and mad; he did fight. But there were too many, and they were all singing the same song, using different tunes. He was holding on. Whether he realized it at the time or not, he, who had despised possessions of any kind, had become possessive of the Friars Minor.
In the eyes of the world, he was justified. After all, he had started the fraternity. It was Francis whom everyone followed. He had the charisma. Would these thousands of men and women have flocked to live the Gospel life if he had not set the example before them? But Francis soon realized that there were too many him’s, and he’s, and Francis’. This was not the gift the Lord had given him years ago, when they began. The gift was total detachment, self-abandonment. His own cries of protest rang in his ears, “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns; yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they?” Had Francis been tricked by the evil one, after his years of adamant rejection of ownership of any kind? Did he now covet his own Rule? The Lord gave Francis peace of mind with regard to this. He told him,
“Why are you disturbed, little man? Did I not place you over My Order as its shepherd, and now you do not know that I am its chief protector? I chose you, a simple man, for this task, that what I would do in you, to be (would be) imitated by the rest, they might follow who wish to follow. I have called; I will preserve and feed; and I will choose others to repair the falling away of others, so that if a substitute is not born, I will make him to be born.”
Francis resigned as head of the Friars Minor in 1220, six years before his death. He appointed his second follower, Peter of Catani, his successor. We can only speculate as to why he did this. Nothing is certain, but we can read in between the lines. The Fraternity had become very large. Francis was not an administrator. Plus, and very up front, he disagreed with many of the innovations they were making. Francis was not beyond coming back from a trip, and upon finding out that someone had built a house for the Friars, going to the top of the house, and proceeding to tear it apart. He disagreed with all the niceties that were finding their way into the houses of the lesser brothers. Granted, what he considered niceties were basics of life that even the poorest, well not the poorest, but almost the poorest, possessed. Nonetheless, that’s not what they were about.
We can’t really make a judgment about those who wanted the Rule relaxed. We don’t know what was in their hearts. Did they really believe they could follow the Rule of Francis, without following the Rule of Francis? Did they think the Friars Minor would be better served if everyone had a roof over their heads, a few square meals a day, and the like? On the other hand, could 5,000 Friars be living in mud huts all over Europe? Were all the opponents of the Gospel Life concept right, and Francis wrong? Was that first Pope, Innocent III, right? Was it too hard a life? That’s a debate that will most likely never be resolved. St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most important Saints in the history of the Church, believed his understanding of the Gospel life was possible! St. Clare of Assisi, who was right up there with Francis, insisted it could be done. St. Agnes of Assisi, Clare’s sister, and second member of the Poor Clares, believed it, because she lived it all her life. But there were many others who disagreed with him. We probably won’t know who was right or wrong until we are in the Kingdom, and then it won’t matter all that much.
Bishop Hugolino of Ostia, protector of the Friars Minor, and later Pope Gregory IX, may have actually leaned towards poverty as a preference. On a historic occasion, Sts. Francis and Dominic were together with him in Rome. The Bishop posed the question to both 30
of them. “In the primitive church, the pastors were poor and were men of chastity, not men of greed. Why do we not in the future make Bishops and prelates from among your brothers (Franciscans and Dominicans), who excel all others by their learning and example?”
It was an interesting concept, but both Francis and Dominic rejected such an idea. Dominic’s reasoning was “My brothers have been raised to a high station, if they only knew it; and even if I wanted to, I could not permit them to acquire any other dignity.” Francis’ explanation was similar in content, but it reflected who he insisted they should be. He said, “Lord, my brothers are called minors so that they will not presume to become greater. Their vocation teaches them to remain in a lowly station and to follow the footsteps of the humble Christ, so that in the end they may be exalted above the rest in the sight of the Saints.”
Bishop Hugolino’s speculation won out after the deaths of Sts. Francis and Dominic. Both Franciscans and Dominicans have served Mother Church as Bishops, and do to this day. An interesting aside is that Bishop Hugolino, after he became Pope Gregory IX, canonized both St. Francis and St. Dominic, during his pontificate.
