The search for Truth, Goodness and Beauty — in a way, that sums up the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He was an intensely passionate seeker after God. The normal instinctive human tendency is to constantly strive to be more and have more. This is the way that leads us towards the world. Spiritual journey is the radically opposite path.
St. Francis’s twin ideals of humility (absence of ego, i. e. , isolated being) and poverty (absence of possessions, i. e. , having) free us from our own little selves, and lead us towards a stupendously much greater vision of truth, beauty and goodness. It is in this experiencing that we can discover ecstasy and the true meaning of life. Such perception and experience becomes our door to God-realization. St. Francis was a great mystic, who through poverty and humility realized the infinite abundance of God’s existence, and experienced oneness with its ultimate reality. His love for all living creatures is a manifestation of this experience of the oneness and harmony of this existence (Egan 12).
His dramatic transformation from a normal youth vaguely chasing after the vanities of the world to a revolutionary mystic who spread the message of love and peace is a tremendous inspiration to all of us. St. Francis was the privileged son of a rich merchant of Assisi, a small Italian hill town in the province of Umbria, Italy. He was born during one of his father’s frequent trips to France on business, in a brief hiatus between the second and the third Crusades, in the year 1181 or 1182. Francis was at first baptized as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. Francis’s mother named him Giovanni for John the Baptist.
She believed from the start that her son would have special, prophetic affinity for Christ. However, when his father Pietro returned from a business trip, he renamed his son Francesco. Perhaps his fondness for France explains Pietro’s giving his son the then unusual name of Franceso. Coming from Provence herself, Francis’s mother shared her husband’s love for southern France. She gave her son a passion for the French songs of the troubadours, songs that Francis would adapt later to joyfully praise God and creation. Francis grew up in rooms attached to his father’s shop near the main square of Assisi.
He went to school at nearby San Giorgio but was never much of an intellectual. His Latin was always poor; he had more success writing in the Umbrian vernacular as when he would compose the Canticle of Brother Sun near the end of his life. As a youth, Francesco, or Francis, was greatly taken with the knight-troubadours of Provence who drifted down into Italy singing songs of chivalry and adventure. He seems to have modeled his otherwise idle early manhood on their example: he was known in Assisi neither for learning nor industry, but for a charming and ready wit, a happy and generous nature, an elegant appearance.
He was quite a flamboyant personality. Francis grew up in the age of the Crusades, and his dream was that one day he would win fame as a brave knight in shining armor. He sometimes worked with his father, selling woolen cloth at local markets, but mostly he led a carefree life. His parents gave him everything he wanted, and he spent money extravagantly on himself and his friends. He liked to wear brightly colored, expensive clothes, and he enjoyed jokes and surprises. When he met with his friends, they feasted on rich food and wine.
They watched jugglers and acrobats, or listened to singers and musicians — and Francis, who loved to sing, would often join in. But all this was more than we could call fun, it was bordering on depravity. He wasted his life up to his twenty fifth year, surpassing his comrades in foolishness, and drawing them with him into vanity and evil. (Englebert 13) However, his transformation had already long begun before his twenty fifth year. A class-warfare erupted in Assisi at the end of the twelfth century.
As the development of capitalism put money into the hands of the emerging middle class, civil war broke out against the nobles. The Rocca, a fortress above the city, and surrounding castles were razed. Assisi’s nobility were forced to flee to nearby Perugia. After the merchants and artisans gained political control in Assisi, war broke out between Assisi and Perugia. Francis was twenty at this time, and no serious enterprise appears to have tempted him until then. But now, dressed in shining armor and mounted on a splendid horse, Francis rode off, eager for victory and glory.
The battle was short; Assisi was defeated, and Francis was captured. He spent a year in a cold, dirty prison. There he fell ill and entered the first extended period of reflection of his young life. He was only released when his father paid a ransom. His health broken by imprisonment, he returned to Assisi weak, depressed, and introspective. The young man who had previously led his friends through the streets of Assisi, carousing and singing bawdy songs, spent a year languishing in his father’s house. He was nursed by his mother, who sensed in him the beginnings of a transformation.
His father, however, was anxious for the return of the former Francis, who had helped out in the shop and advertised the family’s financial success by wearing luxurious clothes and lavishly entertaining friends. Francis recovered from his illness in 1204 or 1205, during the same time that Assisi’s noble families began returning form Perugia. After the long spell of illness, Francis returned to his old life of luxury and pleasure. However, imprisonment and illness had deeply affected his attitude to life, so that he would sometimes walk alone in the hills, thinking and praying.
