Stories of the Saints by Candle-Light – Saint Francis

There was once a boy called Francis, who lived in a curious old town in the mountains of Italy. The town was called Assisi. It was all funny little up-and-down streets and flights of long, crooked stone steps; and there was a wall all round (to keep enemies out), and big gates in the wall that were closed at night. The purple hills and mountains spread away as far as you could see beneath a blue, blue sky, and all round the city there were vineyards, and lovely little rocky paths winding about among the silvery olive-trees.

Francis was the son of a rich merchant called Peter Bernardone. He was a regular Cubby boy – always laughing and singing, ready for mischief, but still more ready to do anyone a good turn. He was Peter Bernardone’s only son, and he had a jolly good time of it, because his father had made up his mind that young Francis should make a success of life, and end by being a great man in the town. He used to smile to himself and rub his hands together as he saw what a clever, handsome boy Francis was growing up into, and how everybody loved him, and how he was always the ringleader in all the fun. As Francis grew to be a young man his father would encourage him to give lots of feasts to his friends, not minding how much they cost, and it pleased him to see that it was always Francis who was the life of these feasts, making jokes, leading cheerful singsongs, enjoying himself no end, and making everyone else enjoy themselves. But while Peter Bernardone chuckled to see young Francis so gay and popular, Francis’ mother, Pica, used to notice little things that made her happy too, only in a different way. She noticed that Francis never really gave in to himself, like his wild friends; never overate himself in a greedy way or drank enough wine to make him drunk; never thought it funny to tell nasty stories or swear; and if ever God’s name was mentioned, it seemed to make him serious for a moment. “One day,” she said, “he will become a son of God.” But her friends thought it a silly remark to make, for Francis seemed to be living just to please himself and have a jolly time. But mothers are generally right in what they prophesy about their sons, and Pica’s remark was really a very true one. This story is all about how Francis gave up being a rich merchant’s son and became a poor man who found all his joy and his riches in calling God his Father. The change did not come easily, and a great many wonderful adventures befell him, which I am going to tell you now.

It all began with a war between Assisi and another city. Of course, Francis and his pals joined in the fray and thought it great sport, till they got captured and carried off prisoners. It was not sport at all being shut up in stuffy old houses with only a little food and nothing to do. Francis used to cheer them up with troubadour songs and stories. But although he always seemed so cheerful, it was doing great harm to his health, and when, after a year, the prisoners were freed and returned to Assisi, Francis became very ill indeed. So ill was he that he came near dying, and this experience of nearly passing out into the next life made him begin to think seriously. When he was well enough to go out, walking slowly with a stick because of his weakness, he felt that life could never be quite the same; he must do something, take a man’s place in the world.

Well, the chance soon came, for all the young Christian men were called out to fight in a Crusade. A certain nobleman of Assisi started getting up a party, and Francis decided to join him. He soon had all his kit – armour, a bright sword, a good horse, and all complete; and with a gay heart, full of a thirst for adventure and a determination to do great things, he waited impatiently for the start. He had been rather puzzled as to what to do with himself, and now he felt he had hit on the right plan. So it was a bit of a surprise when, his very first night away, something happened which unsettled his mind altogether and made him feel it was not God’s will that he should go to the Crusades.

The night before the party set out Francis had had a very curious dream, about a beautiful palace, all hung round with knightly arms, which a mysterious voice told him was for him and his followers. This made him so happy that the next day, when someone asked him what good fortune he had had, he replied that now he knew for certain he was to be a great prince and leader of men. But the next night, as he lay in the hostelry on the first halt along the road, something still more strange happened. He was not asleep, and yet, through the still darkness, he heard the mysterious voice of his dream, and it said: “Francis, whom is it better to serve, the lord or the servant?” “Surely it is better to serve the lord,” replied Francis, softly, into the dark. And the voice answered: “Why, then, dost thou make a lord of the servant?” Then it all seemed to flash on Francis, and he felt sure this was a Voice from heaven, and he replied very humbly: “Lord, what dost Thou wish me to do?” And the Voice said: “Return to the land of thy birth, and there it will be told thee what thou shalt do; for it may behove thee to give another meaning to thy dream.” He felt so positive that the Voice was from heaven, that he felt he simply could not disobey it. So, although it cost him a lot to do it, he turned his horse’s head northwards and rode home.

