This week has been a long time coming. St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is my favourite saint. If I were to become Roman Catholic, I would choose him as my patron. I have already blogged about him at the Random Ramblings a few times, the most notable being Chasing Francis and St. Francis and Why You Like Him.
His feast day was this past Sunday, so it is only appropriate that we celebrate him as our saint this week.
St. Francis was born in 1182 while his father was off on a business trip to France; thus, upon his father’s return, the new child was (re-)named Francesco. The son of a cloth merchant in Assisi, Italy, he began life seeking the usual pursuits of the wealthy mediaeval middle class. He spent time as a troubadour — love-poets who sang songs about illicit affairs in French. He helped out with the family business. He spent time as a cavalryman (I would say “knight,” but the term would denote landed nobility which he was not).
Wounded in battle with a neighbouring Italian town, Francis’ military career was cut short. During his convalescence, not unlike other mediaeval mystics, he had an encounter with Christ. The Lord converted him through this vision. Shortly thereafter, he realised how drastic the gulf between his comfortable middle-class lifestyle and that of Assisi’s poor. Therefore, he gave away cloth to the poor for free.
His father was unimpressed. So, in a display of what would be typical Francis behaviour, before the bishop of the city, Francis stripped himself naked and gave his clothing to his father. He said that he was now only God’s son and had no obligations to his earthly father. He dedicated himself to his father.
His mystical career continued as Francis spent his days praying in the various chapels around Assisi. One day whilst at prayer in the ruins of San Damiano, he heard the voice of the Lord telling him rebuild the church. Thus, he started the task of rebuilding San Damiano, gathering stones from neighbours in Assisi as well as a few followers in the process.
But the Church Christ was calling him to rebuild was not San Damiano, as became clear. Every once in a while, the Body of Christ gets a little bit cold. The Church becomes stiff, becomes a bureaucracy, an institution concerned more with its survival than with the salvation of souls. Francis and his little brothers (fraticelli) were to become God’s solution for the High Middle Ages.
They dedicated themselves to Lady Poverty and took nothing for the road. They preached the gospel of repentance to the people of Italy. By the time there were eleven of them in 1209, Francis took them to Rome to gain the Pope’s permission to found an order. They were given informal permission at this time, the official founding of the Order of Friars Minor coming later.
St. Francis danced when he met Pope Innocent III.
St. Francis more than the founder of a monastic order (technically a mendicant order of friars). He was a revival preacher and evangelist. He was an “environmentalist.” He was a mystic. He was a poet. He was an ascetic. He is the first recorded recipient of the stigmata.
Some stories about St. Francis of Assisi:
One night, Brother Francis was overcome by the sheer beauty of Sister Moon. Yet the people of Assisi were blind to this beauty. He was determined to grab their attention by any means possible, so he climbed the steeple of the church and began to bang on the bell crying aloud, “Behold Sister Moon! Behold Sister Moon!” Needless to say, his neighbours were unimpressed.
Brother Francis and Sister Clare met one night to discuss spiritual matters in a chapel. As they talked, one of the brothers looked at the chapel and feared that they were in grave danger — the windows were filled with the light from flames. He ran in to save them, and he found them seated, enraptured in the conversation, and the chapel filled with light, blessed angels, and saints.
Another time, a brother went to find Francis out in the woods to bring him a message. He found Francis in conversation with the Blessed Virgin Mary herself.
One of my favourites is a tale about St. Francis and his need for prayer. One day, he and the fraticelli were crossing the Italian countryside, and Francis was overcome with a desire to pray. They went off the road to a place where a friend lived. Francis went to the woods (or was it an island? I forget) and spent the next three days in prayer. Imagine having a life with the freedom to drop your plans so you could spend the next three days devoted to prayer!
If you’re interested in more about St. Frank, check out:
Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron
The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot
St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton
A selection of his works is available in the HaperCollins Spiritual Classics series, Francis & Clare of Assisi.
The painting by Imhoff is scanned from a small copy I have. The original is in the Imhoff Art Collection, Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.