Through sheer force of habit perhaps, Francis wanted to be fully involved in his old, carefree way of living, as the popular son of a rich merchant, but he began having dreams and visions that compelled him to attend to his inner journey. Soon, however, he got an opportunity to set off again, this time hoping to join the army of Walter de Brienne. To become a knight had been his dream as a child. His father outfitted him as a knight so that he could join de Brienne’s forces preparing to set out on a Crusade from Apulia on the coast of Italy. However, something happened on the way.
Meeting a beggar on the road, Francis was inexplicably moved to exchange his fine clothes for the poor man’s rags. Soon after, he fell ill again; he had a dream in which the voice of Christ told him to “Serve the master rather than the man. ” Francis had to give up his dreams of glory. He turned back from the expedition to Apulia and also found himself unable to resume his former life. His next encounter came on when he was out riding in the country one day. He was approached by a leper seeking alms. Francis was about to toss a few coins and ride by when he was overcome by a feeling of deep pity.
Francis had a dread of lepers, but when he saw the grotesquely disfigured man approaching, he stopped, climbed down from his horse, brought the outcast close and kissed him. From then on, he began to visit the sick with frequency, withdrawing from the company of his friends and spending more and more time in prayer. He regularly visited the little lepers’ house outside Assisi, bringing gifts of food and clothes. On another day, not long after the leper incident, Francis was in the ruined church of San Damiano, outside Assisi. While he was praying, he heard a voice say, “Francis, my church is falling down.
Repair it for me. ” Francis was jubilant. He was sure God had spoken to him. He hurried home, loaded a few bales of his father’s woolen cloth on a horse, and rode to the nearby town of Foligno. There he sold the cloth and the horse as well. Francis walked back to San Damiano, found the priest, and offered him a bag of money. The priest refused to accept it because the money really belonged to Francis’s father. Thoroughly upset and disappointed, Francis tossed the bag on to a window ledge and left. Understandably, his father was furious when he heard what his son had done.
In the noisy public life of Assisi, everyone was aware of the tension growing between Francis and his father. They knew things were going badly when Francis’s father locked him in the cellar and his mother helped him escape. This was the culmination of a process that has been going on for a long time: Francis, continually plunged in reverie and spending his days in lonely wanderings in the fields, was no longer of the least use to his father. Months passed, and the distance between the two men grew ever wider; (Sabatier 54) In the end, however, Francis left home and lived rough out in the open, sleeping in caves and begging for food.
But his father would not let go of him so easily. He accused him of stealing, and Francis was ordered to appear before the court of the Bishop of Assisi. The news went around that Francis’s father had charged him with stealing some cloth that the townspeople knew Francis had sold to buy materials to rebuild the dilapidated church outside of Assisi. Everyone assembled in the courtyard in front of the cathedral for Francis’s trial. Francis arrived at the trial with the bag of money in his hand. He had gone back to San Damiano and found it still on the window ledge.
Quietly he placed the bag at his father’s feet and then he really surprised everyone. He took off all his clothes and placed them beside the bag. “I have returned everything,” said Francis. “And now I have only one Father who is in heaven. ” His father said nothing, and sadly was never to speak to Francis again. Thus, before the bishop and the townspeople of Assisi, Francis repudiated his father, returning his money and even all his clothes. The Bishop, however, draped his cloak around Francis and sent a servant to find some old clothes for him to wear.
When Francis left the Bishop’s place, he knew he was beginning a new life. He would be a knight after all, serving Jesus, the King. For the next two years, besides caring for lepers, Francis was busy repairing two or three ruined churches. He worked with his own hands, begging for stones and anything else he needed. He lived alone and prayed. He studied the sun, moon and stars, the wind and rain, the trees and flowers. He had a special affection, or affinity, for all birds and animals, fish and insects. He called them his brothers and sisters.
In the winter of 1208, he discovered his vocation of evangelical poverty while listening to Matthew 10, in which Jesus commissions the twelve apostles to go forth preaching peace and presence of God’s kingdom. Francis heard a priest read from the Bible these words Jesus had uttered: “Go and tell everyone the good news about God. Go two by two. Don’t take anything with you. No money. No extra clothes or food. There is no need to wear shoes or carry a staff. ” Francis knew immediately that this was how he must live. It was February 24, 1208, and he was twenty-six years old.
Francis believed that the gospel was addressing him directly, and he immediately designed a uniform to express his newly found vocation of evangelical poverty — the habit and rope cincture still worn by Franciscans. From then on Francis walked barefoot and wore a long rough tunic tied around his waist with a rope. He started visiting the marketplace in Assisi and there talking about God. Gradually people stopped, and listened (Robson 82). Within a few weeks, three men asked if they could join him, and he agreed. But first they had to sell everything they had and give their money to the poor.
