In the city of Assisi, in the year 1182, a little child was born in a stable on a bed of straw – not because his parents were poor, and had no other home, but because his mother had been told beforehand, by a holy pilgrim, that God wished the coming of Francis into the world thus, to resemble the birth of Jesus Christ in the cave of Bethlehem.
He received in baptism the name of John, in honour of the apostle who was so dear to our Lord; but when his father returned home after a long absence in France, and heard the news of a little son having been given him, he desired that he should be called Francis.
As he grew older, he was taught by pious men, and soon learned to read Latin and French with ease; and later he assisted his father in his business as a merchant. The character of Francis was generous and kind; all that he gained in trade he spent freely, not with a wasteful spirit, but because he loved to pour out his money to make others happy. He gave splendid banquets to his friends, and thus became the favourite of all the youths of his town, who named him “The Flower of Assisi” But during his popularity and pleasure, in spite of his love of gorgeous dress and all that was bright and beautiful, we hear that he was never known to utter or allow a coarse word or improper jest.
But God, who intended him for so holy a life, did not long leave Francis to continue this career of worldliness, and in His mercy a severe illness laid him aside, from which he rose up with a changed spirit, seeing at last that pleasure was not the true end for which he had been created. Although he felt a disgust for the amusements he had formerly loved, many visions of fame and glory passed through his mind, which led him to take up arms as a soldier. But God once more sent sickness upon him, during which, in a vision of the night, the Holy Spirit spoke to his heart, reproaching him with deserting his Creator. Then Francis exclaimed, “O my God, what wouldst Thou have me to do?” “Return into the city,” said the voice. “There it shall be told thee what thou hast to do.”
Next morning the young man returned to Assisi, and his friends again chose him to lead their amusements; but Francis had lost his gaiety of spirit, and his absent manner showed that his heart was set upon other things.
Gradually he grew to be a great lover of prayer, and in this way the work of God grew manifest to others. His soul seemed penetrated with love to Christ, and compassionate charity towards the poor, and he would spend all he had, even dividing his clothing for the sick and suffering.
But a great longing filled his heart to do far more than this. He desired to be an exile from his own home, and begin a life of hardship and poverty, and one day at Kome, he was so carried away by this wish that, after praying at the tomb of the apostles, he came out amidst the crowd of beggars at the door of the church, and giving his rich cloak to one, from whom in exchange he took a ragged, dirty garment, he remained all day upon the steps of Saint Peter’s, asking alms.
Returning to Assisi, the devil tempted him with forming pictures in his mind of his early joyous life, his luxurious home, his splendid dress, his dreams of glory and greatness, but he took refuge in prayer, and God gave him strength to resist. He went to the old church of Saint Damian, and there, before a crucifix, begged for light to know the divine Will, and grace to do always what was pleasing to God. Three times over he heard the words, “Go, Francis, and repair My house, which is falling into ruin and, not perfectly understanding their meaning, he went to the priest with money, begging him to buy oil to supply a lamp for burning before the crucifix; then, starting to Foligno, he sold his horse and some pieces of stuff, bringing the gold he received for them to the priest of Saint Damian’s, to repair the church. In the meantime his father heard what he was doing, and came, with several friends, to Saint Damian’s, in great anger, but Francis hid himself in a cave for nearly a month, begging God to give him courage to practise the holy virtue he had set before him. After that time he felt renewed strength and grace, so that he feared no longer to return to Assisi; but he, who had only a few weeks before been called the flower of that city, was now pelted with stones and mud, whilst the people hissed And mocked him, declaring that he was mad; yet Francis received these insults with joy, thanking God for allowing him to bear the cross.
Not so his father, Bernadone. When he was told that his son was making himself the contempt and laughing-stock of Assisi, he rushed out, furious with anger, and striking Francis violently, dragged him into his house, imprisoning him in a dark cellar. His mother grieved exceedingly at this harsh treatment, and during her husband’s absence on business, she released Francis, begging him, by his love for her, not to leave his family and the world; however, when she found her pleading was useless, she let him go peacefully, and Francis returned to Saint Damian’s once more.
Peter Bernadone reproached his wife bitterly when he came back, and set off at once in pursuit of his son; but Francis said firmly,
“I do not fear what you can do to me; it is a happiness for me to suffer like Jesus Christ.”
Then the father asked for the price of the horse and the cloth, and after receiving it, he suspected he must have other money in his possession, and went with complaints to the magistrate, who summoned Francis to appear before him, but knowing that the bishop only had authority over one who had given himself to the service of God, he refused to interfere. Bernadone then complained to the bishop, who sent for Francis, and made him restore to his father all the money he had.
“Trust in God,” he said, kindly; “He will give you all that is wanting for the good of His church.”
