Third Article In The Series

St. Francis of Assisi, Part III

by Ashley McFadden

Who sees his Lord Within every creature, Deathlessly dwelling Amidst the Mortal: that man sees truly. -- The Bhagavad Gita

Francis returned to the church of San Damiano, but now he had no money to rebuild the chapel. "The Little Poor Man" set off to beg for what he needed, from food to stones. He would sing or speak simply, never using intellectual, impressive words, but wishing to be understood. He spoke sincerely of what he knew, and told the people that there was happiness to be found and they could be free from sadness. "Pace e bene!" he announced.

Francis spoke from the heart and moved people deeply, and soon he developed a core of other young men who wished walk in his steps. He began with eleven recruits, then twelve, and Francis enjoying the symmetry to the Apostles, welcomed them. Many of them were from prominent families, and this did not go over well with their parents or other authorities.

Soon the band grew enough to be divided in groups and they were set out in different directions. They were not always met pleasantly and endured a great deal of humiliation by a frightened and suspicious public.

In an atmosphere of Church corruption so rampant that Pope Innocent III said, "it would take fire and a sword to cure it," there was no shortage of would-be prophets and splinter groups to pick up the slack. Many were sincere and bore the seeds of the future reformation; but some, taking advantage of the chaos, were questionable. Overall, they preached poverty, Christ and love. The more political and self-serving ones used the Gospel as a weapon to attack everything in sight. In either case, the Church wasn't concerned with motive, but with the effect and dealt with "heretics" in final terms.

Then along comes Francis preaching, of all things, the Gospel again. More young, wealthy men followed his lead and people listened to his words; it is no wonder he could soon find himself catalogued as a heretic, and just one more harebrained illuminati. All things considered, Francis decided to seek the council of the Pope.

It's important to note that Francis was uneducated and was not a theologian; he had no desire to create another order, there were plenty around. Further, even though he was inspired by the evangelical ideals of the Cathars and Waldensians (his father was a Cathar), it never occurred to Francis to be rebellious. He was not political, and it never entered his mind to question the Church or Pope. He did not think in that fashion. He simply wanted to do his "own thing" according to Divine dictates.

The first attempt to see the Pope did not go well and the ragged group of monks were tossed out. However, the Pope had a dream.

In this medieval time, the world of dreams had not been subjected to a Freudian couch or dismissed as intellectual nonsense or one's own creation. Dreams were considered communications from the Divine, revealing God's will, and people were convinced they were seeing images outside themselves -- dynamic ideas revealed from a supernal world -- a source of mystical revelation. They acted upon their dreams as they did their visions, without consulting reason. (Green, 120)

Pope Innocent III dreamed of a palm tree that grew at his feet to a huge size, and God revealed to him that this tree was the beggar in rags he refused to see. Francis was called back. Dressed in ash-colored rags, he knelt before the opulent red and gold of the Pope, and spoke in such a persuasive manner, he moved the Pope to approve his rule.

Although the approval to preach was only verbal at this time, Francis used it to great success. The time was ripe for him. He was to rebuild the Church with a capital C, beyond his neighborhood Chapel, not realizing to what degree he would revitalize the Church. Francis would bring back an original innocence of primitive Christianity and replace the effect of an apathetic, tepid clergy who yawned through Sunday sermons, having long forgotten how to speak to the soul. Pope Innocent III may have been as prudent as he was moved.

Many demands were now placed on Francis as his popularity spread and his physical strength continued to decrease, a process exhilarated by his conversion itself. Assisi wanted to hear him speak, the same man they had pelted with stones just a few years earlier for scandalizing the town. Francis went, weak from fasting and in poor health, but came to life before the thousand faces waiting to hear his words, the king of youth in beggar's cloths. Francis, a man surrendered to the one whose language he spoke, made them weep by the love and tenderness flowing through his voice. That was the gift Francis had to give: the gift of Love.

In understanding Francis' effect on people, we must understand that his conversion was more than a change of attitude and lifestyle. Rather, he was utterly transformed so that when he spoke, the atmosphere around him changed by his sheer spiritual fire, his words were so full of passion that people were overwhelmed to tears, as if they listened to the Gospels from the original source.

The other brothers, Friars Minor, were not there to see the town embrace their very own saint, but they received a vision. A chariot of fire came into their hut, left and came in again several times, scaring them and filling them with ecstatic joy at the same time, for they knew they saw the soul of their brother, sending them proof of his love for them. (Green, 131)

Francis' relationship with his Brothers is important in the whole Franciscan concept. Not only were there the basics of poverty, chastity, humility, and the operations of contemplation and action, but also the binding force of community is an essential thread throughout the order.

In the world of material comfort, it is difficult to fathom the sacrifices and discomfort this band of men endured; but none of that mattered to the Friars Minor because they were with Francis who loved them like his own children. In exchange for their obedience to poverty, purity of heart, humility and charity, Francis liberated their hearts in the effulgence of pure joy. Remember these were men who gave up manors, wealth and all material possessions to commit themselves to an ideal. Many historians have tried to describe the happiness in which they lived, singing, praying and washing lepers, yet living under a strict rule; it defies reason. Whenever one of the brothers would have a bout with temptation, Francis ordered them to jump in the freezing stream and stay there until the temptation went away, and they did so -- as Francis walked away with a grin on his face.