One of them, Bernard, was very wealthy indeed. But there were no exceptions. They all had to wear the same simple clothes as Francis. They had to work with their hands to earn any food or clothes they needed; otherwise they had to beg. At night they slept in huts made of woven branches, in caves, or under the sky. They spent many hours praying, and two by two they visited other towns and villages nearby and told people about God’s love and forgiveness. After a year, Francis had eleven or twelve companions. Together these seekers of God wrote down a few rules describing how they should live.
Then they walked to Rome, where they saw the Pope, and he gave his approval of their way of life. The year 1209 saw the birth of the Franciscan order. Francis called the group Friars Minor, which means lesser brothers. He did not want them to have a grant, important-sounding name. Humility was of the essence. The number of companions, or brothers, grew rapidly. Francis’s unique personality became a powerful instrument of change. Men and women of all classes were attracted to his life of radical poverty. Soon they were traveling farther and farther — to Spain, Germany, and North Africa.
On one occasion, Francis himself traveled to Egypt, where some Crusaders were fighting. He was horrified by the killing and suffering of war. This was what he had dreamt to be a part of, the war, the glory and the heroism. Instead, he ended up being the total opposite. He became one of the world’s foremost messengers of peace and love. In 1212, an eighteen-year-old girl, Lady Clare, who was a nobleman’s daughter, ran away from her family in Assisi. She too wanted to live a life of prayer and poverty, and Francis welcomed her. She was given a tunic like his to wear and her long hair was cut off.
Then she went to live in a house with a garden around it, close by the church of San Damiano that Francis had repaired. Before long other women joined her. In those days, women could not travel freely or speak in public places as Francis and other brothers of the order did, so they led a quiet life, praying for hours and gardening. Francis called Clare and the other women “the Poor Ladies. ” Clare became the leader of an order of contemplative women living in absolute poverty. Today there are still women who live like them, they are known as Poor Clares.
By 1217, Franciscan friars, with their evangelical mission, numbered more than five thousand and traveled far beyond Europe. Eventually, Francis was so well loved that when he came to a town or village the church bells were run, children clapped and waved branches in the air, and people ran toward him and tried to touch him. His greeting was always: God give you peace. And then he spoke simply and clearly, using word s that everyone would understand. Even when he was famous, and there were hundreds of brothers, he was still the same Francis in his rough patched tunic.
The man who loved peace spent many hours in prayer and called himself the champion of lady poverty. Yet he was still a man who liked to joke and sing and tease his friends. However, Francis had no vocation or talent as an administrator. By 1220, he resigned as head of the order. He continued to alternate between periods of solitude and contemplation and intense preaching missions. In the following years, he used to experience the rare phenomenon of stigmata, where the saint would so much identify himself with the crucified Christ that the wounds of crucifixion would spontaneously appear on his body.
This was sometimes called the “divine affliction. ” His health was rapidly deteriorating and he grew blind too. In 1225, while staying at Clare’s cloister, he wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun as an expression of the mystic unity he experienced during his spiritual journey. He died on October 3, 1226, at the Portiuncola, the little church outside Assisi where he first came to realize his vocation of evangelical poverty twenty two years before, and was buried in San Giorgio. Two year later, he was canonized, and two years after that his body was transported to a basilica built to commemorate his extraordinary spiritual journey.
Francis’s spiritual journey carried him through the turbulence of the thirteenth century into the darkness and illumination of his own soul. Francis struggled throughout his life to answer two simple questions: Who are you, God? and who am I? Francis’s struggle yielded the mystic’s answer: We are one. From the experience of this essential unity, Francis was transformed into a man of peace. References: Bonaventure; Cousins, Ewert H (Tr). “The Life of St. Francis. ” In, The Soul’s Journey Into God; The Tree of Life ; The Life of St. Francis. pp.
177-328. Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1978 Egan, Maurice Francis. “The Life of St. Francis and the Soul of Modern Man. ” Albuquerque, NM: American Classical College Press, 1979. Englebert, Omer. “St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography. ” Ann Arbor, Michigan : Servant Books, 1979 Robson, Michael. “St Francis of Assisi: The Legend and the Life. ” London : Geoffrey Chapman, 2000 Sabatier, Paul; Houghton, Louise Seymour (Tr. ). “Life of St. Francis of Assisi. ” Gutenberg. org. 2006. 10 April 2007. http://www. gutenberg. org/files/18787/18787-h/18787-h. htm
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