The Saint rose, and took off all his rich clothes, keeping his hair-shirt alone; then, laying them at the bishop’s feet, he exclaimed, “Till now I have called Peter Bernadone my father, but now I may with boldness say, Our Father Who art in heaven, for in Him I place all my faith and hope.”
The bishop became from that moment his best friend and* protector, covering him with his own cloak until some clothing could be found; and at last a poor labourer’s garment was brought, which Francis joyfully put on, first marking upon it with some mortar a large cross. He was not quite twenty-five years old at this time, but he had found the happiness of belonging to the poor of Christ Jesus, expecting nothing and receiving nothing but from Him.
Free now from all that had bound him to the world, Francis hastened into solitude, singing the love and praise of God as he traversed woods and mountains. Once he was met by robbers. “Who are you?” they asked; upon which the Saint told them he was a herald of the great King. Then they beat him, and cast him into a deep ditch filled with snow, bid ding him rest there, but Francis rose up full of joy at having an opportunity of suffering for Christ, and began again to sing louder than before. Reaching a monastery he received alms like a beggar, and then journeyed oh to Gubbio, where he began to serve lepers. At first this was a very hard and repulsive duty to take up for the love of God, for he had always had a horror of leprosy, but he set himself steadfastly to overcome this feeling of disgust, and before his death he declared that the service of lepers had been all sweetness to him.
His great charity was wonderfully blessed by God. Once upon meeting a man whose face was in a terrible state of disease, Francis kissed him on the cheek, which was healed immediately. After a time God’s voice again called the Saint to the work of restoring the church of Saint Damian, and he returned to Assisi, where many of his former friends reviled him, whilst others shed tears to behold the change which had passed over him; but Franciswas indifferent to all, and toiled on from morning till night like a common labourer; and he also repaired the little chapel of the Portiuncula. During this labour the priest of Saint Damian’s provided him with necessary food, and Francis accepted his charity for some days, but this was not sufficient to satisfy that craving after perfect poverty; this was not – for him – the life of a follower of Christ, Who was born homeless, and buried in the tomb of a stranger; so the next day he went from door to door begging his bread, which he sat down to eat at the corner of the street.
Peter Beraadone was more than ever angry now, and cursed his son if he chanced to meet him, Francis, feeling this very bitterly, searched for a poor old man, a beggar also, whom he took for his father, and whenever he was cursed by his father Bernadone, he would turn to the old beggar asking for his blessing. In the year 1208 Francis cast away his shoes, and putting on a coarse ash-coloured tunic, and girding himself with a cord, went amongst his fellow-citizens preaching penance, in which he was presently joined by another citizen of Assisi, named JBernard, who was also very holy, and filled with a spirit of poverty.
On the same day Peter of Catania begged to be allowed to join himself with them, and all three went together to the church to ask God’s blessing, and as the beautiful simple custom of those days was, they opened the Book of the Holy Gospels three times, thereby to obtain a knowledge of what the Almighty desired of them.
At the first opening Francis read, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.” The second time it was? “Take nothing for your journey.” And the last words were, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” ” Behold the counsels God would have us follow,” said Francis; so then they sold all they had, giving the price amongst the poor, and went to dwell in a poor deserted little hut in the plain of Rivo-Torto. Seven days after, another citizen of Assisi sought to discover his friends, but he knew not where to find them, so he prayed earnestly to God that he might be guided to them, and following an unknown road, he came upon Francis praying in a wood, so he knelt down, and begged to be received into the little company. This brother, named Egidius, led always a most saintly life, having a great spirit of prayer.
But these devout men could not always remain in the solitude they had chosen from time to time they went about teaching the truth of God, many others coming to join them; and God made known to Francis that He would spread their company abroad through all the world, for the salvation of many souls. At length the Saint called his sons to assemble together to tell what they had done amongst men for Christ, and to form rules by which they were to be guided, and they journeyed to Kome to ask the protection and guidance of the Pope Innocent III. He received them in the presence of his cardinals, some of whom objected to the very great poverty which Francis proposed for his order; but being enlightened by God in prayer, the Holy Father Innocent gave his approval to the rule of the company, which continued to increase rapidly.
Francis and his disciples made many journeys into different parts, gathering followers together, working miracles and founding convents, preaching peace by Christ and penance for sin. Throughout Italy and Spain he travelled, and on to the East, where he was captured by the Saracens and taken before the Sultan. To him Francis preached so earnestly the doctrine of one God in three persons, that he was entreated to remain, whereupon he said he would stay, if the Sultan and his people would be converted to the true Church of God. He was set free, and sent safely to Damietta on his way home; but to this day a remembrance of his work in the East remains, for his friars minor are there still guarding the sepulchre of Christ.
