Tattered Treasure of Assisi

IT IS DIFFICULT, when writing about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, to avoid writing about a stereotype. His very name brings to mind sermons to birds, tamed wolves, simplicity of life, genial friars padding about flower-filled cloisters, and swallows unfailingly returning to the picturesque mission of San Juan Capistrano.

That image, largely inherited from nineteenth-century romanticism, derives from a certain verifiable tradition about Francis. Like all stereotypes, however, it flattens out or erases other aspects of his personality. It is difficult to think of the “Little Poor Man of Assisi” as a center of bitter contention, the source of radical social impulses, or the inspiration for a fierce and unyielding asceticism.

Yet, for many, Francis was one or all of those things in his lifetime and after his death. In fact, beyond the romantic cliches about Saint Francis one discovers a person who, for all of his transparent attractiveness, is complex to the point of enigma.

Failed knight

Francis was born Giovanni Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182 in the Italian hill town of Assisi. His parents, Pietro and Pica, were members of the rather well-to-do merchant class of the town. Pietro Bernardone was away in France when his son was born. On his return, he had the boy’s name changed from Giovanni to Francesco ("The Little Frenchman"—perhaps a tribute to France, a country he loved and from which his wife’s family came).

Of the youth of Francis we know very little. He probably received a bit of rudimentary schooling from the priests of his parish church of San Giorgio. He spoke and sang in French, a language he probably learned at home.

Accounts of his life emphasized his recklessness and frivolity as a youth. “Until he was nearly 25, he squandered his time terribly. Indeed, he outshone all his friends in trivialities, suggested various evils, and was eager for foolishness of every kind,” wrote his first biographer, Thomas of Celano. This is plausible, given his position as the spoiled son of a wealthy mercantile family.

In 1202 Francis marched with the gentlemen soldiers of Assisi to engage the army of the city of Perugia. It was probably one of those bloody skirmishes that the medievals loved to call a war. At any rate, Francis was captured in battle and imprisoned in Perugia. He spent a year there until his father could negotiate the price of his ransom.

For Francis, as it has been for many, incarceration proved to be a turning point. We don’t know what his prison routine was like or how he reacted to it, but when he returned to Assisi he spent a year in convalescence.

Stripping away the past

Francis also began to change as a person. By 1205 he had left his home to take up a life of solitude. He gradually adopted the traditional garb of a hermit (thick shoes, a tunic with a belt) and lived near a tumbledown and nearly abandoned church at the edge of Assisi called San Damiano. In obedience to voices he heard in the church, he began literally to “rebuild the church.” With his own hands, he began to repair the ruined walls of San Damiano.

Between 1206 and 1208, Francis continued to live this marginal existence. The period was also marked by quarrels with his father. Pietro may have been indulgent of Francis’s adolescent high jinks, but he was absolutely livid about this new kind of life. Outraged by the squalor of his life and his prodigal generosity to the poor, his father even tried to imprison him in the cellar of the family home. It was, after all, Pietro’s hard-earned money that Francis was giving to the poor and leprous.

Finally, in an act of desperation, he hauled his recalcitrant son before the local bishop to demand that justice be done. This fateful encounter was drawn in Saint Bonaventure’s Major Life of the saint:

"His father brought Francis before the bishop of the diocese. He wanted Francis to renounce all claims and return his goods. Because of his love for poverty, Francis readily agreed to come before the bishop. With no urging, hesitation, justification, or speech, he took off his clothes and gave them to his father. It was discovered that he had on a hair shirt under his costly robes. He even took off his pants in his zeal so that he stood naked before the bishop.

To his father he said,’Up to today I called you father, but now I can say in all honesty Our Father who art in heaven. He is my patrimony, and I put my faith in him.’

On hearing this, the bishop was dumbstruck at his zeal. He jumped up to embrace Francis while covering him with his own cape. He got his servants to bring him some clothes. They got an old smock which had belonged to a farmer. Francis put it on after drawing a cross on it with a piece of chalk. He judged it a worthy garment for a beggar and follower of the crucified Christ.

Thus, the Most High’s servant was stripped of all possessions; he could now follow his Lover who once hung stripped on the cross.... Free of all earthly bonds, Francis left the town and sought for quiet places where he could be alone in solitude and silence to hear the secrets which God could reveal to him.”

From hermit to itinerant

A couple of years later, on February 24, 1208, Francis was at Mass in the little church of Saint Mary of the Angels when he heard these words from Saint Matthew read out at the proclamation of the Gospel:

"Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or a staff.” This Gospel message gave Francis a new direction. He decided to put aside his life as a hermit to begin an itinerant existence after the command of Christ.

If the period from 1205 can be called the time of his first conversion then this day must be understood as the moment of what William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, has called “the second conversion.” Francis saw that his calling was to live in absolute poverty, wandering through the towns and villages preaching the Gospel.

