Snapshots of a Saint
Like all great people, Francis cannot be sufficiently “explained.” Writing about Francis can take us only so far in comprehending him. It is better sometimes to sit back and simply watch him in action. The following stories have been culled from the hundreds of events recorded in Francis’s early biographies.
To Kiss a Leper
One day while Francis was praying fervently to God, he received an answer: “O Francis, if you want to know my will, you must hate and despise all that which hitherto your body has loved and desired to possess. Once you begin to do this, all that formerly seemed sweet and pleasant to you will become bitter and unbearable, and instead, the things that formerly made you shudder will bring you great sweetness and content.” Francis was divinely comforted and greatly encouraged by these words.
Then one day, as he was riding near Assisi, he met a leper. He had always felt an overpowering horror of these sufferers, but making a great effort, he conquered his aversion, dismounted, and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way.
Some days later he took a large sum of money to the leper hospital, and gathering all the inmates together, he gave them alms, kissing each of their hands. Formerly he could neither touch or even look at lepers, but when he left them on that day, what had been so repugnant to him had really and truly been turned into something pleasant.
Indeed, his previous aversion to lepers had been so strong, that, besides being incapable of looking at them, he would not even approach the places where they lived. And if by chance he happened to pass anywhere near their dwellings or to see one of the lepers, even though he was moved to give them an alms through some intermediate person, he would nevertheless turn his face away and hold his nose. But, strengthened by God’s grace, he was enabled to obey the command and to love what he had hated and to abhor what he had hitherto wrongfully loved.
—Legend of the Three Companions
A Stone for a Pillow
Francis would not allow his resting place to be laid over with covers or garments when he received hospitality, but the bare ground received his bare limbs, with only a tunic between. When at times he refreshed his small body with sleep, he very often slept sitting up, and in no other position, using a piece of wood or a stone as a pillow.
When his appetite for something particular was aroused, as often happens, he seldom ate that thing afterward. Once, when in an infirmity he had eaten a little chicken, after he regained his strength of body he entered the city of Assisi, and when he had come to the gate of the city, he commanded a certain brother who was with him to tie a rope about his neck and to drag him in this way like a robber through the entire city and to shout in the voice of a herald, saying, “Behold the glutton who has grown fat on the meat of chickens, which he ate without you knowing about it.”
Many therefore ran to see so great a spectacle, and weeping together with great sighs, they said, “Woe to us miserable ones, whose whole life is spent in blood and who nourish our hearts and bodies with uncleanness and drunkenness.” And thus, pierced to the heart, they were moved to a better way of life by so great an example.
Often, when he was honored by all, he suffered the deepest sorrow, and rejecting the favor of men, he would see to it that he would be rebuked by someone. He would call some brother to him, saying to him, “In obedience, I say to you, revile me harshly and speak the truth against the lies of these others.” And when that brother, though unwilling, would say he was a boor, a hired servant, a worthless being, Francis, smiling and applauding very much, would reply, “May the Lord bless you, for you have spoken most truly; it is becoming that the son of Peter of Bernardone should hear such things.”
—Celano, First Life
Preaching to the Birds
When he was near Bevagna, he came to a spot where there was a huge flock of birds of various kinds. The moment he saw them, he ran to them and greeted them as if they understood, and they all turned towards him and waited for him. Those that had perched on the bushes bent their heads, when he came near, and looked at him in an extraordinary way.
He went straight up to them and appealed to them all to hear the word of God, saying, “My brothers, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator. He clothed you with feathers and gave you wings to fly, appointing the clear air as your home, and he looks after you without any effort on your part.” As he continued speaking to them like this, the birds showed their pleasure in a wonderful fashion; they stretched out their necks and flapped their wings, gazing at him with their beaks open.
