First Article In The Series

St. Francis of Assisi, Part 1

by Ashley McFadden

While St. Francis of Assisi was not a Rosicrucian, he certainly was a mystic who not only made a tremendous mark some 800 years ago, and today is loved by people of many religions and beliefs. After all, a mystic is a mystic and St. Francis has much to teach us all.

When we look at mystics of earlier times, we will find in the West that many were great mystics of the Church. That was their environment. Regardless of your religious background, if any, or any preconceptions, I ask you to set them aside and listen to the life and words of this gentle man so that you, too, may be touched by his lovely soul.

Francis was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182. The father, a cloth merchant was away in France while the wife, Pica, gave birth. As was the custom of the time, no pilgrims were turned away at the time of a birth. An old man appeared, but he was not satisfied with a mere chicken wing; he wanted to see the child, and in fact, he held the new born and declared that on this day two boys had been born in Assisi: one would become the best of men and the other among the worst. Could this have been two separate men, or was this strange prophecy about the carnal and spiritual man known as Francesco?

Originally, baptized Giovanni, the boy was renamed Francesco, the "Frenchman" upon the return of the father, Pietro Bernardone, who was fascinated by all things that were French and later taught his son to speak the language.

Francis was born in an indulgent time and unusual vogues were incorporated in Italian life. Children were raised in an atmosphere of permissiveness and sensuality and were encouraged to pursue this direction wholeheartedly and not to miss a morsel of pleasure to be found. It was also common at this time for some Church festivities, such as the one that lasted several weeks called the Freedoms of December, to get out of hand and become rather Bacchanal. The festivities often poured out of the churches and into the streets, and men, women, children and clergy more or less gave into their appetites. This was the medieval Italy in which Francis was born and raised, and to what extent it affected him is anyone's guess; but it became apparent later in his life that he had a severe attitude towards sexual sins.

The environment in which Francis grew was a time of the Crusades, provincial revolts, class divisions, famine, beggars and lepers. His father, a wealthy merchant and land owner, raised his son to one day take over the business. Francis was never without money which he generously shared with others and freely tossed to beggars. He was a fun loving young man and the leader of the youth pack, dancing and singing through the twisted, maze-like streets of Assisi, spoiled by his parents, wearing the finest clothes and destined for a life of luxury and pleasure. He had it all.

Francis charmed the ladies with his finesse, entertained everyone with his wit and love of life; he sang songs in French in the fashion of the troubadours he so admired and to everyone's delight, and his intuition and sharp intelligence, courteous manner gave him all the characteristics necessary to become a first class businessman. His father was proud.

Francis was the consummate party animal. According to many opinions, he was advanced in the art of frivolity and caught up in the whirlwinds of pleasure. Some even suggest he invented the concept of wine, women and song. Celano, Francis' first biographer, says that Francis wasted his life up the age of twenty-five and surpassed his friends in foolishness and became the leader of a perverse army of youths that danced through the streets of Babylon. (Englebert, 17)

Other biographers, such as St. Bonaventure, claim that although Francis had a talent for fun, he never gave himself to the seductions of the flesh, and that he was neither corrupt or corrupting, that his love of everything around him came from a noble heart and that nothing vulgar ever came from his mouth. Others say that even though he was the leader of the carousing youth, he seemed to party from a detached point of view. So what we have is a difference of opinion on this issue; temptations of the flesh all agree were there, but to what extent Francis gave into this, no one knows for sure. Troublesome documents indicating the former were burned in 1263 and according to Julien Green, this is how plaster saints are made (although as we will discover, Francis was no plaster saint), and Green quotes the saint himself as saying, "I lived in sin. Don't canonize me too soon. I'm perfectly capable of fathering a child." (Green, 52)

Francis' capacity to love was always apparent as well as his generosity and humor. He charmed everyone with his sense of fun, delight and a smile full of glee. He gave money away freely, his pockets always full, and the money itself did not mean much to him. He laughed, sang and overall had a good time with life, finding joy in all things, people and nature. One day, however, he was in the shop when a beggar came in and asked for alms for the love of God. Francis was aesthetic and could not endure ugliness, and in an uncharacteristic lack of generosity, he dismissed the beggar, waving him off and returned to the fine silks he unrolled before the customers. Then his conscience struck him hard as he realized that if the beggar had appeared more appealing and had asked for alms in the name of a count, he may have given the money. Francis chased after the beggar and filled the poor man's hands with all the coins he had. Francis vowed to himself never again to turn down a request "for the love of God." What we see here is the dawning of a future saint whose tender heart would dazzle the world with his ideal of evangelical poverty and his total commitment to the love of God.

