He Chose a Greater Chivalry: St. Francis of Assisi (Part 5)

Death of St. Francis. – Évora, Portugal, Igreja de São Francisco.

In the early autumn Francis, feeling the hand of death upon him, was carried to his beloved Porziuncola, that he might breathe his last sigh where his vocation had been revealed to him and whence his order had struggled into sight. On the way thither he asked to be set down, and with painful effort he invoked a beautiful blessing on Assisi, which, however, his eyes could no longer discern. The saint’s last days were passed at the Porziuncola in a tiny hut, near the chapel, that served as an infirmary. The arrival there about this time of the Lady Jacoba of Settesoli, who had come with her two sons and a great retinue to bid Francis farewell, caused some consternation, since women were forbidden to enter the friary. But Francis in his tender gratitude to this Roman noblewoman, made an exception in her favor, and “Brother Jacoba”, as Francis had named her on account of her fortitude, remained to the last. On the eve of his death, the saint, in imitation of his Divine Master, had bread brought to him and broken. This he distributed among those present, blessing Bernard of Quintaville, his first companion, Elias, his vicar, and all the others in order. “I have done my part,” he said next, “may Christ teach you to do yours.” Then wishing to give a last token of detachment and to show he no longer had anything in common with the world, Francis removed his poor habit and lay down on the bare ground, covered with a borrowed cloth, rejoicing that he was able to keep faith with his Lady Poverty to the end. After a while he asked to have read to him the Passion according to St. John, and then in faltering tones he himself intoned Psalm 141. At the concluding verse, “Bring my soul out of prison”, Francis was led away from earth by “Sister Death”, in whose praise he had shortly before added a new strophe to his “Canticle of the Sun”. It was Saturday evening, 3 October, 1226, Francis being then in the forty-fifth year of his age, and the twentieth from his perfect conversion to Christ.

Free Book Return to OrderFree Audio Book: Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go

 

The saint had, in his humility, it is said, expressed a wish to be buried on the Colle d’Inferno, a despised hill without Assisi, where criminals were executed. However this may be, his body was, on 4 October, borne in triumphant procession to the city, a halt being made at St. Damian’s, that St. Clare and her companions might venerate the sacred stigmata now visible to all, and it was placed provisionally in the church of St. George (now within the enclosure of the monastery of St. Clare), where the saint had learned to read and had first preached. Many miracles are recorded to have taken place at his tomb. Francis was canonized at St. George’s by Gregory IX, 16 July, 1228. On that day following the pope laid the first stone of the great double church of St. Francis, erected in honor of the new saint, and thither on 25 May, 1230, Francis’s remains were secretly transferred by Brother Elias and buried far down under the high altar in the lower church. Here, after lying hidden for six centuries, like that of St. Clare’s, Francis’s coffin was found, 12 December, 1818, as a result of a toilsome search lasting fifty-two nights. This discovery of the saint’s body is commemorated in the order by a special office on 12 December, and that of his translation by another on 25 May. His feast is kept throughout the Church on 4 October, and the impression of the stigmata on his body is celebrated on 17 September.

***

It has been said with pardonable warmth that Francis entered into glory in his lifetime, and that he is the one saint whom all succeeding generations have agreed in canonizing. Certain it is that those also who care little about the order he founded, and who have but scant sympathy with the Church to which he ever gave his devout allegiance, even those who know that Christianity to be Divine, find themselves, instinctively as it were, looking across the ages for guidance to the wonderful Umbrian Poverello, and invoking his name in grateful remembrance. This unique position Francis doubtless owes in no small measure to his singularly lovable and winsome personality. Few saints ever exhaled “the good odour of Christ” to such a degree as he.

There was about Francis, moreover, a chivalry and a poetry which gave to his other-worldliness a quite romantic charm and beauty. Other saints have seemed entirely dead to the world around them, but Francis was ever thoroughly in touch with the spirit of the age. He delighted in the songs of Provence, rejoiced in the new-born freedom of his native city, and cherished what Dante calls the pleasant sound of his dear land. And this exquisite human element in Francis’s character was the key to that far-reaching, all-embracing sympathy, which may be almost called his characteristic gift. In his heart, as an old chronicler puts it, the whole world found refuge, the poor, the sick and the fallen being the objects of his solicitude in a more special manner.