There was nothing to do now but wait for God to show him His Will. He tried to settle down again to his old life of feasting and gaiety, but somehow he couldn’t throw himself into it. There was something he was feeling after, but he didn’t know what.

One day something happened which was the beginning of great things.

Francis had been out for a ride beyond the city. As he turned his horse’s head homewards and rode slowly back towards the golden sunset, he suddenly saw, a little way ahead, something that made him shudder and almost turn aside on to another path. It was a poor leper, his filthy rags only half covering his wretched body, with its horrible running sores. His face was swollen and disfigured, and his eyes full of the frightened misery of a hunted animal. Now, seeing lepers always made Francis feel quite sick. He hated horrible sights. But somehow, to-night, a new feeling woke up in him – a sudden feeling of brotherhood with this poor man, almost of love for him. It was such terribly bad luck that he had caught leprosy and become a ghastly sight, so that he could not earn any money nor come near the town. Francis felt in his wallet for a silver piece to give him, and then he thought how sad it must be to have money flung at you by strangers, who passed by with head turned away because they loathed the very sight of you. How the lepers must long for just a friendly look, a smile! A great idea suddenly leapt up in Francis’s mind, and it took all his courage not to give in to himself. As he came up with the leper, he jumped off his horse, took a silver piece from his pocket, and held it out to the man. The leper, full of surprise, held out his poor swollen stump of a hand, with several fingers already rotted away, to take the coin. But meeting the man’s eyes, and seeing in them the look of hunger for friendship, Francis took the poor hand in his, as he would the hand of his friend, pressed the coin into it, and then, stooping, pressed his lips upon it in a kiss. Then, with his heart full of joy, he remounted his horse and rode home.

With that kiss a wonderful new idea had sprung up in Francis’s heart – a sense of love for the poor, of longing not only to help them, but to share their very lives, to be one of them. At first he tried to satisfy his longing to help them by making great feasts and serving his poor guests with his own hands. One day he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and as he saw the crowd of beggars clustering round a certain shrine in hope that the pilgrims would give them money, he longed to become just one of them. So, taking one of them aside, he exchanged his fine clothes with the beggar for his dirty rags, and spent the whole day with his poor brothers in the dust and the scorching sun, enjoying the sense of being a mere outcast to whom rich men threw ha’pence.

Still, when he returned to his home he was as puzzled as ever as to what he should do. He took to spending long hours at prayer in a certain cave begging God to make known His Will; and at last God answered his prayer, and I will tell you how.

Francis had been for a long walk outside the city, and as he returned along the stony little mountain paths, the evening sunlight dazzling his eyes, and the olive-trees whispering to each other in the soft evening air, he noticed a tumble-down little wayside church. Something made him stop and turn in.

It was very dim and cool and quiet. There was no one there – except God. A lamp burned with a feeble flicker in the sanctuary. Francis knelt down and began to pray. Then, out of the stillness a strange, wonderful Voice spoke his name – “Francis.” He knew directly Whose Voice it was – Our Blessed Lord’s. “Yes, Lord,” he answered, his heart beating rather fast, though he felt very happy. “Francis, go and repair My church, which thou seest falling,” said the Voice. Then all was still.

The tones of that Voice seemed to vibrate through and through Francis. He was filled with a great desire to obey – to do anything, anything Our Lord wanted. “Repair My church,” He had said. He must mean this poor little tumble-down house of His, that was certainly on the point of falling. So Francis jumped up from his knees and went out into the sunlight very happy. He found the old priest, who lived in a poor little house near by, and, telling him the wonderful thing that had happened, gave him all the money he had, and promised to return soon with enough to rebuild the church. Then he hurried home.