Francis always felt he was destined for greatness. He thought at first it was through knighthood, chivalry and marching off to wars in a suit of armor too heavy for his fragile and slender body. He tried this approach, going to a war that broke out in Perugia in 1200. Leaving Assisi, he soon he found himself caught and thrown in prison along with other young men who only a few days before had thought life was for pleasure and fun. It was a harsh awakening in the cold and freezing bottom of a dungeon.

Francis had health problems since childhood and must have suffered greatly from the stinging cold, and yet he remained cheerful in spite of the chains around his ankles and wrists. The others became annoyed by his good humor under such horrible circumstances and asked him why he was so happy. Celano says his answer was this: "I rejoice because some day I shall be venerated as a saint all over the world." This from the lips of a man who to this point had not lived a saintly life, yet it shows the conversion coming upon him in sudden spurts and starts. After a year in prison, Francis, who had become extremely ill, was released and returned home at the age of twenty-two. His youth was gone.

Francis would not experience his conversion until the age of twenty-six and so he had a few years to keep God waiting. He recuperated from his captivity under constant care and when he was well, he dreamed still of military glory and chivalry. He managed to spend his father's money on the expensive armor, horse and all the paraphernalia necessary for a grand departure in honor of Christendom and the fourth crusade. Barely able to hold himself up under the heavy armor, he hit the road. It was a short journey. A voice came to him one night that told him to return home where he was born and that he would be told later what to do.

And so Francis did as the voice instructed him and returned home with his armor intact, to the dismay of his father and gossip of the town that whispered he was a coward. But Francis heeded the word of God, sold the armor and the horse and waited for further guidance.

Francis still felt the force of youth in him, his pockets were still jingling with money, his voice full of song and he decided to throw a huge party for his friends. They ate to the point of gluttony and Francis with the fool's baton in his hand was king of the feast. But suddenly he stopped, withdrew and the party continued without him, and Francis was drawn into a prayer.

His drunken friends found him sometime later in the middle of the street, his eyes in awe beneath the light of the moon. They saw his face had changed and teased him that he had been struck by the love of a beautiful lady. "Francis is in love, Francis is in love," they joked with appropriate gestures. Francis said, yes, he was and that he had seen the fairest lady of all: his bride. She had finally caught up with Francis, filled him with the power of her love and tenderness and in that moment, God had won. Francis still did not know the road ahead, but the object of his profound love that had always been with him from the day of his birth, had at this moment changed, forever.

Francis had come under the spell of his lady, symbolic of the poor Christ, Lady Poverty and in that moment of the thunderbolt, he knew to serve her was all his desire. "Lady Poverty the symbol of paradoxes in the Gospel: richness in poverty, life in death, strength in weakness, beauty in the sordid, peace in conflict and temptation, fullness in emptiness and above all, love in detachment and deprivation. She made everything hard, soft, and everything difficult, easy...if he gave Lady Poverty his need for love, she would give them back to him." (Bodo, 16)

The feasts were over, the parties done. For now on, nothing would matter to Francis, but God.

(to be continued)

From the twenty-eight Admonitions, dictated by St. Francis:

XXVII How Virtue Drives Out Vice

1. Where there is charity and wisdom there is neither fear nor ignorance. 2. Where there is patience and humility there is neither anger nor disturbance 3. Where there is poverty with joy, there is neither covetousness nor avarice 4. Where there is inner peace and meditation there is neither anxiousness nor dissipation. 5. Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf, Lk 11:21), there the enemy cannot gain entry. 6. Where there is mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor hardness of heart.

(Armstrong, Brady, 35)

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