SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI
"I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours." Francis raised his hands to heaven and glorified Christ. Free from all things, he went to God free. Welcome, my Sister Death, she will be the gate of life. Francis, poor and lowly, enters heaven rich, while saints and angels sing their songs of praise.
The Transitus, The Daily Office SSF
SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Giovanni, son of Pietro di Bernardone, was born in Assisi, in the region of Umbria, Italy in either 1180 or 1181. His father, a wealthy merchant, was traveling when he was born, and his mother, Pica, named him Giovanni. His father disliked the name, and gave him the nickname Francesco, "the Frenchman," possibly because of his mother's French origins.
Francesco was well suited to life as the son of a prominent man. Assisi had long consisted of "Majores" (the greater ones, the nobility who lived in the higher parts of the city) and "Menores" (the lesser ones, poor laborers living in the lower areas of the city). By the time of Francis, a middle class had emerged, made up of people not of noble blood who nonetheless had become wealthy and powerful through business success. As son of one of these men, Francis had the ability to live a life of relative ease, and as a young man he was a well-known socialite and likely to be the center of any party or revelry he could find --or create.
Italy was not a single nation at that time, and rival city states were often at odds with one another. It was the middle ages, and the lore and legends of chivalric knights captivated many young minds, Francis among them. He dreamed of being a knight, and did in fact ride off to battle against neighboring cities on several occasions. Rather than glory and knighthood, however, his exploits ended in a time as a prisoner of war, and in a nearly fatal illness which sent him back home for an extended recovery.
It was during these times of illness and imprisonment that Francis first seems to have turned his thoughts to God. In all likelihood, his "conversion" from reveler to vowed religious was a long, slow process. The legends of his life recount several dramatic occasions which may or may not be historically accurate, but which capture something of the spirit of the changes taking place in the heart of the merchant's son. One tells of an encounter with a leper (Francis had a particular horror of lepers, as did many of his day). Francis was said to be riding across an open field when he saw a leper ahead of him. He felt moved in his heart not to avoid him as he would have in the past. Instead, he drew near, got down from his horse, and embraced and kissed the leper for the love of God. Remounting his horse, he suddenly looked around the open field, and the leper was gone. He was alone. The leper had apparently been an angel, or perhaps Christ himself, and Francis had passed the test.
Another of the most famous stories surrounding the conversion of Francis involves a ruined church near Assisi dedicated to Saint Damian, an early church martyr. At San Damiano was an old painted crucifix. It is said that as Francis knelt in contemplation in that place, he heard the voice of Christ from the crucifix saying, "Francis, rebuild my church, which you see is all in ruins." He took the voice seriously, and began collecting stones to literally rebuild the fallen structure of San Damiano, and later two other churches. Understood more figuratively, "rebuilding the church" would turn out to be very much the course of his life ahead. His example, and the movement that would form around him, would rebuild and transform the church in ways he could not have imagined.
Francis does not record either of these specific events in his own writings. Rather, looking back at the end of his life, he describes his conversion in these words: "The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world."
Whatever the details of the events that changed him, the changes were dramatic. Francis become very conscious of and uncomfortable with his wealthy and powerful status. Taking some of the stock of his father's business, he sold it, perhaps to give alms to the poor, or perhaps to contribute to the repair the church of San Damiano. Not surprisingly, this angered his father, who dragged him before the Bishop in the public square, demanding that Francis pay back everything that belonged to his father. Francis, it is said, took off every stitch of his clothing and handed them all to his father. He declared that he would no longer say, "My father, Pietro di Bernardone," but rather, "my Father in heaven." The Bishop was said to have wrapped Francis in his own cloak, a dramatic symbol of his transfer from the protection of his wealthy father to the protection of God and the church.