By this time, Francis had attracted some followers who desired to share his life. What was this life to be? Francis had a very simple plan: to live as the great masses of the rural and urban poor lived. To them he would preach the Gospel. This simple plan, however, was not without risk. The medieval church took a dim view of unsupervised bands of evangelical itinerants who identified too closely with the proletarian masses. Too many groups had been stirring up revolutionary expectations.

Francis understood that he needed church approval for his little group. In the spring of 1209, he wrote a rule of life (since lost) and then set off for Rome with his small band of brothers. They finally gained an audience with that most redoubtable of medieval pontiffs, Pope Innocent III.

Although later accounts of the meeting are filled with papal dreams and initial rebuffs, the basic fact is that Francis got his rule approved and found a friend in Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, who became the band’s protector. Near the end of his life, Francis himself gave a laconic and characteristically self-effacing account of all these events in his Testament:

"When the Lord entrusted brothers to me, nobody told me how tO treat them, but the Most High revealed to me personally that I ought to live according to the norms of the Holy Gospel. I had it all written down in a few simple words, and the lord Pope approved it. And those who wished to embrace the life gave the poor everything they had and contented themselves with a tunic patched inside and out, and a belt and some underclothes. And we did not wish for anything more.”

Peace amid violence

Francis and his first companions then embarked on a life of wandering and preaching. His constant theme was conversion to the values of the gospel. He taught his early friars to greet everyone with the salutation “Peace and good!"To realize how passionately Francis wanted that theme to be preached and accepted, we must recover some sense of the violence and carnage of the age. Blood vendettas, legal mutilations, city strife, incessant war, and murder were part of everyday life. Medieval towns, located on tops of hills, were girded by thick walls and filled with bastions and heavily fortified homes to protect the citizenry in an age when roving bands of mercenaries, rapacious political tyrants, and family brawling were the order of the day.

Until 1220 we hear of Francis wandering all over Italy, and of his visits to Spain with an idea of penetrating the Muslim world as a missionary. He was almost certainly in Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council

In 1219 Francis sailed for Acre and Damietta to make contact with the Muslim world once again. It is a mark of his incredible personality that he was able to cross the Crusader lines and visit the sultan Malikal-Kamil who, despite his admiration for the Christian holy man, did not decide to convert. Visitors to Assisi today can still see the carved ivory horn that the sultan presented to Francis as a memento of his visit.


It was during this eventful decade that Francis received Chiara di Favarone (Clare), a well-to-do young lady of Assisi, into his way of life. She was to be the founder of the “Second Order” of Franciscans, now known as the Poor Clares. On Palm Sunday in 1212, Francis cut off her long blonde tresses (lovingly preserved in Assisi), dressed her in penitential serge, and sent her to live at San Damiano, along with some members of her family who joined her.

The brothers had taken up their residence at the little church of Saint Mary of the Angels (where Francis had heard the Gospel reading about the life of poverty) in the valley below the town of Assisi. Over that little chapel of Saint Mary’s (or the Portiuncula, “Little Portion,” as it is called) now stands a huge late-baroque church. It is a colossal monument to good intentions and execrable taste.

The relationship of Francis and Clare (she was to outlive him by years and become on her own a powerful figure and counselor to popes) is the story of a great spiritual friendship. A wonderful account in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (the so-called Fioretti) underlines this kinship of spirit:

"When Saint Francis was in Assisi, he often visited Saint Clare in order to give her spiritual counsel. She had a great desire to eat with Saint Francis and had asked him many times, but he never granted her this consolation.

"Some of his companions came to Saint Francis once to talk about the desire of Clare and said to him,’Father, we do not think that this rigidity is in keeping with divine love. You do not want to grant such a little thing as a meal to Sister Clare, a virgin who is so holy and so beloved of God. It was through your preaching that she abandoned the world and her riches, and that should be kept in mind. Even if she were to ask a greater favor, you ought to grant it since she is your spiritual offspring.’

"Saint Francis said,’do you think then that I should grant her request?'

"His friends said,’Yes, father. She is worthy of this grace.’

"Saint Francis then said,’If it seems good to you, then it seems good to me. It would be better for her to come here to Saint Mary of the Angels, for she has been cloistered so long at San Damiano, and it would be pleasing to her to see again the place where her hair was cut and where she became a bride of Christ. So, in the name of God, we will eat here..’..

"In the meantime, Saint Francis prepared a meal and spread it on the ground, as was his custom. When the hour came, Saint Francis sat with Saint Clare, his companion sat with hers, and the other brothers humbly ringed themselves around the table. With the first plate, Saint Francis began to speak softly and persuasively and wonderfully of God. The grace of God descended on the whole company, and shortly they were all rapt in the contemplation of God. “While they were so rapt with their eyes and hands reaching toward the heavens, the citizens of Assisi and Bettona and the people in the environs of Saint Mary of the Angels saw the church, the land, and the forest around enveloped in fire. The citizens of Assisi ran to the place to put out the blaze, for they were convinced that everything would be lost in a holocaust. When they arrived there, they found nothing burning at all. Entering the place, they found Saint Francis and Saint Clare and all the others rapt in the contemplation of God while seated around a meager meal.