Heedless as Francis ever was of the world’s judgments in his own regard, it was always his constant care to respect the opinions of all and to wound the feelings of none. Wherefore he admonishes the friars to use only low and mean tables, so that “if a beggar were to come to sit down near them he might believe that he was but with his equals and need not blush on account of his poverty.” One night, we are told, the friary was aroused by the cry “I am dying.” “Who are you”, exclaimed Francis arising, “and why are dying?” “I am dying of hunger”, answered the voice of one who had been too prone to fasting. Whereupon Francis had a table laid out and sat down beside the famished friar, and lest the latter might be ashamed to eat alone, ordered all the other brethren to join in the repast.

Francis’s devotedness in consoling the afflicted made him so condescending that he shrank not from abiding with the lepers in their loathly lazar-houses and from eating with them out of the same platter. But above all it is his dealings with the erring that reveal the truly Christian spirit of his charity. “Saintlier than any of the saint”, writes Celano, “among sinners he was as one of themselves”. Writing to a certain minister in the order, Francis says: “Should there be a brother anywhere in the world who has sinned, no matter how great soever his fault may be, let him not go away after he has once seen thy face without showing pity towards him; and if he seek not mercy, ask him if he does not desire it. And by this I will know if you love God and me.”

Again, to medieval notions of justice the evil-doer was beyond the law and there was no need to keep faith with him. But according to Francis, not only was justice due even to evil-doers, but justice must be preceded by courtesy as by a herald. Courtesy, indeed, in the saint’s quaint concept, was the younger sister of charity and one of the qualities of God Himself, Who “of His courtesy”, he declares, “gives His sun and His rain to the just and the unjust”.

St. Francis preaching to the birds, by Giotto

This habit of courtesy Francis ever sought to enjoin on his disciples. “Whoever may come to us”, he writes, “whether a friend or a foe, a thief or a robber, let him be kindly received”, and the feast which he spread for the starving brigands in the forest at Monte Casale sufficed to show that “as he taught so he wrought”. The very animals found in Francis a tender friend and protector; thus we find him pleading with the people of Gubbio to feed the fierce wolf that had ravished their flocks, because through hunger “Brother Wolf” had done this wrong. And the early legends have left us many an idyllic picture of how beasts and birds alike susceptible to the charm of Francis’s gentle ways, entered into loving companionship with him; how the hunted leveret sought to attract his notice; how the half-frozen bees crawled towards him in the winter to be fed; how the wild falcon fluttered around him; how the nightingale sang with him in sweetest content in the ilex grove at the Carceri, and how his “little brethren the birds” listened so devoutly to his sermon by the roadside near Bevagna that Francis chided himself for not having thought of preaching to them before. Francis’s love of nature also stands out in bold relief in the world he moved in. He delighted to commune with the wild flowers, the crystal spring, and the friendly fire, and to greet the sun as it rose upon the fair Umbrian vale. In this respect, indeed, St. Francis’s “gift of sympathy” seems to have been wider even than St. Paul’s, for we find no evidence in the great Apostle of a love for nature or for animals.

Hardly less engaging than his boundless sense of fellow-feeling was Francis’s downright sincerity and artless simplicity. “Dearly beloved,” he once began a sermon following upon a severe illness, “I have to confess to God and you that during this Lent I have eaten cakes made with lard.” And when the guardian insisted for the sake of warmth upon Francis having a fox skin sewn under his worn-out tunic, the saint consented only upon condition that another skin of the same size be sewn outside. For it was his singular study never to hide from men that which known to God. “What a man is in the sight of God,” he was wont to repeat, “so much he is and no more” — a saying which passed into the “Imitation”, and has been often quoted.