Francis rewrites the Rule
The year was 1221. The Friars Minor had outgrown Francis, and his simple little Rule of 1209. There was more sophistication in the Fraternity than there had been in the early days. Learned men had become attracted to the Friars Minor, but they needed more intellectual meat than Francis’ simple Rule provided. He found that he had to explain so many aspects of the Rule to the Brothers, which had been taken for granted for years. Therefore, it was determined that in order to clarify the Rule, especially in the light of new changes that had taken place, a new Rule had to be written.
Francis insisted that he would do it. He had written the first Rule, and he would incorporate whatever changes were going to be made in it. He believed until his dying day, the original Rule was dictated to him directly by the Lord. In his Testament, written just prior to his death, he stated,
“When God gave me some Friars, there was no one to tell me what I should do; but the Most High Himself made it clear to me that I must live the life of the Gospel. I had this written down briefly and simply and His Holiness, the Pope, confirmed it for me. Those who embraced this life gave everything they had to the poor. They were satisfied with one habit, which was patched inside and outside, and a cord, and trousers. We refused to have anything more.”
From this, we can gather he didn’t feel the need to expand on what he had written in 1209, because it had come directly from God. But as he demanded obedience from his Friars, he was obedient to his Fraternity. In addition, he had to agree that the circumstances of the Friars Minor, with thousands of members spread all over Europe, was quite different from the little band of twelve, for whom the original Rule had been written.
So Francis set out to rewrite the Rule. He expanded and elaborated somewhat on his original Rule, but by and large, he came up with a slightly updated version of the same thing. He had one of the Friars camouflage it with Scripture passages, but it didn’t help. It was unacceptable. It had to be done all over again.
It was not all in vain, however. Francis was able to slip in as part of the Rule, an admonition. “They (the Friars) should let it be seen that they are happy in God, cheerful and courteous, as is expected of them, and be careful not to appear gloomy or depressed like hypocrites.”
Again, we’re reading in-between the lines, but it has become common knowledge that people had entered into the Fraternity who were not cheerful and courteous, and indeed walked around with a gloomy exterior, and what could have been considered false piety. In the early days, when Francis discerned on each potential Friar himself, he had a test he gave to all, but especially those who seemed somber and introverted. He had them follow him into the fields, where he jumped around, laughing and singing, generally acting silly, and ordered them to do the same. If they couldn’t become comfortable with this type of conduct, Francis sent them away, because they did not have the freedom to be a Friar.
At any rate, Francis had to rewrite the Rule. We have to point out here that not everybody disagreed with Francis, as to how the Rule should be. This is what created the split in the movement, which, in one form or another, exists to this day. There were many Friars who believed the original Rule was fine; it didn’t need any adjustment. As far as they were concerned, just give them that Rule and a Bible, and point them in a direction. They were not necessarily in the minority; they were just not in headship.
Francis, accompanied by Brother Leo and one other, went off by themselves, up on a mountain, and worked on the new Rule. At one point, Francis rewrote the Rule, came down off the mountain, and gave it to a Friar. It was either lost, or possibly, the Friar, having read it, considering it the same as the previous one, threw it away. No one knows for sure. However, Francis had to go back at it again. For some reason, the Friars who were looking for some laxity in the poverty part of the Rule, approached Brother Elias, and shared their fears that the new Rule would be as stern as the first. They urged him to go to the mountain and speak to Francis. He agreed, on condition that they accompany him.
When Brother Elias and the ministers arrived at the place where Francis was staying, he shared the fear of the ministers that Francis was writing a Rule too hard for them to follow. Francis looked to the heavens, and spoke to Jesus, “Lord, did I not tell You they would not have confidence in You?” The Friars all fell to their knees and covered their faces, because the Lord answered Francis instantly. He said, “Francis, nothing in the Rule comes from you; everything in it comes from Me. I wish this Rule to be observed to the letter, to the letter, without gloss, without gloss, without gloss. I am aware of human weakness, but I also know the help I wish to give it. Let those who do not want to observe the Rule leave the Order!”
Francis turned to the brothers. “Did you hear? Do you want me to have it repeated?” Brother Elias and the others ran for their lives down the mountain, striking their breasts. What a marvelous relationship Francis had with Jesus. He was not only able to get Him to talk to the Friars on command, but he had the confidence that, if need be, Jesus would repeat the statement. And he was probably right!
