The cruel and continued pain under which the holy Patriarch suffered, did not prevent his giving instruction to his children, his providing for their spiritual wants, and his answering, with admirable presence of mind, to various questions which were put to him relative to the observance of the Rule, and the government of the Order.
He spoke as freely, and with as much composure, as if he felt no inconvenience. As his body became weaker, his mind seemed to acquire fresh vigor.
One day, when his sufferings were greatly aggravated, he saw that the brothers took great pains in. endeavoring to afford him relief, and fearing that fatigue would cause some of those who were about him to become impatient, or that they might complain that their attendance on him prevented them from observing their spiritual exercises, he addressed them affectionately, saying: “My dear children, do not tire of the trouble you take for me, for our Lord will reward you, both in this life and in the next, for all you do for His little servant; and if my illness takes up your time, be assured that you will gain more from it, than if you were to labor for yourselves, because the aid you give me is given to the entire Order and to the lives of the brethren. I also assure you that God will be your debtor for all that you will do for me.”
It is very true that those who assisted the Saint in his illness labored for the entire Order, and for the spiritual life of his brethren, because they aided in the preservation of him who was so necessary to his Order; and they put it in his power to give further instructions to his brethren who were now in it, and to those who were to enter it in future.
On another occasion, when his sufferings were apparently bringing him to extremity, one of his infirmarians said to him: “Brother, pray that God may treat you with less severity, for it seems that His hand presses too severely upon you.” At these words Francis exclaimed in a loud voice: “If,” said he, “I was not aware of the simplicity and uprightness of your heart, I should not dare to remain in the same house with you from this instant. you have had the rashness to criticise the judgments of God in my regard;” and immediately, notwithstanding the weak state in which he was, he threw himself on the ground with such violence that his worn-out bones were all bruised; he kissed the ground and exclaimed: “My God, I return Thee thanks for the pains I endure, and I pray Thee to add to them an hundred-fold, if such should be Thy good pleasure. It will be pleasing to me to know that, in afflicting me, Thou dost not spare me, for the greatest consolation I can enjoy is, that Thy holy will shall be fulfilled.” He had in his sufferings similar feelings to those of holy Job, and he expressed himself in a similar manner. Ought not all Christians to have such feelings in their illnesses and other afflictions? Are the saints not to be imitated in this? May we not, by the grace of God, which assuredly will not be wanting, practice those virtues by which they became saints?
Clare and her daughters, hearing that their father was so dangerously ill, sent to express to him the grief which it caused them, and they entreated him to mitigate their sorrow by sending them at least his blessing. The holy Patriarch, full of tenderness for these pious virgins, and sympathizing in their grief, and in that which they would feel on his death, sent them some verses he had composed in the praise of the Lord, and added to them a letter of exhortation, in which doubtless he gave them his blessing most amply; but this is not found in his works. We find only the following fragment, which may belong to the letter he had written to them at that time: –
“I, Brother Francis, little man, I choose to follow the example of the life and poverty of Jesus Christ, our most high Lord, and that of His holy Mother, and to persevere in it to the end. I beg you also, all you whom I consider as my Ladies, and I recommend you to conform yourselves at all times to this life and to this poverty, the sanctity of which is so great. Be careful not to swerve from it in the least, nor to listen to any advice, nor to anything which may be said to contravene it.”
The oldest historians of the Order say that, in the letter he sent them shortly before his death, he entreated them, that, as the Lord had brought them together from many places, in order that they might apply themselves to the practice of the sacred virtues of charity, humility, poverty, and obedience, they should use every effort to pass their lives accordingly, and to die in holy perserverance. He exhorts those of his sisters who were suffering from sickness, to have patience under their ills. And because he knew how austere they were, he recommended them to use with discretion, and with joy and thankfulness, the alms which Divine Providence sent them. He promised Clare that she should see him, and, in fact, after his death she and her daughters did see him, as shall hereafter be related.
The same writers add, that he had always entertained peculiar affection and regard for these holy religious females, thinking that the holiness of their life, which had been from the beginning one of great poverty and mortification, reflected glory on the religious state, and was a source of great edification to the whole Church. He wrote to them several other times, to encourage them in virtue, and particularly in the love of poverty, as we find in the will of Saint Clare, but the letters are not extant.