But the happiness he gave his brothers was the happiness that comes from loving God and really feeling God's love in return. And who has the strength to take such a journey where the access to God and such love is not an easy task?

One of the difficult paradoxes about Francis is that on one hand he found joy and celebration in life and the Divine Presence was everywhere -- the smells, sounds, colors and people -- and he was not maudlin in his preaching. At the same he felt that the shortest path to God was through suffering which he did all his life, physically and spiritually. However, his identification with the object of his love was so absolute that he accepted his sufferings as Divine Grace which brought him back full circle to joy.

One day, Brother Leo, Francis' confidant, asked him to reveal what perfect joy was. Francis had told him what it was not, and together they had an experience that demonstrated what words could not adequately describe. It was a freezing cold day and they had walked for miles until finally they arrived at convent. They knocked on the door asking for warmth and food. Instead they were given a thrashing by the doorkeeper who thought they were frauds; he slapped them, kicked them and hit them both with a club, then dragged them by their cowls and threw them into the mud. Francis and Leo accepted this treatment cheerfully and with perfect joy, because they had arrived at the most narrow part of the path, overcoming themselves and accepting the burden in total abandonment to love. They penetrated the veil and eternal joy was theirs. (Green, 173)

Francis never wanted to be a cleric, nor did he wish to be landowner. However, in 1213 a piece of land, Mt. Alverno, was donated to the brothers. On his way to inspect the sight, Francis and a few brothers stopped to rest the night in a convent. Francis was alone in the Church and had a horrible night with some nasty spirits, who thinking Francis was spiritually weakened by his new possession of land, wrestled to tempt him further. The story goes that he was dragged back and forth across the stone floor of the Church, all the while thanking God for the temptation. The brothers found him later in the woods, raised up into the air and enveloped in a shining cloud.

The next day, Francis was weakened by the ordeal and had to borrow an ass from a local peasant. The peasant, out of the blue, gives Francis a lecture, and told him that he better be as virtuous as he claims to be or he's going to disappoint a lot of people, and that he dare not say one thing and be another. To this, Francis fell to the ground and kissed the peasant's feet, thanking him for the warning.

That afternoon, they reached Mt. Alverno and Francis was laid beneath a bush. It was here that hundreds of birds flew in from every direction and landed on his arms, legs and head, chirping in loud cries and beating their wings as though sent from the most high.

Francis' love of nature and animals is well known and intrinsic to his concept of the community in which we are all members. He called everything Brother or Sister, Brother Sun, Sister Death and he referred to his own body as Brother Ass. The story of Brother Wolf is one of the more famous regarding animals.

The town of Gubbio was terrified by a wild wolf, gates were always locked, and the people always armed. Francis decided to investigate. He left the perimeter of the town, along with a companion, to find the wolf's den. Finally he heard the howl of the predator. The companion froze on the spot and Francis marched toward the wolf loping his way. Francis went straight to the growling wolf, made the sign of the cross over him and said, "Brother Wolf, in the name of Christ you will not harm anyone anymore, and you will not eat Brother Ass!" The wolf stopped on a dime and Francis continued to give him a stern lecture. "You are very bad, and eat God's creatures without permission...I wish to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio." To this, the wolf wagged its tail, tilted its head and then sitting on its haunches, placed his paw in Francis' outstretched hand. Francis had a new convert, and the town a new pet. The people fed him and the wolf wandered from house to house enjoying the new hospitality for the remainder of its life. (Green, 218-220)

Beasts loved Francis as much as people did for reasons that no one can explain. But if Francis exuded such a powerful love that people could feel, then it seems that animals too responded to the spiritual power of his love and perhaps could even see a field of energy beyond most human eyes, and they looked to Francis as their friend.

The Contemplation of the Creator in Creatures

St. Francis praised the Artist in every one of this works; whatever he found in things made, he referred to their Maker. He rejoiced in all works of the Lord's hands, and with joyful vision saw into the reason and cause that gave them life. In beautiful things, he came to know Beauty itself. To him all things were good. They cried out to him, "He who made us is infinitely good." By tracing his footprints in things Francis followed the Beloved wherever he led. He made, from created things, a ladder to his throne. --Celano, Second Life, 165

Brother Rabbit

Once when St. Francis was staying at the town of Greccio, a little rabbit that had been caught in a trap was brought alive to him by a certain brother. When the most blessed man saw it, he was moved to pity and said: "Brother Rabbit, come to me. Why did you allow yourself to be tricked like this?" And as soon as the rabbit had been let go by the brother who held it, it fled to the saint, and without being forced by anyone, it lay quietly in his lap as the safest place possible. After he had rested there a little while, the holy father, caressing it with motherly affection, released it so it could return free to the woods. But when it had been placed upon the ground several times and had returned each time to the saint's lap, he finally commanded it to be carried by the brothers to the nearby woods. ---Celano, First Life, 60

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