His father was away on a journey. So Francis went down to the warehouse and picked out the most costly bale of rich stuff he could find. Then he took a good horse, and, putting the bale of stuff on his back, set out for the town of Foligno. Here he sold both the stuff and the horse, and returned with a good sum of money. Full of joy, he hurried along the little mountain path to the old priest’s house, and held out the heavy purse of gold to him. But the priest was afraid to accept it, for he was not at all sure that Francis’s father would be pleased about it. Francis was disappointed. He had got the money for the church, and certainly wasn’t going to carry it home again; so he threw it into the deep recess of one of the windows of the little church, and left it there. Then he told the priest he meant to stay, for here Our Lord had spoken to him, and he must stay and see to the building of the church.

The old priest was very kind, and let Francis share his little house and his poor fare, and Francis began to feel like a kind of hermit, living a life of prayer.

Meanwhile Peter Bernardone returned from his journey. When he heard what Francis had done, and his new, mad idea of living like a hermit on the mountain-side, he was furiously angry. Taking a stick in his hand, he set out, saying he would teach the young fool a good lesson and bring him home. But one of the servants ran ahead by a short cut and warned Francis. Francis had no wish to meet his angry father armed with a stout stick, so he fled and hid himself in a cave, and Peter Bernardone had to go home again, even angrier than he set out. For about ten days Francis stayed in hiding, the servant bringing him food. He spent this time in prayer. This made him braver, and he began to think that he had been a “funk” to run away and hide and not face the music, so he decided to make up for it by being braver.

His time of hiding in the dark, dirty cave, with little food, had made him look thin, untidy, and a bit of a scarecrow. The people of Assisi had heard what he had done, and they decided he must have gone mad. So when he appeared in the city the boys began throwing stones and rubbish at him, and calling after him. Francis bore it all patiently, and felt rather a hero. But presently Peter Bernardone discovered that his son was being insulted in the streets. It filled him with rage, and he rushed out, dragged Francis indoors, gave him a good flogging and shut him up in a little cell. Here he had to stay for some time, until his father went on another journey and his mother let him out. Of course, he went straight back to the little church on the hill-side, and here, when his father came back, he found him. Peter Bernardone stormed at him and demanded the money back, but Francis would not give it, saying he had given it to God. So Peter Bernardone went to the Bishop about it. The matter came up at the Bishop’s Court, and the Bishop had to tell Francis to give back the money. Bernardone was so angry with his son that he then and there disinherited him, and said he would not own him as his son any more. So Francis took off his very clothes and gave them back to his father, saying, “Now will I say no more Peter Bernardone is my father, but only ‘Our Father Who art in heaven.'” So, taking the bundle of clothes, old Bernardone stalked out of the Court.

Someone fetched Francis a rough habit, such as was worn by the farm-hands. On this Francis chalked a big cross, and, putting it on, stepped out joyfully, feeling that at last he was free to serve God, in whatever way He wanted him to, and share the life of the poor.

He felt somehow that he must get right away, alone; so he started walking up over the mountains, not caring where he went. Soon he was right up among the pines, and as night fell he found it was pretty cold, for the winter’s snow still lay in the deep shade of the trees. But he was so happy that he did not care for anything, and as he went he sang aloud for joy.

Then, suddenly, out of the dark wood a band of robbers pounced on him. “Who are you?” they cried. “I am the herald of the great King!” answered Francis. So they stripped him of his habit, and threw him in a ditch full of snow.

Luckily, the next day he found a friend in a town the other side of the mountains, who gave him a pilgrim’s cloak, a pair of shoes, and a staff. Then, after a bit more wandering, Saint Francis returned to the little church and settled down with the old priest, meaning now in good earnest to build up the church.

Since he had no money to buy what was needed, the only thing was to beg. So he went out in the streets begging for stones to build up the little church. The poor people were very kind, and gave him stones, and some of them came and helped, and soon they and Francis together had begun rebuilding the walls. Every day Francis went begging, and sometimes it was very hard not to give in to himself and go skulking down a side-street when he saw a group of his old friends ahead. But he went bravely on, and faced their stares and laughter.

