Second Article In The Series
St. Francis of Assisi, Part II
by Ashley McFadden
To yield is to be preserved whole, To be bent is to become straight, To be empty is to be full.
To be worn out is to be renewed, To have little is to possess. --Lao-Tzu
Struck with a glimpse of his Lady Poverty who filled his heart with love, Francis was a new man, but what man? He entered an ambiguous time, trying to fathom his new identity, and he was not sent a manual telling him how to be a saint. Francis had to search for the meaning hidden in the new turns his life was now taking, and hope that he would be guided again.
Everything had changed. Although for a while he still worked in his father's store, he did not sing as he had done before. He no longer watched the window for his friends to appear and invite him to an evening of fun. He prayed now instead, was silent and wore simpler clothes. His mother, Pica, who always saw the divine in her favorite son seemed to understand. Pietro grew impatient with his son's odd, eccentric ways, but at least he was not spending as much money as before which the father insured by putting Francis on a tight budget.
However, Francis who had always given alms to the beggars would now, if short of cash, take off his coat, hat or belt and give away whatever he had. He set the meal table with more food then needed so that there would be more left over to give to the hungry when they begged at the front door. Slowly, the love of the poor grew in his heart and some strange secret began to grow inside him. But, he had no one to turn to for understanding.
It is said at this time that Francis met a friend and no one knows the identity of this mysterious person, but he listened and walked with Francis through the woods and stood guard as Francis meditated in a cave as though to protect him from the world.
During these days, Francis prayed and wept in such a profound way that it may be difficult for us to grasp, for saints, we must admit, are different than many of us. And as Green suggests, one must be a saint to understand a saint. Added to this was Francis' character which experienced his relationships with life, from creaturely to heavenly, on the most profound dimension imaginable. In short, Francis went "through hell" these days, his heart burning for his past errors, and he suffered in fear that he would return to those ways. He would reappear from the cave torn and broken, his face devastated with grief and remorse, his eyes flooded with agony, barely able to take anymore memories of a past that filled him with a nauseating horror.
But then one day, Francis emerged from the cave. His confidant waited and saw a new face appear, washed in grace, smiling in the joy of a surrendered heart. The lover of worldly vanities, the sinner, now emerged the greatest lover in the world.
Francis began to understand what he must do. He had fallen in love with God, and he had fallen in love with poverty, his lady. It is important to consider what Francis meant by poverty. Not only is to be without the material trappings, the gold and silver, but it is also a spiritual state, impoverished of all fears and burdens that weight us down from the mountaintop and cause us to fear about tomorrow; thus distrusting Divine love. It is a willing state of hunger that desires only what God is willing to give.
Though not a religious, Francis understood Matthew who said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs." He set off to be among the poor in the kingdom of love where God's face shows everywhere and through all. He spoke of joy and celebration, wanting to reveal this new found love and was so overwhelmed by an inpouring of intensity, that at times he thought he would have to throw himself to the ground and roll off the excess. The people in the town began to think him mad. But when one has fallen madly in love with Love, in love with God, to the worldly that is madness.
In times of doubt, Francis tried to sort this out, wondering as he took a walk in the beautiful countryside he loved so much, if perhaps he could live two lives, one in the world and one in God; but Francis was an extreme person and did everything wholeheartedly. He stopped upon an old church that was falling in ruins, San Damiano. Guidance was waiting for him again. A crucifix was over the altar, the figure of Christ hanging there: solitary, alone, waiting for Francis who immediately fell to his knees. Francis had seen a thousand of crosses in his life, but now he saw the crucifixion for the first time, and his heart ripped apart by the suffering communicated to him at that moment. The lips began to move and speak to Francis, and he was terrified by the occurrence. Three times the voice said, "Francis, go and build My house, which, as thou seest, is falling in ruin." Francis was overwhelmed by the tangible ebb and flow of love exchanged between the two, alone in a ruined church, and fell into a great ecstasy by the power of the words. (St. Bonaventure, 18)
Francis interpreted this to mean repair the ruin of San Damiano. However, as we will see later, Francis' task was much greater. At this time, however, he took the instructions literally and began the quest to rebuild this chapel. He had been commanded, divine will revealed, and Francis was ecstatic. However, he would be put through another test.