"They understood immediately that the fire they saw was divine and not material. They were sure that God had made the fire appear miraculously so as to illustrate the fire of divine love which burned in the hearts of those holy brothers and nuns. They returned home happy and edified in their hearts.

"After a length of time, Saint Francis and Saint Clare came to their senses, and they were so filled with spiritual food that they had no appetite for the meal before them. So that finished the meal, and Saint Clare, well accompanied, returned to San Damiano.”

Exploding order

Throughout the years of 1210 to 1220, the number of followers of Saint Francis grew at a truly incredible rate. By 1217, we know that small bands of the “little brothers” (fratres minores) lived in Italy, France, Spain, Bohemia, Germany, England, and the Holy Land. By 1219 missionaries had been sent to Hungary and to what is today Morocco and Tunisia. Lay folk who wished to share in the life of the Franciscans were provided with a modified rule of life and were enrolled in what had been called the “Third Order.”

An independent eyewitness testifies to the power of these early friars and the example of their lives. In 1216 a French bishop, Jacques De Vitry, visited the papal court in Perugia. Pope Innocent III had just died (De Vitry records that his body had been stripped of its robes and jewels by thieves who broke into the church while the pope was lying in state—a comment on the times). De Vitry says in a letter that the papal court, with its intrigues, law suits, political squabbles, and money grubbing, “saddened me greatly.”

Amid the depressing sights at the courts, however, he was consoled to find “persons of both sexes, rich and worldly, who have renounced their possessions and, for the love of Christ, turned their backs on the world. They are called'Friars Minor’ and'Little Sisters.’ “ De Vitry went on to observe that they were indifferent to the honors of the world but passionate in their desire to convert people to the following of Christ.

Growth inevitably brought problems. It was one thing for a small group of wandering brothers to subsist by the work of their hands or through begging, but it was quite a different matter when that small band grew into the thousands. The saint could always ask the Father in heaven to “give us this day our daily bread,” but the superiors, good men all but not necessarily saints, had to feed and house large numbers of friars.

There was the further question of education. Francis wanted his friars to live simply and among the poor. How was he to handle the ever-increasing number of educated persons who begged admittance to his order? He resisted the idea of his friars attending the universities that were then in their first period of growth and expansion. (Indeed, one legend even has Francis cursing a group of friars who had opened a hospice in the university town of Bologna.)

Francis must not have been entirely opposed to learning, however, since in a letter of disputed authenticity he gave Saint Anthony of Padua permission to teach the friars theology, as long as it did not “extinguish the habit of prayer.”

Passion for poverty

Francis was most concerned about any possibility of mitigating his simple but unbending concern for evangelical poverty. We catch a sense of his urgency in the plea he makes in his Testament, which he wrote sometime in the final years of his life:

"This is a testament, a memorial, an exhortation, and a remembrance that I, the little Brother Francis, have made for you, my blessed brothers, so that you will be better able to observe the holy rule that we have promised before the Lord.

"All the brothers clerical and lay are ordered in obedience to make glosses neither on the rule or on these words; neither should they say’this should be interpreted thusly’ rather, as the Lord told me what to say and how to write this rule simply and purely, they are to observe this rule and these words simply and purely and fulfill them right to the end.

"Whoever has observed these things will be filled with the heavenly benediction of the Most High Father and on earth be filled with the blessing of his beloved Son and the most Holy Spirit the Paraclete, and all the heavenly powers and the saints. And I, Brother Francis, your little one and your servant, inasmuch as I can, will strengthen you within and without with this holy blessing. Amen.”

In 1220, Francis resigned as head of the order of friars. Others would now deal with organizing his burgeoning movement. In those final years, however, he was almost plaintive in his desire that the friars not depart from the primitive standards he had set for them in the first years.

Christmas drama

These years, harried as they were by his concern for matters within the order, were also years of great consolation and spiritual creativity. The year 1223, when a definitive rule for the order was finally approved by the pope, found Francis in the town of Greccio for the celebration of Christmas.

In order to intensify and dramatize the real poverty of the first Christmas, Francis decided to celebrate the feast in a setting like that described in the New Testament. He found a cave near the town and attended Mass amid the animals traditionally associated with the feast. This celebration was to mark the beginning of the now almost universal custom of building and adorning manger scenes in churches and homes. At the celebration, Francis read the Gospel and preached (the saint was never ordained to the priesthood, but he was a deacon) to the assembled faithful. CH

By Lawrence S. Cunningham

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #42 in 1994]

Dr. Lawrence S. Cunningham is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of sixteen books, most recently Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (Paulist, 1992).
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