One day it struck Francis that he ought not to be eating the old priest’s scanty store of food, which he noticed his kind old friend used to cook and try and prepare as nicely as possible for him. This was not what a true lover of poverty should do. “Rise up, thou lazy one,” he said to himself, “and go begging from door to door the leavings of the table.” So, taking a big dish, he went round the houses of the townspeople asking for scraps. They gave him broken bits of messy old food, and he returned with his dish full. But when he sat down to supper he didn’t feel at all like eating from that pile of scraps – the very thought made him feel quite sick. But he was learning to conquer himself, and by the time the meal was done he felt he had really accomplished something, and was at last really a poor man and ready to live on what God’s mercy would give him from day to day.

All this time he had been praying a great deal, and learning to know God very much better. More and more he felt that God meant to use him for something special – what he did not know.

At last the little grey church was all built up new and strong, and Francis felt the job Our Lord had given him was done. But as God had not shown him anything else to do, he set out and found another tumble-down little church to build up, and started on that. When that, too, was finished, he started on a third one. The third one had been restored, and a service was being held in it for the first time since its restoration, and Francis was assisting at this service, when something happened which sent him on a new adventure, and which proved to be the beginning of the great adventure which filled all the rest of his life.

The little church Saint Francis had last restored was very wee, but it had a very long name. It was called the Portiuncola, which meant “the little portion.” It was built all among the trees and long grass, and mossy, fern-covered rocks; and the birds sang around it. Saint Francis loved the spot very much – it was like home to him – and he spent a lot of time there. Besides, it was not far from the leper settlement, and he had now taken on himself the rather horrible job of serving the poor lepers – a job that was very pleasing to Our Lord, specially as He saw Saint Francis did it all for love of Him, and served each wretched man as if he was Jesus Christ. Then, too, the Portiuncola was not very far from the town where Francis begged his food.

Well, early one morning, while the sun shone outside on the dewy world, and the birds sang their morning hymns of praise, a priest said Mass in the little chapel, and Saint Francis knelt praying with all his heart. Presently the priest read out the Gospel, and, as usual, Saint Francis listened with great attention. And suddenly, as he listened, he felt that those words of Our Lord which the priest was reading out were a message from heaven for him – the very “orders” he had been waiting for! These were the words:

“Going forth, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. . . . Possess not gold, nor silver, nor money in your houses, nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff; for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town you shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till you go hence. And when you come into a house, salute it, saying: Peace be to this house. . . . Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, but simple as doves. . . . But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what to speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what to speak.” (Matthew 10:7-19)

Here were clear orders. Something in Saint Francis answered to that call, and this something was the Holy Spirit of God speaking in his heart, as He always does in those who really wait and listen and mean to obey should God speak.

When the Mass was finished, Saint Francis got the priest to read the words over to him again. And then, feeling quite sure he had discovered God’s Holy Will, he began to obey it at once. He took off his shoes; he laid aside his second garment, making himself a rough brown habit; he put down his staff, and he exchanged his belt for a bit of rope. Then, feeling full of joy, he set out along the stony road on his bare feet, towards the town – not to beg this time, but to give the greeting of “Peace,” and to tell the people to make up their quarrels and forgive each other, and turn with all their hearts to the Lord Christ.

The people of the town did not laugh now, and jeer; they saw that Saint Francis was speaking to them from the bottom of his pure heart – a heart on fire with the love of God – and that the grace of Jesus Christ, his Master, was upon him. And before long two men of Assisi had joined him as the first of the great company who were to follow him – for you remember how he was to be a leader, and that the palace of his dream had been promised to him and his followers.

This is the story of Saint Francis’s first recruit. His name was Bernard de Quintavalle, and he was a rich merchant, serious and God-fearing, and not a bit like the gay, eager Saint Francis. But seeing how unselfish and hard-working a life Saint Francis led, and that God’s Holy Spirit was with him, he began to visit the young preacher, and to receive him in his house. Saint Francis willingly gave his friendship to such a good man.