Around 1208, Francis determined to live a new and radical approach to the gospel and he understood it. He took on beggar's clothing and lived in the ruined church of San Damiano, making repairs as he was able to beg stones. Soon a few others, struck by his sincerity and dedication, came to join him. Within a year there were twelve of them, begging alms and doing mercy to the poor. They determined to live according to the teachings of the gospel: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21); "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24); and "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic." (Luke 9:3)
Eventually, Francis received the formal approval of the church to live according to this novel way of religious life. Monks lived enclosed in lives of prayer, often in wealthy and powerful abbeys. These men lived penniless and exposed to the elements, and by choice. And they were joyful, and attracting more to their way day by day! This merchant's son, who had lived between the upper and lower classes of Assisi, now called himself and his Brothers the "Minores" … the little ones.
Francis spent the remainder of his life in times of retreat and solitude alternating with times of active service among the poor, lepers, and others. He preached and taught, and began to have an immense influence on the church and the surrounding culture. In about the year 1221, a general meeting of all the Friars Minor was held, knows as the "Chapter of the Mats" (probably because those gathered slept on straw mats outdoors for lack of a space large enough to house them all). By that time, a little more than ten years after he had begun, there were said to be 5000 Friars Minor present for the meeting.
His life, and the writings about him, have filled many volumes. We read stories of his preaching to the birds ... his alternately stern and tender guidance of his Brothers ... his influence of the Lady Chiara (Clare) Offreduccio and his assistance in founding the Order of Poor Clares under her leadership ... his legendary encounter with the wolf at Gubbio … his setting of the first Christmas creche at Greccio … his love for nature, expounded in his soaring "Canticle of the Creatures" (probably the earliest surviving poem written in modern Italian) … his marking with the stigmata (miraculous wounds corresponding to the wounds of Christ) on Mount Laverna ... many have made his life and his mode of following Jesus their life study.
Francis lived a terribly austere life, believing that severe fasting, little sleep, hard labor, and exposure to the elements were fitting to his life of penance. Fitting or not, they had their consequence. By his early 40's, his health was a shambles. Around the beginning of October 1226, his Brothers brought him, near death, to a hut near the Church of St Mary of the Angels at the Portiuncola … the "Little Portion" of land first granted to Francis and his followers for their use years before. There, he dictated his last Testament, had his Brothers sing for him the Canticle he had written, and received a last few visitors. Lying on the bare ground at his own request, he died sometime after sunset on October 3, 1226. He was immediately acclaimed as a saint, and formally canonized by the Pope less than two years later.
Since then, countless millions have been inspired by his life and witness. And many thousands still take his name as Franciscans today, either in formal ties to a Franciscan Religious Order, or as one of the countless "Franciscans in spirit" who find a special grace in following Jesus in the footsteps of "Il Poverello" --the Little Poor Man from Assisi.
THE CANTICLE OF THE CREATURES
The "Canticle of the Creatures," also known as the "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon," is undoubtedly the best known of Francis's writings. (The well-known "Lord make me an instrument of your peace," while consistent with his thought, is of 20th century origin, and most definitely not written by Francis.) This Canticle singing the praises of the Creator through all created things is the earliest known poem written in the Italian "vulgate" of Umbria, effectively making it the oldest poem in modern Italian.
Most High, all powerful, good Lord, yours are the praises, the glory, the honor and all blessing. To you alone, Most High, do they belong and no human is worthy to mention your name.
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor; and bears a likeness of you, Most High One.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars: in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind; and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather, through which you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night: and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be you, my Lord, through those who give pardon for your love and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace: for by you, Most High, shall they be crowned.
Praised be you, my Lord, for our Sister, Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape: woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give him thanks
and serve him with great humility.
This beautiful stained glass window evoking the symbols of the Canticle of the Creatures is in the Chapel of St. Francis Friary (OFM) in Cincinnati, OH. Cindy Kessler, designer; Kessler Studios, fabrication; Bob Kessler, photographer. Used by permission.
Click here to visit their site for a full description of the symbolism of the window and to view their other work.