Even to this day we are sensible of the truth of what he said; nothing is more glorious for the regular state, and nothing more edifying for the whole Church, than to see the nuns of Saint Clare, who keep the rule of their Order without the slightest mitigation, who renounce the possession of any property whatsoever, whether private or in common, who live wholly on alms, and in such a state of rigorous austerity, that the stronger sex would find to be quite appalling.
As soon as it was known in Assisi that the holy man was at the point of death, the magistrates placed guards round the episcopal palace, with orders to keep strict watch, lest his body should be taken away the moment he should have expired, and thus the city would be deprived of so precious a treasure.
The physician, whose name was John Lebon, a native of Arezzo, communicated to him that death was approaching; his brethren told him the same thing. Full of joy, he began to praise God, and having caused some of the choir-singers to be called in, he sang with them in a loud voice the last verses which he had added to the Canticle of the Sun: “Be praised, O Lord! for death, our sister – which no man living on earth can escape.”
Elias, whose thoughts were always governed by human prudence, was fearful lest his singing should be considered a weakness of mind arising from the fear of death, and entreated him to stop. “Brother,” replied Francis, with extraordinary fervor, “permit me to rejoice in the Lord, and to thank Him for the great tranquillity of my conscience. I am, through His mercy and His grace, so united to my God, that I have just reason to manifest the joy that He gives me, who is the high and most liberal Giver of all good gifts; and do not imagine that I am so wanting in courage as to tremble at the approach of death.”
He had his children brought to him, and he blessed each one of them as the Patriarch Jacob had done, giving to each an appropriate blessing. Then, after the example of Moses, who blessed all the faithful Israelites, he gave a general and ample blessing to the whole Order.
As he had stretched his arms one over the other in the form of a cross, as Jacob had done in blessing the children of Joseph, his right hand came upon the head of Elias, who was kneeling on his left. He asked who it was, for his sight was quite gone, and being answered that it was Brother Elias, he said: “‘Tis well, my right hand is properly placed on him. My son, I bless you in all and above all. Inasmuch as under your hand the Most High has increased the number of my brethren and children, thus I bless them all in you. May God, the Sovereign Lord of all things, bless you in Heaven and on earth! As for me, I bless you as far as is in my power, and even more than that – may God who can do all, do in you what I cannot! I pray that God may bear in mind your labors and your works, and that He may give you a share in the rewards of the just, that you may obtain the blessings you wish for; and may what you solicit worthily be fulfilled!”
The reader may perhaps be surprised that Francis, who knew Brother Elias, and who had learnt by revelation that he was to die out of the Order, should have given him a share in his blessing; but we must recollect that He who enlightens the saints, inspires them with views similar to His own. He loves and favors those who are in a state of grace, although He foresees the great sins they will commit hereafter. What affection had He not for David, and what favors did He not heap upon him before he became guilty of the adultery and homicide which rendered him so criminal! Thus, in a manner, the holy Patriarch, in blessing Elias, only had in consideration the good dispositions in which he believed him to be at that time, independent of the future, which God had revealed to him, and which was not to guide him in this instance. Moreover, Elias was his vicar-general, and was so by an order from on high; he had labored usefully in the works of the Lord; the talents he possessed put it in his power to do still more good service; we cannot deny that he was sincerely and tenderly attached to his Father, and that he had an ardent zeal: – all these circumstances united might have induced the Saint to give him an ample blessing, nor was it without good effect, since he died in sentiments of true repentance.
The man of God finding the day of his death, which Jesus Christ had revealed to him, draw near, said to his brethren in the words of the Prince of the Apostles: “The laying away of this my tabernacle is at hand;” and he begged them to have himself taken to the Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels, wishing, as Saint Bonaventure remarks, to render up the spirit which had given life to him, in the place where he had received the Spirit of grace. He was, therefore, removed, according to his desire; and when he had come to the place between the town and the convent, he asked if they had reached the hospital of the lepers, and, as those who were carrying him replied in the affirmative, he said: “Turn me now towards the town, and set me down on the ground.” Then raising himself upon the litter, he prayed for Assisi, and for all its inhabitants. He likewise shed tears, in considering the ills which would come upon the city, during the wars which he foresaw, and he then gave it this blessing: “Be blest by the Lord, O city, faithful to God! because many souls will be saved in thee and by thee. A great number of the servants of the Most High will dwell within thy walls, and among the number of thy artisans not a few will be chosen for eternal life.”