Another winning trait of Francis which inspires the deepest affection was his unswerving directness of purpose and unfaltering following after an ideal. “His dearest desire so long as he lived”, Celano tells us, “was ever to seek among wise and simple, perfect and imperfect, the means to walk in the way of truth.” To Francis love was the truest of all truths; hence his deep sense of personal responsibility towards his fellows. The love of Christ and Him Crucified permeated the whole life and character of Francis, and he placed the chief hope of redemption and redress for a suffering humanity in the literal imitation of his Divine Master. The saint imitated the example of Christ as literally as it was in him to do so; barefoot, and in absolute poverty, he proclaimed the reign of love. This heroic imitation of Christ’s poverty was perhaps the distinctive mark of Francis’s vocation, and he was undoubtedly, as Bossuet expresses it, the most ardent, enthusiastic, and desperate lover of poverty the world has yet seen.

After money Francis most detested discord and divisions. Peace, therefore, became his watchword, and the pathetic reconciliation he effected in his last days between the Bishop and Potesta of Assisi is bit one instance out of many of his power to quell the storms of passion and restore tranquility to hearts torn asunder by civil strife. The duty of a servant of God, Francis declared, was to lift up the hearts of men and move them to spiritual gladness. Hence it was not “from monastic stalls or with the careful irresponsibility of the enclosed student” that the saint and his followers addressed the people” “they dwelt among them and grappled with the evils of the system under which the people groaned”. They worked in return for their fare, doing for the lowest the most menial labor, and speaking to the poorest words of hope such as the world had not heard for many a day. In this wise Francis bridged the chasm between an aristocratic clergy and the common people, and though he taught no new doctrine, he so far repopularized the old one given on the Mount that the Gospel took on a new life and called forth a new love.

Such in briefest outline are some of the salient features which render the figure of Francis one of such supreme attraction that all manner of men feel themselves drawn towards him, with a sense of personal attachment. Few, however, of those who feel the charm of Francis’s personality may follow the saint to his lonely height of rapt communion with God. For, however engaging a “minstrel of the Lord”, Francis was none the less a profound mystic in the truest sense of the word. The whole world was to him one luminous ladder, mounting upon the rungs of which he approached and beheld God. It is very misleading, however, to portray Francis as living “at a height where dogma ceases to exist”, and still further from the truth to represent the trend of his teaching as one in which orthodoxy is made subservient to “humanitarianism”. A very cursory inquiry into Francis’s religious belief suffices to show that it embraced the entire Catholic dogma, nothing more or less. If then the saint’s sermons were on the whole moral rather than doctrinal, it was less because he preached to meet the wants of his day, and those whom he addressed had not strayed from dogmatic truth; they were still “hearers”, if not “doers”, of the Word. For this reason Francis set aside all questions more theoretical than practical, and returned to the Gospel.

Again, to see in Francis only the loving friend of all God’s creatures, the joyous singer of nature, is to overlook altogether that aspect of his work which is the explanation of all the rest — its supernatural side. Few lives have been more wholly imbued with the supernatural, as even Renan admits. Nowhere, perhaps, can there be found a keener insight into the innermost world of spirit, yet so closely were the supernatural and the natural blended in Francis, that his very asceticism was often clothed in the guide of romance, as witness his wooing the Lady Poverty, in a sense that almost ceased to be figurative. For Francis’s singularly vivid imagination was impregnate with the imagery of the chanson de geste, and owing to his markedly dramatic tendency, he delighted in suiting his action to his thought. So, too, the saint’s native turn for the picturesque led him to unite religion and nature. He found in all created things, however trivial, some reflection of the Divine perfection, and he loved to admire in them the beauty, power, wisdom, and goodness of their Creator. And so it came to pass that he saw sermons even in stones, and good in everything. Moreover, Francis’s simple, childlike nature fastened on the thought, that if all are from one Father then all are real kin. Hence his custom of claiming brotherhood with all manner of animate and inanimate objects. The personification, therefore, of the elements in the “Canticle of the Sun” is something more than a mere literary figure. Francis’s love of creatures was not simply the offspring of a soft or sentimental disposition; it arose rather from that deep and abiding sense of the presence of God, which underlay all he said and did.