But in spite of this, the new Rule was pushed through. This time, the powers that be, took no chances that it would not be acceptable by the majority of the Brothers. Canon lawyers were called in. They made changes, and organized it according to legal terms. Then it was brought to Cardinal Hugolino, who lent his expertise to the Rule. It was shortened. Much of the flavor of Francis was taken out; it was legalistic, but it was still clear. Francis did not want anyone interpreting the Rule. He didn’t want anyone finding loopholes in the Rule.
We don’t believe that Francis was really happy with what had been done, but he was too drained, physically and spiritually, to fight. In addition, he could feel the dissension and in-fighting among his brothers. One of his heartfelt sorrows was to see brothers mouthing Scripture without meaning, using the Gospel as a sword. In the final analysis, unity was more important than maintaining the Rule, no matter how much he believed it had been dictated to him by Jesus, Himself.
The new Rule was presented to the Brothers at a Chapter meeting in June of that year. It went to Rome, where further studies were done on it. Finally, in November, 1223, it was given to the brothers as the new Rule.
The Beginning of the End
Francis removed himself from the everyday workings of the Fraternity. It had gotten away from him. He didn’t want to be part of decision-making, and yet, he couldn’t keep his nose out of the everyday happenings. He had to put distance between himself and his beloved Assisi. He spent a great deal of time in seclusion, with just Brother Leo, Brother Masseo and Brother Angelo. It was important to Francis to surround himself with old friends, to be reminded of the way it had been in simpler times. He covered himself with a blanket of joy. Even in his sufferings, his illnesses which kept him in constant pain, he exuded joy. This was a decision! He instructed his Friars to go to the privacy of their rooms, if they wanted to bemoan their outcast state. But when they were in the presence of people, they must reflect the joy of Jesus. And so he practiced what he preached. He went off by himself. His companions stayed a safe distance, available to minister to Francis when he needed them, but always allowing him the space he needed, to let it all out with the Lord.
He had extraordinary discussions with Jesus, His Mother Mary, the Saints before him, and his special friends, the Angels.
We have to believe they counselled and consoled Francis. They gave him a hint of the Kingdom, so that he wouldn’t take the disappointments of the earth too seriously. His brothers and sisters, the Saints, shared some of the struggles they had to endure while on earth, and how insignificant these struggles became in Heaven. We have to believe, Francis told them that he didn’t care for himself; his concerns were for his Friars, and for our Lord Jesus, who gave him the Fraternity in the first place. We pray that Francis was given peace in the knowledge that Jesus could take care of Himself, and He would always take care of the brothers who followed in Francis’ footsteps.
Francis and his faithful company of three, went to the mountain of Alverna (La Verna) to pray, from the Feast of the Assumption (August 15) to the Feast of St. Michael (September 29). He called this period the Lent of St. Michael. Francis had a special rapport with Mary and Michael from the early days of his conversion. He went to them often, for comfort and consolation, when things got rough. He was going there now to give, by fasting in honor of their feasts; but he knew he would be receiving from them as well.
He always had an exalted devotion to St. Michael. He felt that Michael should be honored because he had the office of presenting souls to God. He also said “Everyone should offer to God, to honor so great a prince (Michael), some praise or some special gift.” He loved Mary reverently. As he loved Jesus, he could not do otherwise than love “the womb that bore Him.” He sang to her, offered special prayers to her, shared his joys and sorrows with her. She was his very best friend, the Mother of his God. While he was honoring Michael, he was also honoring Mary on the Feast of her Assumption into Heaven, August 15, and her birthday, September 8.
There was a crag on that mountain, a deep crevice which separated one part of that high place from the other. Tradition has it that at the very moment Our Dear Lord Jesus died, this mountain split in two, as the whole earth shook in protest over the demonic act of murdering our Savior. Francis loved to sit on that jagged rock, and meditate on the Passion of Jesus. The brothers brought him some bread and water from time to time, but for the most part, he was alone with his Lord and Savior.