Some time after his arrival at Saint Mary of the Angels, he called for paper and ink, that he might acquaint Dame Jacqueline de Septisal of the proximity of his death: she was the illustrious Roman widow who was so much attached to him. “It is right,” he said, “that, dying, I should give that consolation to a person who afforded me so many consolations during my life.” This is what he dictated for her:
“To the lady Jacqueline, the servant of the Most High, Brother Francis, the poor little servant of Jesus Christ, sends greetings, and communication with the Holy Ghost, in Jesus Christ.”
“Know, my very dear lady, that Jesus Christ, blessed for ever, has done me the favor to reveal to me the end of my life: it is very near. For which reason, if you wish to see me alive, set out as soon as you shall have received this letter, and hasten to Saint Mary of the Angels, for, if you arrive later than Saturday, you will find me dead. Bring with you some stuff, or rather, a sackcloth, to cover my body, and some wax-lights for my funeral. Pray bring also some of those comfits which you gave me when I was sick at Rome.”
At these words he stopped, having his eyes raised to Heaven. He said it was not necessary to go on with the letter, nor to send a messenger, because the lady had set out, and was bringing with her all that was required; and, in fact, she arrived shortly after with her two sons and a considerable suite, bringing with her the stuff, a quantity of wax-lights, and certain electuaries which were comforting for the stomach.
The religious asked her how she could have come so opportunely, without having had notice given her, and how she came to bring all that was requisite for the time. She told them that during the night she had received an order from Heaven, and that an angel had requested her not to leave out any of the things which had been desired.
On Friday, October the 4th, Francis again collected all his brethren together, blessed them a second time, and having blessed a loaf of bread with the sign of the cross, he gave to each a piece as a symbol of union and fraternal charity. They all partook of it with great devotion, representing to themselves, in this repast of love, the last supper which Jesus Christ ate with His disciples. Brother Elias, who wept bitterly, was the only one who did not eat his portion, which was perhaps a mournful foreboding of the division he was to introduce into the Order. In truth, he kept the piece he had received from their Father respectfully in his hand; but, as if he had cast aside the charity which was offered him, instead of, at least, keeping the morsel of bread, he gave it to Brother Leo, who asked him for it. Great care was taken for its preservation, and God permitted that it should be subsequently used for the cure of many maladies.
All the brothers had melted into tears, and the holy Patriarch inquired where Bernard, his eldest son, was. And Bernard having drawn near, he said: “Come, my son, that I may bless you before I die.” Feeling that he was kneeling on his left, while Brother Giles was on his right, he put his hands again crosswise, so that his right hand came on the head of Bernard, to whom he gave this blessing: –
“May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ bless you with all the spiritual blessings which He has shed from on high on His Son. As you were chosen the first to give good example of the Evangelical law in this Order, and to imitate the poverty of Jesus Christ, to whom you generously offered your goods and your person in the odor of sweetness, so may you be blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by His poor servant; and may you be so blessed in your going out and coming in, waking or sleeping, living and dying. May he who blesses you, be filled with blessings; and may he who curses you, not remain unpunished. Be the lord of your brethren, and let them be all subject to you. Let all those whom you shall approve, be admitted into the Order, and all whom you shall reject, be rejected. Let no one have authority over you, so that you may be at liberty to go and dwell where you think proper.”
Bernard having retired, with his eyes bathed in tears, Francis said to the others: “My intention is, and I direct that whoever may be appointed minister general, may so love and honor Brother Bernard as myself, and that all the provincial ministers, as well as all the brethren of this Order, may look upon him as they have done on me; in fact, I leave him to you as the half of my soul. There are few who are able to appreciate his virtue: it is so great, that Satan never ceases from tempting him, molesting him, and laying snares for him. But, by God’s help, he will get the better of all, to the great profit of his soul, and he will find himself in an extraordinary manner in perfect tranquillity.” Those who were present, and who afterwards lived with Bernard, witnessed the fulfilment of these predictions. His eminent sanctity, well known to Francis, and of which he foresaw the perseverance, was the reason why he ordered the others to respect him as their master, and why he rendered him independent, in order that he might have full leisure to give himself up to contemplation, which had such charms for him. For a similar reason, he gave him power to admit or reject novices, as his prudence should dictate: a privilege which was the more appropriate, as Bernard had been the first to enter into the Order.