Bernard used to like Saint Francis to sleep on a bed in his own room. Often at night he would lie awake, thinking; and he would notice that after a short sleep Saint Francis got out of bed and knelt down, and spent the rest of the night praying to God. The only words Bernard could hear were just “My God and my All, my God and my All,” which Saint Francis repeated over and over again, as if his soul was really seeing God, and his heart was so full of love for Him that he could say nothing else. And Bernard understood the secret of Saint Francis’s holiness and purity, for to one who prays like that God pours out very much grace, so that he can begin to be all that he knows he ought to be if he is really to please the Lord Christ, his Master.

So one day Bernard told Saint Francis that he wanted to give back to God all his riches and become his poor brother. So Saint Francis said what they ought to do would be to go to the church and read in the Gospel, where the words of Jesus Christ would show them what to do.

Before going to the church, however, they called for another friend of theirs – a learned man called Peter Cathanii, who also wanted to serve God perfectly, and had been trying humbly to learn how from Saint Francis.

But Saint Francis, though holy, and Bernard, though rich, and Peter, though clever at his books, did not any of them know their way about in the big Bible that was kept open in the church for all to read (for there were no printed books in those days, and a Bible was very costly, so that few people had a copy of their own).

So Saint Francis prayed that he might come on the right place, and then he opened the book. This was what he read out: “If thou wouldst be perfect, go, sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)

That seemed just right! But perhaps Our Lord had still another message. So he shut the big book, and opened it again, just anywhere, and it said: “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money; neither have two coats.” (Luke 9:3)

Splendid! “Just one more, please, Lord,” he said in his heart, as he opened the book for the third time. And Our Lord told him something very wonderful and hard to follow, which was really the explanation of all the others:

“If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24)

So the three friends left the church very happy. And Bernard sold all his rich stuffs and his house and his land; and Peter sold all his precious books; and they carried all the gold to a square in front of the old church of Saint George, and Saint Francis sat on the steps with his lap full of money, and gave away great glittering handfuls to all the poor people who crowded round.

When none was left, the three poor brothers, smiling with delight at being really poor and true followers of Christ, went off to the dear little chapel in the woods and began the life of the Friars.

Not long after, a third recruit turned up, and I must tell you about him. He was a simple working-man called Giles. When he heard about Saint Francis and his two Friars, and of this new way of learning to serve God perfectly, he laid down his tools, and left the vineyards and tramped into the town. He went to an early Mass at Saint George’s Church, hoping to find Saint Francis there, as it was Saint George’s Day; but not doing so, he set out for the Portiuncola. He didn’t know where that was, so when he came to the crossroads he stopped and began to ask God somehow to show him the way. And just then Saint Francis came out of the wood. Giles was delighted that God answered his prayer so quickly, and, kneeling down at Saint Francis’s feet, “Brother Francis,” he said, “I want to be with you for the love of God.”

Saint Francis saw at once that this was a true brother, so he said: “Knowest thou how great a favour the Lord has given thee? If, my brother, the Emperor came to Assisi and wished to choose one of the citizens to be his knight or chamberlain, many are they who would come forward to claim the honour. How much more highly, then, shouldest thou esteem it to be chosen by the Lord from out of so many, and to be called to His Court!”

Then Saint Francis took him back and showed him to Bernard and Peter, and said: “See what a good brother the Lord hath sent us!”

Soon after this the four Friars set out, Saint Francis and Brother Giles going together, and Bernard and Peter, to tramp the roads from place to place, and preach to the little knots of country or town people who collected round them in the market-places. So strange did they look, and so full of joy and love did they seem to be, that the people wondered at them very much, and though some believed them to be servants of God, others thought them mad.

When they returned to the Portiuncola three more men joined them. It was then that the townspeople began to get angry, and say that Saint Francis was turning rich men into beggars. Even the Bishop spoke seriously to him. Now, if Saint Francis had not been so sure that what he was doing was God’s plan, and not his own, he might have got discouraged and given up trying to carry it out; but, relying on God’s grace, he listened humbly while people spoke angrily, or scoffed, or argued, or pleaded, and then he bravely “carried on.”