Apparition of St Francis at Arles by Blessed Fra Angelico

Even so, Francis’s habitual cheerfulness was not that of a careless nature, or of one untouched by sorrow. None witnessed Francis’s hidden struggles, his long agonies of tears, or his secret wrestlings in prayer. And if we meet him making dumb-show of music, by playing a couple of sticks like a violin to give vent to his glee, we also find him heart-sore with foreboding at the dire dissensions in the order which threatened to make shipwreck of his ideal. Nor were temptations or other weakening maladies of the soul wanting to the saint at any time. Francis’s lightsomeness had its source in that entire surrender of everything present and passing, in which he had found the interior liberty of the children of God; it drew its strength from his intimate union with Jesus in the Holy Communion. The mystery of the Holy Eucharist, being an extension of the Passion, held a preponderant place in the life of Francis, and he had nothing more at heart than all that concerned the cultus of the Blessed Sacrament. Hence we not only hear of Francis conjuring the clergy to show befitting respect for everything connected with the Sacrifice of the Mass, but we also see him sweeping out poor churches, questing sacred vessels for them, and providing them with altar-breads made by himself. So great, indeed, was Francis’s reverence for the priesthood, because of its relation to the Adorable Sacrament, that in his humility he never dared to aspire to that dignity. Humility was, no doubt, the saint’s ruling virtue. The idol of an enthusiastic popular devotion, he ever truly believed himself less than the least. Equally admirable was Francis’s prompt and docile obedience to the voice of grace within him, even in the early days of his ill-defined ambition, when the spirit of interpretation failed him. Later on, the saint, with as clear as a sense of his message as any prophet ever had, yielded ungrudging submission to what constituted ecclesiastical authority. No reformer, moreover, was ever, less aggressive than Francis. His apostolate embodied the very noblest spirit of reform; he strove to correct abuses by holding up an ideal. He stretched out his arms in yearning towards those who longed for the “better gifts”. The others he left alone.

And thus, without strife or schism, God’s Poor Little Man of Assisi became the means of renewing the youth of the Church and of imitating the most potent and popular religious movement since the beginnings of Christianity. No doubt this movement had its social as well as its religious side. That the Third Order of St. Francis went far towards re-Christianizing medieval society is a matter of history. However, Francis’s foremost aim was a religious one. To rekindle the love of God in the world and reanimate the life of the spirit in the hearts of men — such was his mission. But because St. Francis sought first the Kingdom of God and His justice, many other things were added unto him. And his own exquisite Franciscan spirit, as it is called, passing out into the wide world, became an abiding source of inspiration. Perhaps it savors of exaggeration to say, as has been said, that “all the threads of civilization in the subsequent centuries seem to hark back to Francis”, and that since his day “the character of the whole Roman Catholic Church is visibly Umbrian”.

What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

It would be difficult, none the less, to overestimate the effect produced by Francis upon the mind of his time, or the quickening power he wielded on the generations which have succeeded him. To mention two aspects only of his all-pervading influence, Francis must surely be reckoned among those to whom the world of art and letters is deeply indebted. Prose, as Arnold observes, could not satisfy the saint’s ardent soul, so he made poetry. He was, indeed, too little versed in the laws of composition to advance far in that direction. But his was the first cry of a nascent poetry which found its highest expression in the “Divine Comedy”; wherefore Francis has been styled the precursor of Dante. What the saint did was to teach a people “accustomed to the artificial versification of courtly Latin and Provencal poets, the use of their native tongue in simple spontaneous hymns, which became even more popular with the Laudi and Cantici of his poet-follower Jacopone of Todi”. In so far, moreover, as Francis’s repraesentatio, as Salimbene calls it, of the stable at Bethlehem is the first mystery-play we hear of in Italy, he is said to have borne a part in the revival of the drama. However this may be, if Francis’s love of song called forth the beginnings of Italian verse, his life no less brought about the birth of Italian art. His story, says Ruskin, became a passionate tradition painted everywhere with delight. Full of color, dramatic possibilities, and human interest, the early Franciscan legend afforded the most popular material for painters since the life of Christ. No sooner, indeed did Francis’s figure make an appearance in art than it became at once a favorite subject, especially with the mystical Umbrian School. So true is this that it has been said we might by following his familiar figure “construct a history of Christian art, from the predecessors of Cimabue down to Guido Reni, Rubens, and Van Dyck”.

(Catholic Encyclopedia)