Saint Bonaventure is silent as to the manner and fervor with which the Servant of God received the last sacraments, following in that the method of many old authors who, in the lives of saints, only notice those things which are peculiar and marvellous, without speaking of the common and ordinary actions of all Christians. But we have only to bear in mind the great respect Saint Francis had for all the practices of the Church; the spirit of penance by which he was animated; the vivid and tender affections of his heart towards the Passion of the Son of God, and the mystery of the Holy Eucharist; the ardor of his zeal to cause Jesus Christ to be adored in the august sacrament, and revered in all that related to it; his eagerness in recommending the frequent approach to the Holy Communion, and the constant recourse he himself had to this balm for the soul, so that for fear of being deprived of it, he chose to have Mass said in his own room during his illnesses: – all these recollections, being united, are demonstrations of what must have been the dispositions of the Saint when the last sacraments were administered to him.
He particularly desired all his brethren to have a peculiar veneration for the Church of Saint Mary of the Angels, because it had been revealed that the Blessed Virgin had a singular affection for this church among all those which were dedicated to her name, and upon this subject he spoke as follows, with great animation: –
“It is my desire that this place shall be always under the direction of the person who shall be minister-general and servitor of the Order; and that the minister shall be careful to select for its service only good and holy brethren; and that the clerics who shall be appointed to it shall be taken from those of the Order who are the best and the holiest, and are the best instructed for the celebration of the Divine Offices, so that their brethren and the seculars may be edified in seeing and hearing them. Let them also be particular in choosing the lay brethren to be placed there; let them be discreet, mild, and humble men, whose lives are holy, who shall serve the others without entering into idle discourse, not talk of the news, or what is passing in the world, nor of any thing which does not relate to the salvation of souls. It is also my desire that none of the brethren shall come here except the minister-general and his companions, and that no secular shall be admitted, in order that those belonging to the place may the better preserve themselves in purity and holiness, and that the place itself may remain pure and holy, being solely devoted to singing the praises of the Lord. When God shall be pleased to call any one of them to Himself, I desire that the minister-general may send another whose life shall be equally holy. My intention is, that, if the brethren shall swerve from the path of perfection, this place shall be ever blest, and shall remain as the example and model for the whole Order; as a beautiful torch before the throne of God, and before the altar of the Blessed Virgin, where lamps shall be ever burning, to obtain from the goodness of God that He may grant His pardon to the brethren for all their faults, and preserve and protect this Order which He has planted with His own hand.”
“My children,” he continued, “be careful never to abandon this spot, and if you are driven out on one side, return by the opposite one; for it is holy, it is the dwelling-place of Jesus Christ, and of the Blessed Virgin, His Mother. It is here that the Lord, the Most High, has multiplied our numbers, from being very few; here, by the light of His wisdom, He enlightened the minds of His poor ones; here, by the ardor of His love, he inflamed our hearts; here, whoever shall pray devoutly, will obtain whatever he may ask; and whoever shall sin here, will be punished with greater rigor. Wherefore, my children, have a great veneration for this place, which is truly the dwelling of the Almighty, peculiarly beloved by Jesus Christ and His blessed Mother. Employ yourselves here joyfully, and with your whole hearts, in praising and blessing God and His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in unity with the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The day at length arrived which had been fixed by Divine Providence for terminating and rewarding the labors of this faithful Servant of God: it was a Saturday, the fourth of October. Saint Bonaventure who considers him on his death-bed as a work well finished by the chisel of suffering, as a precious jewel cut and polished, to be placed in the sacred edifice of the celestial Jesusalem, remarks, that, finding himself near his end, and animating himself with fresh fervor, he stretched himself on the ground.