According to the Divine Plan, another special Feast fell during the Lent of St. Michael. It took place on September 14, and was called The Exaltation of the Cross. Today, we celebrate it on the same day, but we call it the Triumph of the Cross. On that day, in 1224, the Lord gave Francis a distinctive gift, as reward for a lifetime of service. Might not our Lord also have been telling Francis that he was right, he had shepherded his flock the way Jesus wanted, but that it didn’t matter anymore? For on this day, Jesus gave His brother Francis, the gift of His wounds, His Stigmata.
Francis had been meditating deeply on the Passion of our Lord. He had asked his best Friend, Jesus, for two gifts. The first was that somehow, before he died, he might feel the wounds of Jesus in his own body and soul; and secondly, he might experience Jesus’ love for those who inflicted the wounds on His Body, and killed Him. Francis went through a dark night of the soul. His mind kept interfering with his spirit. He thought of what he had given up, his Fraternity, his Rule. He tried desperately to put these things in the back of his consciousness, and just zero in on the pains of His Redeemer. His humanity fought him all through the night, but with the dawn, a stillness, a heavy blanket of peace came over the mountain. Everything was quiet; not a sound from any of the creatures. It was as if they knew what was to come, and were preparing themselves for the entrance of a Heavenly Being.
Light began to emerge from the darkness. Francis thought it was Brother Sun greeting him. But the light was too intense, much stronger than the sun. The curtain separating Heaven from earth split open. A figure came forth, slowly, and carried the brilliant light with it. Francis couldn’t look at it; the light was too strong. Then the Lord allowed Francis’ eyes to open. Before him, suspended in the air, was a huge Angel, who appeared to be made of fire, he was so bright; but there were no flames coming from him. He had six wings, two extended over his head, two extended as if for flight, and two covering his body. The angel was nailed to a cross; the wounds of Jesus flared up, and shivered against the light. They were of a deep crimson, sprinkled with gold.
Francis stood up joyfully, to greet the Seraph. At that moment, beams of heated illumination shot out of the Angel’s wounds, and penetrated Francis’ body, hands, feet and side. He fell from the force of the thrust; his body experienced devastating pain, mixed with inconceivable joy. His blood raced throughout his body; he was sure he would die. Then the sensation calmed down to a constant throb of joy and pain. He looked up at the Heavenly creature. The eyes of the Angel were studying Francis. The stare was compelling. There was at once fear and bliss, mixed together. He didn’t know what was happening to him. The eyes of the Angel were the most beautiful he had ever seen. He could not look away from them.
The Heavenly vision spoke gently to Francis’ heart. He told him things he had to hear, which were for him alone; he would not in his lifetime, reveal them to anyone. He stayed with Francis for the better part of an hour. This is according to the testimony of the farmers, and mule keepers at the foot of the mountain. They mistook the brilliant light for the sun coming up, and began their day. Then, when it disappeared, and the natural sun came out, it was colorless by comparison.
Many insights were revealed to Francis on top of Mount Alverna. His whole life was put into perspective. He finally understood his journey, and while his humanity would tend to kick in over the next two years, he could always fall back on this time, and the revelations he received, and a peace would come over him.A Saint for all time
Francis had been considered a Saint from the early days of the movement. But now, as he bore the wounds of Christ on his body, the people proclaimed his Sainthood from the mountaintops. They clamored over him more than they had ever done before. They wanted to touch his tunic, his wounds, anything. They were convinced healings would take place just by being in his shadow. And they did! Throughout his trip from Mount Alverna back to Assisi, notable miracles and cures took place. He spoke brilliantly wherever he went. As if he were not famous enough before, his reputation as the Crucified Christ spread like wildfire. He was truly a Saint on earth.
As he drew nearer to his beloved Assisi, however, he could hear and sense the inner turmoil which had been going on since the new Rule had been established. There was so much infighting, so many egos, so much distrust. Everything that Francis had wanted his brothers to die to, was surfacing strongly. For him, one of the worst aspects of this discord was how out of character the brothers looked. They shouldn’t be wearing tunics, and acting the way they were. They made a mockery out of their calling. They were supposed to be the good guys; only the bad guys acted like that.