For the first few months the brothers lived in their little hut at the Portiuncola, and prepared themselves (by prayer and the studying of the perfect way of life and the correction of their faults) for the great work God held for them. Part of the day was spent serving the lepers and doing simple work in the fields. One more journey they went, and then, four more brethren having joined them, and Saint Francis having had a wonderful vision which showed him that hundreds would soon be flocking to join his Order from France and Germany and England and all the countries, he set out for Rome, to get the Pope’s approval of his work. At first the Pope would not listen to this poor, unknown beggar-man, full of eager new ideas, but in the end he received him kindly and, after hearing all he had to tell, said: “My son, go and pray to Jesus Christ that He may show us His will; and when we know His will more certainly, we shall the more safely sanction your pious purpose.”

So the brethren all prayed hard.

When Saint Francis went again, the Pope was even more kind, for he recognized Saint Francis as the man he had seen in a dream. In his dream he saw a church nearly falling and being held up by a small man in a poor habit, and he knew it meant the Church of Christ was in trouble, and that this man was going to make it strong again through all the earth.

So the Pope gave the Friars his blessing, saying: “Go forth in the Lord, brothers.” And he gave them leave to preach penance, and told them to come back to him later and he would do even more for them.

So the Friars went back to Assisi full of joy. For a time they lived in a kind of wayside shelter called Rivo Torto; but later on the monks on whose land was the Portiuncola gave the little chapel and the bit of land to Saint Francis (or rather rented it to him, the payment being one basket of fish per year, caught in the river – for Saint Francis did not wish the Friars to own anything).

Some more men joined the brothers, and now they lived as a very happy family in their little huts, built of branches, around their beloved chapel. Saint Francis was like the loving Father of this family, always kind, patient, cheery, ready to comfort the sad or nurse the sick, or explain things to those who felt worried and did not understand how to get rid of their faults and serve Christ in perfect purity of heart. You Cubs would have loved Saint Francis, for he was just like a boy himself. I wish I had time to tell you all the lovely little stories about him and the Friars at this time while his family was still small, but we must keep them for another time, and go on now to the time when the Order had grown so large that the Friars could no longer all live at the Portiuncola, and began to have their poor, simple houses all over the place, while hundreds of brothers set forth, tramping the world over, preaching the Gospel of Christ, not only to the poor, but to the heathen in barbarous countries. Some of the brothers were cruelly martyred, and all had to suffer a lot of hardships, for often people would drive them away, so that they had to go hungry and cold, with nowhere to lay their heads for the night.

We cannot follow all the brothers and hear all their adventures, so I will just tell you one or two which show what kind of men Saint Francis and his Friars were. Here is one which shows you their obedience and humility. I daresay it will make you laugh!

The Friars had by now become quite noted for their preaching, and would often go up into the pulpits of the churches, where large crowds gathered to hear them, the Bishop even inviting Saint Francis to preach in the cathedral. Now, among the brethren there was one called Ruffino, who was very shy and nervous and felt he simply couldn’t preach and face a great crowd of people, all staring at him and waiting for his words. Now, Saint Francis hated that any of his Friars should give in to themselves about anything. He also loved them to obey quickly, and do everything they were told at once, without a murmur. So one day he told Brother Ruffino to go to a big church in the city and preach. But Brother Ruffino, instead of obeying at once, begged Saint Francis not to command him this, as he had not the gift of preaching. Saint Francis was not pleased at this, and he said that, as Brother Ruffino had not obeyed quickly, he must now take off his habit and go to the city and preach, clad only in his breeches, and otherwise naked! So Brother Ruffino stripped, and went off humble and obedient. But, of course, when he went into the church and up into the pulpit dressed like that the men and children of Assisi began to laugh and say the Friars had gone mad. Meanwhile Saint Francis presently began to be sorry he had sent off poor Brother Ruffino clad only in breeches, especially considering he had once been one of the noblest men in Assisi. He began to call himself names for having been so hard on him; and, saying he would do himself what he had told his poor brother to do, he stripped himself of his habit and also set out, half naked, for the town! When he got to the church, of course everyone laughed all the more to see another Friar in his breeches. Poor Brother Ruffino was in the pulpit struggling bravely to preach in simple words. Then Saint Francis mounted the pulpit, and, standing by Brother Ruffino, preached a most wonderful sermon, so that all the people of Assisi were touched to the heart, and many wept to think of their sins and of the Passion of Christ. Then Saint Francis gave Brother Ruffino his habit and put on his own (for Brother Leo had brought them to the church), and they returned home rejoicing.