All the brethren were penetrated with grief and shed tears. One of them, whom the holy man called his guardian, knowing by inspiration what he wished for, went quickly to fetch a tunic, a cord, and the other parts of the dress of a Friar Minor, and brought them to him, saying: “Here is what we lend you, as to a poor man; take them out of obedience.” He accepted this alms, and was rejoiced that he was faithful to the last to poverty, which he called his dame and his mistress; then raising his hands to heaven, he gave glory to our Lord Jesus Christ, that, being disengaged and free from everything, he was about to go to Him.
At the beginning of his conversion he stripped himself before the Bishop of Assisi, in imitation of the poor life of our Saviour; and to resemble Him more completely in His state of poverty, of nudity, and of suffering on the cross, he stripped himself before his brethren at his death, and chose to leave this world poor as he came into it, or, at least, only in a habit which he had received as an alms: such was his love of poverty.
“Oh!” exclaims Saint Bonaventure, “with what truth may it be said that this was verily a Christian man, who has rendered himself perfectly conformable to Jesus Christ while living, or dying, or dead, and who has merited the honor of such a conformity, by the impression of the five wounds!”
What is further remarkable is, that they asked him where he desired to be buried, to which he answered: “In the vilest of places, on the Infernal Hill, on that side where criminals are executed.”
This place was out of the Town of Assisi, near the walls, vulgarly called the Infernal Hill, perhaps on account of its being the place of execution. The Servant of God wished to be buried there, in order to be in strict conformity with his Divine Master, “who chose,” says Saint Jerome, “to be crucified in the usual place of execution, as a criminal among criminals, for the salvation of men, and to be placed in a tomb which was close by.” His wish became a prophecy, for, two years after his death, as will be explained hereafter, a church was built in his honor on the Infernal Hill, when the name was changed into that of the Hill of Paradise, and the site of the church was so contrived that his body was placed precisely on the spot where the gallows had been formerly erected.
Seeing his last hour drawing nigh, he summoned all his brethren who were in the convent, and after having addressed some words of consolation to them, to mitigate the grief they felt for his death, he exhorted them to love God as a tender Father. Then he spoke to them for a long time on the care they should take to persevere in the faith of the Church of Rome, in poverty and in patience, under the tribulations which awaited them, as well as in successes of their holy undertaking. He made use of the most moving expressions in recommending to them to make progress towards eternal goods, to be armed with vigilance against the dangers of the world, and to walk exactly in the paths of Jesus Christ; remarking to them that the observance of His Gospel was the basis and essence of their Institution, and that all their practices had this in view.
After the holy man had made known his last wishes, he sent for Brother Leo, his confessor, and for Brother Angelo, whom he directed to sing in his presence the Canticle of the Sun, because death was very near: this is the canticle of which we have spoken, in which he gives glory to God for all His creatures, and also for death. As he was assured by revelation that death would remove him to eternal life, its proximity filled him with joy, which he evidenced by causing the praises of God to be sung.
When the canticle was finished, he placed his arms one over the other in the form of a cross, – a saving sign, to which he had been always devoted, as Saint Bonaventure remarks – and stretching them over his brethren who stood around him, he gave his blessing for the last time, as well to those who were present, as to those who were absent, in the name and by virtue of Jesus crucified. He then pronounced the following words with great mildness and suavity: “Adieu, my children, I bid you all adieu; I leave you in the fear of the Lord, abide ever in that. The time of trial and tribulation approaches; happy those who persevere in the good they have begun. As to me, I go to God with great eagerness, and I recommend you all to His favor”
He then called for the book of the Gospels, and requested them to read to him the Gospel of Saint John, at that part where the history of the Passion of our Blessed Saviour begins by these words: “Ante diem festum Pascha,” before the Feast of the Passover. After this had been read, he began himself to recite, as well as he could, the hundred and forty-first psalm, “Voce mea ad Dominum clamavi:” “I have cried to Thee, O Lord, with my voice;” and he continued it to the last verse, “Me expectant justi, donec retribuas mihi:” “The just wait for me, until Thou reward me.” In fine, all the mysteries of grace having been fulfilled in this man, so beloved by God, his very soul, absorbed in Divine love, was released from the shackles of his body, and went to repose in the Lord.