Francis felt the anxieties returning. But he couldn’t give in to them anymore. He had truly been specially chosen. For him to allow his lower nature to take over would be to make a farce out of the special favor he had been given, the gift of the Stigmata. He tried to close his eyes and ears to all the pettiness he saw around him. Some younger brothers complained that he always took his old friends with him on his trips. Francis told Elias that anyone could go with him from that time on. However, the old guard, those who had been with him from the beginning, were not about to let that happen. Their role was more than just taking care of the needs of Father Francis; they were also his protectors, his friends. They had committed their lives to his service.
Francis knew where he could get away from all of this squabbling, at San Damiano. He wanted to go back to his roots, to the beginning, and to his beloved Clare. He had not given her much time or attention these last twelve years. Again, it was a decision. He never had any doubts about his shortcomings. He always loved Clare; she always loved him. They both knew their love was a celibate love, one that transcended the lower nature of man. But he also knew how the devil can twist even the most beautiful relationships into something immoral. He had always kept a respectable distance from Clare and the Poor Ladies, as they were called.
Misunderstandings had cropped up over the years because of Francis’ insistence that he stay away from the ladies. Two instances in their lives bring that point home very clearly. While it’s true that Francis was only the catalyst Jesus used to bring Clare into His bosom, there was that attraction. But as soon as Clare joined Francis’ band of disciples, she was cut off from him completely. Francis’ reasoning was sound. He did not want even the slightest hint of scandal to cast a shadow on his movement, and that of the Poor Ladies. That was good, but Clare felt the need Francis’ teachings for her own spiritual nourishment, as well as that of her ladies.
Clare was locked away in her little Convent at San Damiano, while Francis traveled about spreading the Gospel. She understood they were called to different walks, she was to pray and he was to preach, but she had a problem in that he always stayed away from her and her ladies. This one day in particular, when she heard that he had returned from a trip and was at Santa Maria degli Angeli, she sent word with his Friars, asking to share a meal with him. Francis refused. Even his followers thought he was being too hard on Clare. They told him,
“Father, it does not seem to us that your way of acting accords very well with charity. Clare has given up all the riches of the world; she is a choice plant in your spiritual garden. Why then do you not wish to make her happy in so little a thing as allowing her to have a meal with you?”
In his heart, Francis knew they were right. He really looked forward to being able to share with Clare. He decided, however, rather than going to San Damiano, he would have Clare come to Santa Maria degli Angeli. He felt it would be good for her to get out. Clare and one of her ladies went to visit him. First she went into the Portiuncola to pray; then Francis took her on a tour of the little Community that had been built there. As she looked around, she recalled fond memories of that Palm Sunday evening when she first went there to join Francis.
They went into the woods. Francis laid out the meager bread and water dinner on a stone. But before eating, they began to pray. They were so filled with the Holy Spirit that the entire area became illuminated. There was such a bright light, it could be seen for miles around. Townspeople thought there was a fire in the woods around Santa Maria degli Angeli, and came running with buckets of water to put out the flames. When they arrived, they saw Francis and Clare, with their two companions, deep in prayer, covered by a brilliant aura. After their prayer was over, the light went out and the townspeople dispersed. Clare and Francis stood up, spiritually filled, never having touched one drop of food.
The second instance took place some time later. It was very dramatic, in that Clare got her Italian up. Francis went back to his old ways of staying away from the ladies at San Damiano. He would come from time to time, but only to peek in the door. He wanted to be sure they were living up to their vow of poverty, which they were. But he never gave them any spiritual direction, never talked about the Lord, nor shared on the joy of living the Gospel life. Clare felt deeply that she and her ladies needed this. She had never regretted trading the luxuries of her life for the way of the Gospel. If there was not enough bread to eat, she could handle that. If there was no wine, that was better yet. But there was a strong need for spiritual food. She could not allow her ladies to be deprived of this. Francis, on the other hand, felt the need to turn Clare and her ladies completely over to the Lord. To add fuel to the fire, he instructed the brothers who brought provisions to San Damiano, not to speak to the ladies of spiritual matters, only their physical needs. Clare felt it was time for action. She and her ladies went on a hunger strike! They would not accept any more food or oil from Francis. She told her ladies, “If we are to be deprived of our spiritual nourishment, we will be able to manage also without their material help.”