Once when Saint Francis was walking along the road he saw a great crowd of birds in a field, and saying he must go and preach to his “little sisters, the birds,” he went among them and preached a wonderful sermon to them, telling them how they ought to praise God for all he had given them. And the birds didn’t fly away, but all crowded round to listen. At the end Saint Francis gave them his blessing and told them to fly away, and they rose up in the air and flew away in the form of a great cross, to north, south, east, and west. Saint Francis loved all animals, even earthworms, which he would pick up tenderly from the path and put into safety. And he would never allow people to cut trees quite down, but made them leave the roots, so that they might grow up all green and beautiful once more. Little children he loved, too. Some day I will tell you the story of a little boy who joined his Order and became a little Friar, and had the great joy of seeing Saint Francis at prayer one night out on the mountain-side, with a wonderful gold light all round him, and heavenly visions comforting him. But the little boy had to promise Saint Francis he would never tell anyone what he had seen as long as Saint Francis was living.

I must leave, too, the story of how Saint Francis tamed a huge, fierce wolf; and of how he went right into the Saracen camp during a Crusade and preached to the Sultan of Turkey, and told him to be a Christian; and how he called a great gathering of the Friars at the Portiuncola, to which five thousand brothers came, and how the people of the cities round came with carts full of food and fed the Friars for more than a week’s time, freely. All these stories and many more I must leave, and go on now to tell you of the wonderful, beautiful, and holy end of Saint Francis’s life, and of the mysterious thing that happened to him. I want you to remember that this mysterious thing is perfectly true, and really did happen to Saint Francis, and is a sign of how very closely his soul had become united to Jesus Christ and His Passion on the Cross – for he had never forgotten the heavenly message he had found in the book of the Gospels: “He that will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

Saint Francis’s Order was now established, and his Friars were renewing the life of the Church by their wonderful preaching, their holy example, and their pure lives. Saint Francis himself, though not really old at all, was almost worn out. His life of hardships; his great worries (for his enormous family gave him much trouble as well as joy); his burning zeal and passionate love of God and his fellow-men – all this had nearly used up his strength, and now he was in constant pain, and very nearly blind. He was always patient and happy – even merry, as of old. But at last came a day when he felt he must go away and be alone a little with God. So, taking a few chosen brothers with him, he retired to the top of a beautiful mountain, called Mount Alverna, which belonged to a nobleman who was a friend of Saint Francis.

On this mountain, with only the sky and the rocks and the trees for company, with the lovely peaks of other mountains stretching away as far as eye could see, the six Friars made themselves a little camp of huts; but Saint Francis had his hut right away from the other Friars, and across a little rocky ravine which was crossed by a plank. Here he could feel quite alone with God. Looking up, there was just the blue, blue sky and the steady clouds; and looking down, there was a steep rock falling away below him to a great depth, with little ferns and flowers clinging to it. In this rocky solitude lived a falcon who became a very dear friend of Saint Francis, and for whom he had a great love. It knew the time he liked to rise and pray in the night, and it would come and flap against his hut and wake him at the right time, and then stay near him while he prayed.

The Friars were not allowed to come near the spot; only Brother Leo came with a little bread and water each day, and to join at midnight with Saint Francis in the Divine Office.

At times Saint Francis was very happy, and the joy that fills the Blessed in heaven seemed to glow in his heart, so that he understood the secrets of God; and wonderful visions he had too. But sometimes he was filled with sorrow and pain and temptation, for the Devil would torment him and try in every way he could to separate the heart of Saint Francis from God.

One day, after he had had a very wonderful vision, he went with Brother Leo to the little chapel the Friars had made, and, casting himself on the ground before the Altar, he prayed to God to make known to him the mystery which He would teach him – for he felt there was some mysterious reason why God had made him come up this mountain and dwell apart. Then he told Leo to open the book of the Gospels three times, and see what it said. And each place Leo opened on was about Christ’s Passion.