In his spiritual enthusiasm, Francis walked among them, brushing them with his habit, and not one of them moved until he made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to go. Then they all flew away together with his blessing. His companions who were waiting on the road saw everything and when the saint rejoined them, in the purity and simplicity of his heart, he began to reproach himself for his negligence in never preaching to the birds before.
—Bonaventure, Major Life
Money and Dung
Francis, the true friend and imitator of Christ, utterly despised all things belonging to this world and hated money above all else. He always urged his brethren both by word and example to avoid it as they would the Devil. And he told the friars to have as little love and use for money as for dung.
One day, a layman happened to enter Saint Mary of the Portiuncula to pray and laid some money near the cross as an offering. When he had left, one of the friars unthinkingly picked it up and placed it on a window ledge. But when this was reported to blessed Francis, this friar, realizing himself detected, at once hastened to ask forgiveness, and falling to the ground, offered himself for punishment.
The holy Father reproved him and took him severely to task for touching the money. And he ordered him to take the money from the window in his mouth, carry it outside the friary, and lay it on a heap of ass’s dung.
When this friar readily obeyed this order, all who saw or heard were filled with the greatest fear, and thenceforward despised money as ass’s dung.
—Mirror of Perfection
Demolishing a Building
At this period, the friars had only a single poor cell thatched with straw, with walls of wattle and daub. So when the time drew near for the general chapter [meeting of friars], which was held each year at Saint Mary of the Portiuncula, the people of Assisi, realizing that the friars were increasing in number daily, and that all of them assembled there each year, held a meeting. And within a few days, with great haste and zeal, they erected a large building of stone and mortar while blessed Francis was absent and knew nothing of it.
When he returned from one of the provinces and arrived for the chapter, he was astonished at the house built there. And he was afraid that the sight of the house might make other friars build similar large houses in the places where they lived or were to live, and he desired this place to remain the example and pattern for all other houses of the Order. So before the chapter ended he climbed onto the roof of the house and told other friars to climb up with him. And with their help, he began to throw to the ground the tiles with which the house was roofed, intending to destroy it to the very foundations.
But some men-at-arms of Assisi were present to protect the place from the great crowd of sightseers who had gathered to watch the chapter of the friars. And when they saw that blessed Francis and other friars intended to destroy the house, they went up to him at once and said, “Brother, this house belongs to the Commune [district] of Assisi, and we are here to represent the Commune. We forbid you to destroy our house.”
When he heard this, blessed Francis said to them, “If the house is yours, I will not touch it.” And forthwith he and the other friars came down.
—Mirror of Perfection
One day at Saint Mary, Saint Francis called Brother Leo and said, “Brother Leo, write this down.”
He answered, “I’m ready.”
“Write what true joy is,” he said. “A messenger comes and says that all the masters of theology in Paris have joined the Order—write: that is not true joy. Or all the prelates beyond the mountains—archbishops and bishops, or the King of France and the King of England—write: that is not true joy. Or that my friars have gone to the unbelievers and have converted all of them to the faith; or that I have so much grace from God that I heal the sick and I perform many miracles. I tell you that true joy is not in all those things.”
“But what is true joy?”
“I am returning from Perugia, and I am coming here at night, in the dark. It is winter time and wet and muddy and so cold that icicles form at the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from such wounds. And I come to the gate, all covered with mud and cold and ice, and after I have knocked and called for a long time, a friar comes and asks, ‘Who are you?’ I answer, ‘Brother Francis.’ And he says, ‘Go away. This is not a decent time to be going about. You can’t come in.’
“And when I insist again, he replies, ‘Go away. You are a simple and uneducated fellow. From now on don’t stay with us anymore. We are so many and so important that we don’t need you.’
“But I still stand at the gate and say, ‘For the love of God, let me come in tonight.’ And he answers, ‘I won’t. Go to the Crosiers’ Place [another monastery] and ask there.’
“I tell you that if I kept patience and was not upset—that is true joy and true virtue and salvation of the soul.”
—14th century Latin manuscript
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #42 in 1994]
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