When word got back to Francis of Clare’s decision, he immediately moved into action. He went over to San Damiano to speak to the ladies. They were all excited, having their spiritual father there to share with them. Francis was somewhat ill-at-ease. They formed a circle around him. They waited for his words. He meditated for a few moments. Then, filled with the Spirit, he spoke words that touched their hearts. The more inspired he became, the more beautiful the words that flowed from him. Then he went into a deep silence, after which he left them. He had not stayed with them long, but that short period was so dynamic, the ladies were in Paradise on earth for days. Clare said a prayer of thanksgiving to Our Lord Jesus for coming through once again, with this most special gift.
During late Spring of 1225, Francis went to the Convent of San Damiano to be nursed by the Sisters. He thought it would be acceptable, because he was considered a “Crucified Christ.” He was almost blind. He described the pain in his eyes as “great splinters 40
of glass scratching against his pupils.” He suffered in his side, hands and feet from the Wounds of Jesus. His internal organs were disintegrating; his stomach ulcerated from fasting, and his spleen destroyed by fatigue. When he arrived at San Damiano, though it was bright daylight, he groped as if he were walking in the dark of night. Clare met him and gently helped him inside. While he allowed them to minister to him inside the Convent, he would not sleep there. A small hut was set up on a balcony, outside the upper room, which is called today, the balcony of the Canticle of the Creatures.
He never told the ladies how he suffered at night, when all God’s creatures, whom he loved so much, bit at his toes, and crawled all over his open sores. But one morning, as Clare went to see how he was feeling, she heard him singing a Canticle to the Creatures.
Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord.
Thine be the praise, the glory, the honor and benediction.
To Thee alone, Most High, they are due,
And no man is worthy to mention Thee.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, with all Thy creatures, above all Brother Sun,
Who gives the day, and lightens us therewith.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
Of Thee, Most High, he bears similitude.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Moon and the Stars,
In the heavens Thou has formed them, clear and precious and comely.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Wind.
And of the air and the cloud, and of fair and of all weather,
By which Thou givest to Thy creatures sustenance.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Water,
Which is much useful and humble, precious and pure.
Be Thou praised, My Lord, of Brother Fire,
By which Thou has lightened the night,
And he is beautiful and joyful, robust and strong.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of our Sister Mother Earth,
Which sustains and hath us in rule,
And produces divers fruits with colored flowers and herbs.41
Francis also wrote the first part of the Canticle of the Sun, while at the Convent of San Damiano. When we consider all of the above, his deteriorated physical condition, plus his constant reminder of the distressing atmosphere just a mile away in Assisi, these were two of the most beautiful canticles that Francis ever wrote. How do you think he was able to write them, with all that was going on. We believe he received affirmation, and love without motive at the Convent of San Damiano. Clare had always been his number one advocate. She was the most ardent supporter of his Rule. If there was anyone in the world who could out-poverty Francis, it was Clare. For that brief time with her, he was young again. He was the idealist, who would go out to all the world, using his own brand of knighthood, and make it a better place.
But that time had to end. Reality clicked in. He knew he was sinking. He had things to do before the end. He left Clare and her Poor Ladies. She knew from the time he staggered blindly away from San Damiano that it was just a matter of time. But no matter how much time the Lord would give her to adjust to the fact that he would die, it was not enough. Clare could sense Sister Death closing in on Francis; she felt as though her heart were being ripped out of her body. Her whole world was crumbling.
“All Praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Death”
In the last days, the most frustrating thing for Francis, was to be blind and useless. The brothers, in an effort to save what was left of the carcass of their Holy Father Francis, scurried to send him all over Italy to various doctors, for treatments which didn’t really work. He consented reluctantly, because, while he did not want to prolong his life, he wanted to be productive to the end. But this was not the Lord’s plan.
In the last days of September, 1226, he was brought back to Assisi. It was enough now with the doctors and the cures. Francis knew the Lord was calling him, and he responded. He dictated his last Testament. He wanted to set things straight. While he trusted in God, he didn’t trust in man. He wanted everyone to know exactly how he felt, what his concerns were for the Order, now that he was leaving them. In reading the Testament, it doesn’t appear that Francis was trying to open an old wound, but that’s exactly what happened.
