Chapter 16

Francis of Assisi: Medieval Saint


The legends began the day Francis died. He was sainted (1228) by the medieval church; artists and poets added to this beatification by granting to Francis an almost unparalleled place in the history of Christianity. The painter Giotto depicted him as the one who most suffered the wounds of Christ. Dante placed him above the doctors and founders of medieval orders in his Divine Comedy (c. 1305). Francis was so celebrated as the perfect imitator of Christ that the Protestant Reformers believed memory of him usurped the place of Christ in popular piety.

The story of Francis of Assisi is one of those strange and troubling stories that create in one who reads it admiration mixed with perplexity. His life was in some respects what the Christian life ought to be; it was in other respects so contrary to genuine piety that one shrinks from it with some revulsion. It was the life of an unusual medieval saint.

Early Life

Francis was born in 1182 to wealthy parents who lived in Assisi, an important town in central Italy. His father, Pietro de Barnadone, was a textile merchant who traveled extensively, mostly to France, to increase the family fortunes. His mother, aristocrat by birth, was named Pica and enjoyed the society life of her city, while having little, if any, significant influence on her eldest son's spiritual development. Francis was baptized Giovanni, but renamed Francisco, apparently to express Pietro's love for France.

Francis received an education open to the wealthy and elite, but profited little from it. He was much too involved in the gay life of a wealthy merchant's son and the youthful exploits of those who have little else to do with their time but to get into mischief.

Italy was by no means a unified nation, and the rivalry between various commercial cities was fierce. So bitter was the rivalry between Assisi and Perugia, a nearby commercial city, that war broke out. Francis quickly joined the forces of Assisi and rode forth to battle. He was captured and held hostage for a year, but was released when a ransom was paid for him. He was about 21 at the time.

His Conversion

It seems as if Francis entered a period of spiritual struggle and severe self-doubt at this time. While wanting to fight again, he was dissuaded by inner turmoil which made his past life seem empty and useless, but which gave him no direction as to his future.

In 1205 Francis journeyed to Rome on a pilgrimage and spent some delightful hours among the holy shrines in the center of Christendom. But one incident disturbed him beyond reason. Meeting a begging leper in the streets, he was moved by the destitution of this despised member of society, and, after steeling himself to kiss the leper's hand, he exchanged his own clothes for the rags of the leper to experience himself what destitution was.

Returning to Assisi, Francis was praying in the church of St. Damian when he heard Christ telling him to rebuild the house of God. This seemed to make some sense to him, for the small chapel of St. Damian was humble, rudely furnished, and in some disrepair. Later he was to realize that Christ was referring to the corrupt medieval church rather than the chapel in which he was praying. But for the time being he decided that he would devote himself to rebuilding that chapel and to ministering to the needs of the outcasts which lived on the edges of Assisi.

The trouble was that he needed money for this project; and so, to finance his work, he sold all his possessions and some of the textiles of his father. His father did not think too highly of this and was, in fact, disgusted with a son who seemed to him to be a lazy ne'er-do-well. Pietro brought the matter to the local bishop, accusing his son of theft. Francis was ordered by the bishop to restore the money that belonged to his father and make proper restitution. In what can only be interpreted as a gesture of defiance, Francis stripped every stitch of his clothing from his body, tossed everything he owned on to the pile, and told the bishop to give it to his father, while he left the house stark naked. His words as he left were: "Up to this time I have called Pietro Barnadone father, but now I desire to serve God and to say nothing else than 'Our Father which art in heaven.'" So far as we know, from that day on he had nothing more to do with his parents.

His Monastic Life

The incident was, however, a turning point in his life. After spending some years with lepers in the nearby village of Gubbio, he returned to Assisi to rebuild some churches and live as a hermit. Poverty now became for him a way of life. In 1208 he was listening to a sermon on Matthew 10:7-19, a few verses of which read: "And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils, freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat." Especially the call to preach and the call to live a life of poverty struck like fire into his soul.

From that day on he was to be a traveling preacher who literally owned nothing. Others, attracted to him, soon began to accompany him. The first to join was an extremely wealthy town councillor called Bernard who at first doubted Francis' sincerity. As the story goes, he invited Francis to his house to spend the night. He gave Francis his own room in a lavishly furnished villa and watched what Francis would do in the night hours. Francis arose from his luxurious bed as soon as the house was quiet and spent the rest of the night on his knees in prayer. Bernard was persuaded, and, selling all his possessions, joined Francis as a traveling preacher. When others joined, they called themselves "The Little Friars" and requested from Pope Innocent III permission to be recognized as a monastic order. The story is told that Pope Innocent III (the mightiest pope the world has ever seen, and the clearest picture of Antichrist up to today), unimpressed with what appeared to him to be nothing but a group of beggars, told Francis to go wallow with the pigs and preach to them. Even though Innocent may have been expressing his contempt, Francis followed his instructions and returned with the same request, which then was granted.