Such a death makes good what the Holy Fathers of the Church say, that the perfect Christian dies with joy, and with pleasure. There is no one who would not wish for such a death. The most worldly would desire with Balaam, that their life should end as that of the just; but the perfection of the just must be imitated to afford any hope of the end being similar: death is only mild and consoling in proportion to the fervor of a Christian life.
Saint Bonaventure places on record many proofs which they had of the glory of Saint Francis at the moment of his death. One of his disciples saw his blessed soul, under the figure of a brilliant star, rise upon a white cloud, above all the others, and go straight to heaven. This marked, says the holy doctor, the splendor of his sublime sanctity, with the plenitude of grace and wisdom, which had rendered him worthy of entering into the regions of light and peace, where, with Jesus Christ, he enjoys a repose which will be eternal.
Brother Austin, of Assisi, Provincial of the Terra di Lavoro, a just and saintly man, who was in the last stage of a severe illness, and had ceased to speak, suddenly exclaimed: “Wait for me, my Father, wait for me; I will go with you” The brethren, quite astonished, asked him who he was speaking to. “What,” said he, “don’t you see our Father, Francis, going up to Heaven?” At that very moment his soul separated itself from his body, and followed that of his Father. Thomas of Celano, and Bernard of Bessa, companions of Saint Bonaventure, also mentioned that a holy man of their day had a revelation to the effect, that the souls of several Friars Minors were delivered from the sufferings of purgatory, and were joined with that of the holy Patriarch, to enter Heaven with him.
The Bishop of Assisi being then on a devotional tour to Mount Gargano, to visit the Church of the Archangel Michael, Francis appeared to him on the night of his death, and said: “I leave the world, and am going up to heaven.” The prelate, in the morning, mentioned to those who accompanied him what he had seen; and on his return, having made exact inquiry, he found that the apparition had appeared to him at the very time of the Saint’s death.
The body of Saint Francis, after his death, was an object worthy of admiration, according to this description of it, given by Saint Bonaventure on the testimony of those who had seen it, and reported verbally to him all the circumstances, conformably to what had been taken down in writing: On his hands and on his feet black nails were seen as of iron, wonderfully formed of his flesh by Divine power, and so attached to his flesh, that, when they were pressed on one side, they protruded farther on the other, as hard excrescences, and all of one piece. Nothing now prevented the wound on his side from being seen, which he hid with so much care during his lifetime, – this wound, which had not been made by the hand of man, and which resembled the opening in the side of our Blessed Saviour, from which the sacrament of our redemption issued, and that of our regeneration. Its color was red, and the edges, rounded off, gave it the appearance of a beautiful rose. The flesh of the Saint, which was naturally of a brownish color, and which his diseases had rendered tawny, became extraordinarily white. It called to mind the robes whitened in the blood of the Lamb, with which the saints are clothed. His limbs were flexible and pliable as those of an infant; evident signs of the innocence and candor of his soul. The whiteness of his skin contrasted with the black nails of his hands and feet, and with the wound in his side, which resembled a fresh-blossomed rose, exhibited a variety of tints which was beautiful and pleasing, and was the admiration of those who saw it. His body, in fine, was the representation of the Passion of Jesus Christ by the wounds imprinted on it, and of the glorious resurrection by the qualifications it had received after death.
This marvellous and novel sight mitigated the affliction of his children; it strengthened their faith, inflamed their love, and quite enraptured them; and, although the death of so amiable a father caused them to shed torrents of tears, they, nevertheless, had their hearts filled with joy when they kissed the impressions of the wounds of the great King imprinted on his flesh.
As soon as the news of his death was spread, and the circumstances of the stigmata came to be spoken of, the people came in crowds to see them: each person wished to see them with his own eyes, and assure himself of the truth of an event which was the cause of so much joy to the public. A great number of the citizens of Assisi were permitted to approach, to see and to kiss the sacred stigmata. One of them named Jerome, belonging to the army, a learned and prudent man, whose reputation was very extensive, finding it difficult to give credit to so wonderful a circumstance, examined the wounds more particularly and more minutely than the rest, in presence of the brethren, and of many persons of the town. He felt the feet, the hands, and the wound in the side of the Saint’s body; he moved the nails, and convinced himself so perfectly of the truth of the fact, that he was afterwards a most zealous advocate and witness to it, and made oath to its truth on the holy Evangelists. “It was,” Saint Bonaventure remarks, “a case similar to that of the Apostle Saint Thomas, who, from being incredulous, became a faithful witness after having put his hands into the wounds of the Saviour, in order that his faith, preceded by incredulity, should strengthen our faith, and prevent us from becoming incredulous.”