While he made a point of telling the brothers not to interpret what he was saying, this Testament became the ammunition for many who believed he did not accept the Rule of 1223. It became food for those who wanted to split from the Fraternity as it existed.
Francis did recap his values, and his commitment to the Rule. He warned the brothers not to be going off in all directions, but to be obedient to the legitimate authority. He ended his Testament with a blessing from the Holy Trinity, and from himself.
He dictated a letter to Clare and the Poor Ladies. He made a promise to them, which he kept. “Let her know in truth that before she dies, she and all her sisters will see me again and will receive great consolation from me.”
His last commitment was as his first, to Lady Poverty. He wanted to go out of this world as he had come in, with no earthly possessions. He ordered the brothers to take all his clothes off, and lay him on the ground near St. Mary’s of the Portiuncola. He couldn’t see, but he could hear. He recognized the sad voices of his companions. They had been such good friends. It was right that they should surround him for this last good-by, especially his beloved Leo. This was a special moment, this last one with his Fraternity.
Francis blessed all the brothers, those present, and those in far-off places. He forgave them all their offenses, and insisted they be advised of this. He lapsed into Psalm 142, David’s lamentation in the cave. The brothers responded to his prayer. Finally, a heavy silence fell on the place. They waited for Francis to speak again; no words came. The silence was broken in places by weeping. The brothers looked one to the other, then back at Francis. A peace had come about him. His face was serene; his body limp. He had passed over.
Although the mood was, for the most part, one of sorrow, there were those from the town, who waited anxiously to parade the body of the Saint through the town of Assisi. But a promise had been made to Lady Clare.
“When word had come to her that they would see Francis, her Sisters were consoled. Clare was thankful to the Lord for this ray of hope that she would see him again. But seeing him once more was not enough! She wanted time with him. She wanted Francis alive! She needed the little poverello who had been her Jesus on earth. The journey to their dream had gone so fast. It couldn’t end this way! But it did. She wished she did not have to set an example at this time. She wanted to be a normal woman for just an hour, instead of a Mother figure. She wanted to run out, away from San Damiano, over to Santa Maria degli Angeli. She wanted to cradle Francis in her arms; she wanted to bathe him in her tears; she wanted to take away his sickness; she wanted to make him better. She knew the Angel of Death was coming to take her Francis Home to the Father and she did not want him to go, not yet! She wanted to stop Francis from dying! But she couldn’t. The Lord mercifully gave her the gift of illness, which kept her a prisoner of her thatched bed, on the upper level of the Convent of San Damiano. Her Master Jesus saved her from her own desires. He cried with her, by her side, as she unleashed all the sorrow in her heart, crying uncontrollably, without stopping, until she heard the sound of the funeral procession coming to the front of the Church of San Damiano. The body of Francis was brought into the church.
Francis had promised Clare she would see him again. Now he was lying dead on a stretcher. Half the town of Assisi was in attendance. This was not what she wanted. She wanted to be with him; she wanted to talk to him; she wanted to listen to his voice. But that was not the gift the Lord gave her. This was her gift. She accepted it. She stopped crying. She opened the Grille. The creaking sound of metal grinding against metal ripped through the silence of the church. Everyone focused on the lone figure emerging from behind the enclosure. She walked over to the stretcher. Before her was her love, her role model, the instrument the Lord used to change her life. He was broken. The body was frail, gray, lifeless. A cold chill blew through the church, ricocheting off the walls. Francis’ hair was tossed by the wind, as was his tunic. It was the only movement on his body. Clare looked at him. For a moment, she thought he had blinked his eyes, but it was the wind. Then the wind died down, and Francis was still again. She bent over and kissed his wounded hands, his feet and side. She painfully rose and took a long last look at him. She tried to memorize every inch of him. It would have to last her twenty seven years. She turned and disappeared behind the iron Grille, among a sea of Sisters, weeping and moaning the loss of their spiritual father. Clare never looked back. Francis had kept his promise.”