Then Saint Francis felt quite sure that it was God’s will that somehow he should share his Lord’s pain, and reach the kingdom of God through suffering. And he longed very much for this, and also to have in his heart the love which made Christ so willing to suffer for men.

It was a few days after this that the strange and wonderful thing happened. Saint Francis was kneeling, absorbed in prayer, when suddenly a wonderful Form came towards him, and stood on a stone a little above him. Bright and shining was the Form, with the most beautiful, beautiful face; and His arms were stretched out upon a cross, and feet joined together. And He had two great wings with which He flew, and two stretched up above His head, and two covered His body. And as Saint Francis gazed upon this crucified Seraph with the beautiful face full of pain, a great throb of intense agony shot through his soul and his body, so that he had never felt such pain or sorrow before. And then the Seraph spoke to him as to a friend and revealed many mysteries. When He had gone Saint Francis rose from his knees and wondered what it could mean; and then he saw what it meant. For in his own hands and feet had come the marks of the crucified Christ: his hands and his feet were pierced right through with red wounds, and in the palms of the hands and on the instep of his feet were the round black heads of the nails, and their points came out the other side, bent back. And in his side was a big wound, as if made by a spear. And the pain of them all was very great. And Saint Francis understood that he had been allowed by God to share in Our Lord’s Passion.

At first he said nothing to the Friars; but after a while he told them, but he did not show them the wounds, but kept his hands hidden in his big sleeves. Only to Leo did he show them, so that he might wash and bandage them because of the pain and the bleeding.

Then, leaving the Friars on the holy mountain, Saint Francis went down with Leo; but he rode on a donkey, because of the nails in his feet.

He scarcely noticed the places he passed through or the people he saw, though he did several wonderful miracles. And at last he came home to his beloved Portiuncola.

Saint Francis’s body was almost worn out, and greatly weakened, too, by the bleeding from his wounds, but his soul seemed full of new life and joy and energy. So, riding upon a donkey, he set out for a last journey through the country he had loved so much, and along the familiar roads he had so often tramped. I cannot now tell you of all that happened on this journey and of the miracles that Saint Francis performed; but it was a wonderful last journey, and already the people had begun to speak of him as “the Saint.”

But towards the end of his journey Saint Francis became so ill that he had to be carried in a litter; and so it was that at last he came back to the little Portiuncola chapel to die. As you can imagine, he was not only brave in the face of death, but gay and cheerful. Many Friars had gathered round their beloved Father, and he spoke comforting words to them and blessed them; but he gave a very special blessing to Bernard, who had been the first man to come and join him in those early days when he was still alone. And he made the brothers sing, joyful and loud, the song he had himself made up on his last journey, called “The Canticle of Brother Sun” – a beautiful song all about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the stars, and flowers, and birds, and grass, and Brother Wind, and how they must all praise God Who made them. And when he knew he must very soon die, he cried, “Welcome, Sister Death!” And he made them lay him on the ground, without even his habit, and spread sackcloth over him and sprinkle ashes upon him, and read to him the story of Our Blessed Lord’s Passion and Death from the Gospel of Saint John.

All was still, and outside in the twilight the larks had gathered, and were soaring up into the evening sky, singing with all their hearts, as if rejoicing that in a few minutes the soul of their brother Francis would be free to soar up with them, and away beyond even the reach of their swift wings, to the beautiful garden of God.

And in the house all was of a sudden marvellously still. And the brothers, bending down over the form on the floor, saw, through their tears, that their friend and father had gone. Only for themselves they wept, for they knew that Saint Francis, beautiful and young and strong and gay once more, was already with his Friend and Master, the Lord Christ, Who with smile and outstretched hand would welcome him to his glorious reward. And the Divine Hand outstretched, and the hand of Saint Francis, would bear the same print of nails, and Saint Francis would understand the great and wonderful thing that God had granted him.

– text taken from the book Stories of the Saints by Candle-Light by Vera Barclay, 1922