Francis, the worshipper of beauty, still had within him the inclination for the aesthetic and the fine, and temptations of his early life still haunted him with their memory. One day, he was riding his horse through the countryside, when he heard the clapper of a leper. Drought and famine still filled the land and thousands of beggars and lepers roamed the roads, the stench of their foul smell filling the air and the sores and ulcers on their skin would turn the strongest stomach.
Francis had always been repulsed by the smell of beggars, the bugs crawling over them and he recalled the poor man he had once turned away. The leper walked closer and Francis felt a revulsion, but then he was overcome with a sudden impulse, jumped off his horse and went to the leper whose entire face was one disgusting sore. Francis took the man's hand and with his once queasy mouth, he placed his lips on the leper's rotting flesh and kissed his wounds. (Green, 72-75)
The leper disappeared and Francis began to sing. He had kissed what he had once despised, had embraced what he feared, had found the Divine again in the most putrid. He saw that the face of God will change, remain elusive to us, until we realize that where there is no love, we cannot behold God.
Now faith and hope turned to action. Francis needed money to rebuild the church. His father was conveniently away, and Francis helped himself to the fabrics in the store and sold them along with his father's horse. Francis gave the money to the priest who resided at the chapel but the priest was hesitant to take it, knowing from where money came. He was right to be concerned.
Pietro was angry, to say the least, when he heard of the theft of his goods, and he set out to find his lunatic son. Francis hid for a long time in his grotto, facing the fear of his father and knowing he was being cowardly. He recalled the capability of his father's rage and it took a while to work through his hour of fear. Eventually, Francis decided to face the music and go back to town, clothed in beggar's rags, emaciated from hunger, not looking at all as the spoiled child of his youth. He was met with insults and the townspeople threw mud and rocks at him. Francis walked in silent prayer.
This public insult was worse than the stolen goods and Pietro was beside himself in an uncontrollable rage. He dragged Francis by the hair, back to the house, beat him to a pulp and chained him in a closet. Then Pietro filed a complaint with the consuls for the return of the money and to renounce his son as a heir. Francis appeared before the Bishop in the town square, onlookers everywhere, and still with a touch for theatrics, he proceeded to take off all his clothes and stand naked before the town except for a thin tunic made of horse hair. He told Pietro Bernardone that he was no longer his father, for his Father Art in Heaven and with that, he gave Pietro the clothes from his back. This was a legal act and the gesture made it clear that Francis would never have anything to his name and must live henceforth with the poor and disinherited.
The Bishop was moved to tears as he saw this man give himself naked, in a second birth, to God. The Bishop gave Francis his cape and with that gesture of enfoldment, the Church embraced one of her finest sons. Later, Francis would exchange the cape for a tunic and on the front, he traced a cross with a piece of chalk.
He took leave of his family forever and set off for the woods singing the happiness of heart as loud as he could. He was a servant of God, exploding with joy. It did not occur to Francis to become a religious or join the many Orders available, he simply wanted to tell the world of his love for Lady Poverty. He continued to sing along the dusty road, following a trail of light before him when he was stopped by a band of robbers, They were quite angry that he had nothing to steal and demanded his identity. "I am herald of the Great King!" Francis answered. The robbers beat Francis badly and threw him into a ditch, "Stay here, God's herald!" they spit and left him to bleed in the snow.
Francis, weak from hunger, pulled out of the ravine after they had gone, brushed himself off and began to sing even louder than before. He was joyous in the profound renunciation of all worldy consolation and to such an extent, that he had in effect, to use the words of Gandhi, "made himself zero." He was free.
(to be continued)
Lady Poverty Speaks -- Sacrum Commercium 25
"I was once in the paradise of my God, where people walked naked; in fact, I walked in them and with them in their nakedness throughout the most splendid paradise, fearing nothing, doubting nothing, and suspecting no evil. I thought I would be with them forever, for the Most High created them just, good and wise and placed them in that pleasant and beautiful place. I rejoiced exceedingly and played before them all the while, for possessing nothing, they belonged entirely to God." (Bodo, M. Year, 48)
Armstrong, Brady, Francis and Clare, Paulist Press, 1982.
St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis, Tan Books, 1988.
Bodo, M. Francis, the Journey and the Dream, St. Anthony Press, 1972
Bodo, M. Through the Year with Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony Press, 1993
Englebert, O. St. Francis of Assisi, Servant Books, 1965
Flinders, C. Enduring Grace, Harpers, 1993
Green, J. God's Fool, Harper and Row, 1983
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