St Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi to a wealthy textile merchant – he was a well-loved and well-provided for child and young adult. As a young adult he was the leader of a band of unvirtuous drunkards, wealthy and gluttonous! He hated the sight of lepers, who in that time had to live on the margins of the city.
English: St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, detail from a four-foiled plaque from a reliquary. Engraved, chased, enameled and gilt champlevé copper, Limoges or Italy, 1128–1230 (?).
The times that Francis grew up in were unsettled, with growing wealth through trade but also with many armed conflicts. His ambition was to be a knight. Assisi was at war with Perugia- and so he went to war and was imprisoned for a time. After he came home he also experienced a period of ill-health. This was to be a turning point in his life.
In1208 his life was changed by hearing a sermon- in which he heard the commission to preach. At another time he was praying in the church of St Damian and heard God asking him to rebuild his church, which was literally falling down. So, he stole cloth from his father, sold it and presented the money to the priest of St Damian. This was to lead to the straining of relationship between Francis and his parents. His friends and family thought he had gone mad and he became a social pariah. This former man who had been the life and soul of the drunken party was acting very strangely.
His father locked him up at home, but after a while his mother set him free, and Francis went to the Bishop for protection. His father went to the Bishop too to demand that he make his son return the money. The bishop was sympathetic as he didn’t encourage stealing and the Bishop told him to return the money. Francis went further and returned the money and his fine clothes –he literally stripped himself of all his ties with his former identity and life. This scene has become an emblematic one in the life of Francis as it revealed his charism to give up everything that he might focus solely on the love of God.
Many hagiographies of St Francis miss out the development of his vocation and his struggle with giving up his identity and former ties. But there was a struggle and a progression from one way of being into the total embrace of a life of evangelical poverty. The may help us as we too daily struggle with our own vocation to love God.
Working in his father’s shop, for instance, he had refused to give alms to someone who begged from him. Later he repented and saw that the desire to succeed and make a profit had blinded him to the poverty and need of another. His love of Lady Poverty (as he called it) was at the root of his conversion: it was in contrast to, and in direct revolt against, the commercialism that made some wealthy and others’ poor. A dynamic that was very evident in the city where he lived and which persists tenaciously today.
He later repented of his rejection of lepers, writing that:
The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to do penance in this way. While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.
Sin- had robbed him of compassion for the suffering and the outcast. He had been concerned primarily with himself; after his conversion he was able to be compassionate.
In another significant episode St Francis met a poverty-stricken knight and gave him his clothes. This knight was probably an enemy to Assisi and his generosity towards him was another step in his understanding of the Gospel and its universal intent.
The rules of a pilgrim following Francis’ pattern was to live according to the Gospel example laid out by Jesus to his disciples. The Foundation of this calling was Jesus teaching: ‘if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor’. With bare feet and a simple habit, he did not build up vast wealth in land and property. Friars had a particular call to preach, to follow the Gospel literally and to support the work of the local priests whilst helping the papacy in its reforms of clerical life.
Some of the stories that have been collected about Francis seem far-fetched to say the least, many miracles are attributed to him, stories about how he tamed wild animals and of course the most significant being the claim that in the last years of his life he was given the stigmata – cuts and wounds on his hands, feet and side that copy those the Lord Jesus would have had inflicted on him on the Cross. However, stepping back from them a little and considering their purpose and effect can help. He preached with words but much more by his example. Which is perhaps why the phrase, ‘preach the Gospel and if necessary use words’, have been attributed to him. Moreover:
He didn’t condemn the rich, but rather became poor. He didn’t condemn the proud, but rather humbled himself. In all things therefore showing not the condemnation of God but the humility of God. In so doing many were converted by his example and witness.
St Francis then provides for us a sign and witness of the reality of the kingdom of God. His prayers and writings show a man profoundly at peace with himself and utterly devoted to God’s glory. His life is a promise to all of us that, if we can let go of our devotion to the things of this world – whether that be possessions, wealth, status, love of food and drink, or other, we will know and see God.
As Francis wrote:
‘Let us desire nothing else, let us wish for nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, and Redeemer and Saviour, the one true God’. Amen
Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, John Vaughan, OFM
A Condition of Complete Simplicity, Rowan Clare Williams
St Francis of Assisi, Michael Robson