Many long and serious illnesses occurred to Francis during his labours, and many trials and temptations were allowed by God, to perfect his holiness and love for Christ. Once when praying in his cell the devil whispered to him that he was too old to bear such long watchings, and that he needed more sleep, upon which the Saint rose up, and going into the fields, flung himself into the midst of some thorn bushes all covered with snow, so that he might make his body suffer, rather than listen to the tempter. Then a bright light surrounded him, and roses appeared upon the thorn bushes, and angel voices said, “Francis, hasten to the church, for Jesus and His Mother are there.” He obeyed, gathering first twelve white and twelve red roses, and, prostrate before our Lord, he begged of Him to grant a day when an indulgence should be attached to that holy place. Jesus replied that it should be from the evening of the day upon which Saint Peter was delivered from his chains until the evening of the following day, and the choirs of angels chanted the Te Deum in thanksgiving.
Francis then gathered three of each colour of the miraculous roses to send to the Pope, in testimony of what had happened, and the Holy Father caused the great Indulgence to be solemnly published. This was the beginning of the indulgence of the Portiuncula, and there the faithful for many generations have lost their burden of sin, and received the pardon of Christ according to His promise to Saint Francis, whilst we at a distance from those sacred places, can by faith in that promise, and by love to the holy humble saints of God, share in the same privilege, and receive the same gift of healing, as those who can journey to the far-off plains of Assisi, and kneel before the altars of the church of Saint Mary of the Angels.
Now we must follow our Saint to the mountain where he received the marks of the cross of Christ, toiling with him up the steep ascent of Alvernia. There a little cell was made at the foot of a beautiful beech-tree, where Saint Francis, believing the time of his death to be approaching, desired to retire alone with God, and prepare for his departure. The birds showed their joy at the coming of the gentle Saint by singing joyously above his head, perching upon his shoulders and his arms, to the great surprise of his companions; and having desired that Brother Leo should bring him a little bread and water, and no one else be suffered to approach, Francis shut himself up in his cell, and began to be wholly absorbed in contemplating God.
As the Feast of the Assumption drew near the holy man sought for a still more lonely hiding-place, and when they had searched long they found one, but a frightful chasm in the rock prevented them getting to it. Then they put across the chasm a tree, to serve as a bridge, and here Saint Francis dwelt in solitude, whilst once in the day and once in the night Brother Leo visited him. Wonderful visions were sent to him from God during this time, and he became more and more full of divine sweetness and love. One day Saint Francis was praying earnestly for two graces before he died; first, that he might feel in his soul and body as much as was possible what the sufferings of Jesus had been in His Passion; the second, that he might have in his heart as much as was possible of that burning love which caused Christ to long to suffer for enemies. For a great while he continued praying thus until he believed God had heard his request, and then he began to fix all his mind upon the infinite charity of Christ in His most bitter Passion, so that his heart glowed and melted within him for love of the crucified One. Then a seraph came down from heaven with six fiery wings, and Saint Francis observing his approach, saw that he bore the image of Jesus crucified; two wings were spread over the head, two covered the body, and two were outspread in flying. Francis was filled with joy and grief and wonder – -joy at the presence of his Lord, grief at beholding Him crucified, and wonder at the strangeness of the vision.
When all Alvernia seemed wrapt in fire, which glowed over the mountains and valleys round, Christ in this seraph’s form spoke secretly to Francis, leaving in his heart an excessive love, and upon his flesh the marks of the sacred Passion. Upon his hands and feet there were the traces of nails, as if, like the Hands and Feet of Jesus, they, too, had been pierced; and upon his right side there was the mark of an open wound, from which drops of blood often fell, staining his habit. These most sacred marks of the love of Christ gave great happiness to Saint Francis, and yet they caused him such pain that he was forced to reveal his secret to Brother Leo, who* touched and dressed the wounds on all days excepting from Thursday evening till Saturday morning, when he would not allow the suffering to be lessened, that so he might unite more closely in the agonies Christ bore during those hours; afterwards Francis allowed the two other brothers, who had journeyed with him to Alvernia, to see and kiss his hands; then leaving them there with his blessing, he returned, to pass amongst the towns and villages preaching always the love of Christ crucified.
But the Saint had not long to live; his sickness increased, and he begged to be carried to Saint Mary of the Angels, to die where he had first begun the life of grace. The last day he called his children together, and, blessing them, desired to be laid upon the ground whilst the Passion of Christ was read to him, and on the evening of the 4th October he passed peacefully away, one of his brethren seeing his soul ascend to heaven under the appearance of a brilliant star.
Thus God rewarded the burning love and deep humility of His holy servant Francis; thus He fulfilled the promise given by Christ, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
– from , by Mary F Seymour