The brethren, who had been present at the death of the blessed Patriarch, passed the remainder of the night in singing the praises of God around the body, with a number of other persons, who had collected there for the purpose, insomuch that it more resembled a feast of celestial spirits than the funeral service of a mortal.
The next morning, which was Sunday, the holy corpse was carried to Assisi on the shoulders of the principal persons of that city, and those of the highest rank among the Friars Minors; hymns and canticles being sung the whole way, while the concourse followed, carrying in their hands lighted torches, or branches of laurel. The procession passed on to the Church of Saint Damian, where Clare and her nuns awaited it, and where it halted for a short time, to afford them the consolation of seeing and kissing the stigmata. In admiring this extraordinary prodigy, and lamenting the death of such a father, they called to mind the promise he had made them during his last illness, that they should again see him before their death. Clare endeavored to draw the nail from one of his hands, which, as the head of it was raised above the palm of the hand, she thought she would be able to effect, but she found it impossible. She, therefore, only dipped a piece of linen in the blood which exuded; and she took the measure of the body, by which she had a niche made of similar size, on that side of the choir which the religious occupied, in which the image of the saint was afterwards placed. These pious virgins would have been glad to have detained the body longer, but it was necessary to resume the route to Assisi, where he was buried in the Church of Saint George, with every possible veneration and respect. It was there he had received the first rudiments of education, it was there he had preached for the first time, and there was his first place of repose.
Brother Elias, in his quality of vicar-general, wrote a circular letter on his death, which he sent into all the provinces of the Order. The copy which the Provincial of France received, was thus directed: “To my well-beloved brother in Jesus Christ, Brother Gregory, minister of the brethren who are in France, and to all his brethren, and to ours, Brother Elias sends greeting.”
He first expresses his grief in very affecting terms, and in alluding to the loss the Order had sustained, he passes a high eulogium on the sanctity of their common Father, with many citations from the Sacred Scriptures, very aptly applied. Then, he says, that what must console the children of the blessed patriarch is, that his death opened to him eternal life, and that previously he had pardoned all the offences which he might have sustained from any of them. This article only regarded Brother Elias and his adherents, for they were the only ones who had caused him any displeasure, and, according to all probability, Elias only adverted to it to soften the feelings of many who were irritated with him in consequence of his relaxation. After this preliminary he communicates to them a great cause for rejoicing in the miracle of the stigmata, which he treats as follows: “We had seen our Brother and our Father, Francis, some time before his death as one crucified, having on his body five wounds similar to those of Jesus Christ, nails of the color of nails of iron, which perforated his hands and feet, his side being laid open as by the wound of a lance, from whence blood often percolated. Immediately after his death his face, which was not handsome during his life, became extraordinarily beautiful, white and brilliant, and pleasing to behold; his limbs, which the contraction of the muscles, caused by his great sufferings, had stiffened like to those of a corpse, became pliant and flexible as those of a child: they could be handled and placed in any position which might be wished.”
He then exhorts them to give glory to God for so great a miracle, and adds: “He who used to console us in our afflictions is no more, he has been taken from us; we are now orphans, and have no longer a father. But, since it is written, that ‘to the Lord is the poor man left: He will be a helper to the orphan, let us address our prayers to Him, my dear brethren, and let us entreat Him to give us another chief, who, as a true Machabee, shall guide us and lead us to battle.” At the close of the letter he ordered prayers for the deceased, saying: “It is not useless to pray for the dead; pray for him, as he requested we should: but at the same time pray that we may obtain from God a participation in His grace. Amen.” It was signed, “Brother Elias, a sinner.”
Although Elias doubted not that the holy man was in glory, he, nevertheless, prescribed praying for him, not only to comply with the wish of the deceased, and not to forestall the decision of the Holy See, but, also, because he bore in mind what Saint Augustine had said, that the sacrifices and prayers offered for the dead whose life has been irreproachable, are acts of thanksgiving.