We would like to make a final comment on the Rule. It has never been completely resolved. It has been said that there is no other Rule, and most likely will never be one that had so many people trying to interpret. So, even in this, Francis’ last wishes were not to be followed. However, a magnificent statement has been made about the Rule, by a Jesuit, of all people. Sometimes we have to be outside a situation to really understand it. Peter Lippert had this to say about the Rule of the little Poverello,
“The organizational principle that leads from Benedict through Dominic and Ignatius to the newer communities seems to have practically exhausted its inner possibilities...The fundamental newness that is precisely the thing being sought today by countless souls...is to be found only along a completely different line; along the original ideal of Francis. In other words; in the direction of a freely chosen life style and freely chosen bonds of love; in the direction of a life that operates through spontaneous initiative of the self rather than through great constructs of the will; in the direction of a truly living and individual personality shaped by its own inner laws and standards. If God should someday deign to reveal the Order of the future of His Church...it will surely bear the stamp of Francis’ soul and spirit.”
Simply put, all the great minds of the Church, all the Doctors and Theologians and Philosophers, all the movers and shakers of this world, have never come up with a better mousetrap, and most likely, never will. The Lord worked through a simple, humble, meager giant!
The little town of Assisi has changed over the centuries. The entire original Fraternity of Francis and the Portiuncola has been enclosed inside a large Basilica at Santa Maria degli Angeli. There are hotels and restaurants, and railroad tracks, and a lot of noise from the cars and buses that frequent the road up the hill to Assisi. But as you look at the panorama of Assisi, two things are etched in the sky. On the one side is the Basilica of St. Francis, and on the other side, the Basilica of St. Clare. One gets the impression that they’re actually looking at each other. And if you stay up late one night, until after all the automobiles have stopped running, and all the people have gone to bed, if there’s a blanket of quiet all around you; and you listen intently, you might just hear the two of them, Francis and Clare, singing together, very softly, these simple, powerful praises to Our Lord Jesus.
“All praise be Yours my Lord,
through all that You have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day;
and light You give to us through him.
All praise be Yours, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens You have made them,
bright and precious and fair.”
Photo Credits Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy
All excerpts and quotations from Francis of Assisi, Omnibus of Sources
Poverello - Little One
Portiuncola - The little portion of land - the first church of St. Francis and his followers. It was given to them by the Benedictines, under the condition that it be made the center of his Fraternity. Francis, refusing to claim ownership of anything, paid the Benedictines a basket of fish per year for the use of the Portiuncola.
Francis loved to speak in French, although he did not speak it well.
Gideon was a young farmer. The Lord sent an Angel to tell him he was to save Israel from their enemies. Gideon asked, “How can I do this?” (Judges 6:11-16) But the Lord used Gideon mightily, and Israel was saved.
There are different communities within the Franciscan order. The Friars Minor were closer to the Rule of St. Francis, while the Conventuals embraced the reforms of Brother Elias. Actually, today neither live the Rule of St. Francis, as he wrote it. Those who try hardest to maintain that Rule are the Capuchins, but even they have 46
Reform Capuchins. None of this existed during the early days of the movement.
In those days, we didn’t use knives and forks as eating utensils; bread was used. When it was soaked and soggy, it was thrown on the floor. It didn’t matter if it was stale bread, because it was seldom eaten.
The Franciscan Fraternity was broken up into geographical areas, called provinces. Leaders were appointed for each province.
St. Dominic was founder of the Dominicans (Domini Cani, God’s Watchdogs), Order of Preachers. He and St. Francis were credited with being the major forces behind the reformation of the Church of the Middle Ages.
According to St. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis, it was Brother Elias to whom Francis gave the copy of the Rule.
Brother Elias had a great influence on Francis. He became the Vicar in 1221, after the death of Peter Catani. This new Rule was written during his vicariate.
These three brothers, Leo, Masseo and Angelo, are the three Friars, who compiled a book of narratives on the life of Francis, called The Three Companions.
Seraph is the name of the Angels of the Angelic choir of Seraphim, which is one of the choirs who adore before God. The word comes from the Hebrew “fiery” (Is 6: 1-4).
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