So began one of the greatest of all monastic orders, the Franciscans. It became known as a "Mendicant Order" because of its vows of absolute poverty, which required its members to obtain their daily needs by begging. The rules of the order were very simple. While like other orders with their vows of obedience and chastity, the Franciscans distinguished themselves by vows of absolute poverty. Francis insisted that no one in the order own anything at all. Personal property was absolutely forbidden. Even their clothes which they wore were to be given to others in greater need than themselves. They might not carry with them the smallest coin. They might not keep the least crumb of bread; if any food was left after their meal they had to give it to the poor. They might own no buildings or shelters. They even had to walk barefoot.

Francis was convinced that poverty was the great way of following the example of Christ and the lofty ideal of the imitation of Christ. Given the fact that the corruption in the church was due to its immense wealth, they sought reform through poverty.

Francis, however, hated idleness; and so he insisted that his fellow monks be constantly busy. They were to be busy traveling, preaching, administering to the needs of the poor and outcasts of society, washing the dirty lepers, feeding the starving, and helping the downtrodden. They were to do their work cheerfully and they were to treat every man, even their enemies, with courtesy. They were to avoid all pomp and outward show and be happily content with their poverty. This latter was demonstrated vividly when a well-known follower of Francis was greeted at the entrance of a city with a large and magnificent parade of clergy and prelates. He promptly went into a nearby field and played on a see-saw with some small boys until the entire parade disbanded in consternation.

Two other sub-orders were formed during Francis' lifetime: one was for women who wanted to practice the same ideals. It was organized by Clare Schiffi in 1212 and was called, "The Poor Clares." The other was an order for laymen who wanted to live in poverty along with Francis and his brothers, but who were not permitted to preach.

His Importance

Francis himself was a very simple person. He feared education as a spiritual threat and discouraged his followers from pursuing it. He, though often hungry and dressed in rags, though living in a body wracked with pain, was himself always cheerful. He had a deep appreciation and love for God's creation, and one could find him from time to time in the woods alone talking to the birds and the squirrels about the things of God. He once told the birds: "Brother birds, you ought to love and praise your Creator very much. He has given you feathers for clothing, wings for flying, and all things that can be of use to you. You have neither to sow, nor to reap, and yet He takes care of you." He had the ability to laugh at himself and he could recognize the foibles of human nature. He called his body, "Brother Ass," and often gently chided it for its apparent weaknesses.

The brotherhood spread like wildfire throughout Europe and soon went beyond the control of Francis. While Francis was off to try to do mission work among the Mohammedans in Egypt, unscrupulous prelates in the Romish hierarchy gained control of the Franciscans and organized them into a much more rule-bound and controlled organization than Francis wanted. They also forced the movement to change its rules so that the members could own property -- the one thing Francis feared the most. When he returned from Egypt, he found these alterations destroying all he had wanted for his movement. Unable to summon the energy and verve necessary to fight the dark and powerful forces of the church, he lived in sadness the remaining days of his life and died of a broken heart at the age of 44.

One of his enduring masterpieces was his "Canticle to the Sun." Written when he was under severe temptation and going blind, it expressed his great love of God's world. A few lines will give us some sense of it.

O most high, almighty, good Lord God, to Thee belong praise, glory, honor, and all blessing!

Praised be my Lord God with all His creatures, and specially our brother the sun, who brings us the day and who brings us the light; fair is he and shines with a very great splendor: O Lord he signifies to us Thee!

Praised be my Lord for our brother the wind and for air and cloud, calms and all weather by the which Thou upholdest life in all creatures.

Praise ye and bless the Lord, and give thanks unto Him and serve Him with great humility.

This song was the inspiration for the well-known hymn: "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation."


Francis himself was the closest one could come to the monastic ideal. I think sometimes such a life can conceivably appear to be attractive to those who are concerned about spirituality in the midst of carnality and worldliness. It may seem to be the way to piety, and, indeed, it may, because of its great difficulty, seem to be the path of godliness. In fact this is not the case. God does not call us to express piety in poverty, and godliness in a denial of this earth's goods. As a matter of fact, the way of Francis is not the hard way, but the easy way. The hard way to which we are called is the way of being in the world but not of it; of taking God's good gifts and with thanksgiving using them in God's service; of possessing a house and clothes, but seeking in all things, even with our earthly possessions, the kingdom of God and His righteousness. That is the hard way, but the way of obedience and the way approved by God.