In the previous article we had left Francis in the spring of 1205, in his early 20’s, just released from a year as a prisoner of war, suffering severe physical effects and psychological burdens, that to the modern mind, fit the description of PTSD. He returned with compromised health, face drawn and sallow, digestion impaired, and was plagued with bouts of recurring fever. When he was out of bed he was listless and kept to the house. A biography written within two years of Francis’ death (by Thomas of Celano, 1C) records Francis’ convalescence from his imprisonment in Perugia as follows: “When he had recovered a little, he began to walk about through the house with the support of a cane… [and] one day, he went outside and began to gaze upon the surrounding countryside. But the beauty of the fields, the delight of the vineyards and whatever else was beautiful to see, could offer him no delight at all [and he] considered those who loved these things quite foolish.” (1C4)
Francis tried to return to his former life: apprentice to his father’s business, night-time reveler, would-be knight – but none of these pursuits gave him purpose or direction. It is in this period that the various sources we have available to us begin to diverge in their telling of the story. The ones written closer to Francis’ life, cast the account as a young man mired in a quiet, resigned desperation. The ones written much later tend to portray him as already a saint with every step as God-directed, even predestined; a journey from holiness to even greater holiness.
But the early accounts also tell of Francis hiding in his bedroom for days, brooding and given to compulsive acts of hoarding food, then suddenly rushing out to give the food away to beggars. The same was true of his father’s merchandise, as Francis would acquire and then give away clothing. His parents seemed to indulge Francis to a degree, perhaps worried their son was slipping from eccentricity into madness. It is at this point that Francis – in a typically medieval fashion – went on pilgrimage to Rome to pray at the Tomb of St. Peter. While there he cast an extraordinary sum of money through the grates towards the altar, went outside, exchanged his well-to-do clothing with a beggar and took up begging in the streets of Rome. Were these the acts of typical medieval penance: prayer, fasting, and alms giving – or perhaps desperate acts of a soul increasingly lost.
Upon his return to Assisi, Francis sought out the advice of Bishop Guido. There are no accounts of what transpired between the two, but we are sure of the “road” Francis took after that meeting: he took to wandering the wild places – forests, caves, and uninhabited countryside. The descriptions seem to match someone emulating the life of a “brother of penance” (an emerging lay spiritual movement of the day) or emulating the life of a hermit. But in these sojourns Francis was also racked with demonic fears and possible hallucinations. When he sees a hunchbacked women in Assisi, he becomes convinced that this is the fate that awaits him because of his sinfulness – her deformed exterior revealing his deformed interior.
During the wandering of late 1205, Francis came upon the abandoned chapel of San Damiano, just outside the city of Assisi. This became a place of temporary refuge and prayer. It seems as though Francis discovered a peace there, as he often returned. While praying before the altar, he begged God to reveal His will. It is on one of his visits, praying before the cross at San Damiano that “the image of the Christ crucified spoke to him in a tender and kind voice: ‘Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me.’” (Legend of the 3 Companoins, L3C-12) “’Francis,’ it said, calling him by name, ‘go rebuild my house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.’” (2C-10; 2C also called The Remembrance of the Desire of A Soul). Both of these accounts appear somewhat late, although Thomas of Celano, writing some 15 years after his first biography (2C) includes this account – something he did not tell in his first biography. Thomas explains that these were stories that were known only to the first of the brothers (the 3 Companions), who thought it better to leave some stories as private, “For it is better for us to remain silent about it too.” (2C-10)
Written in the margin of two very old copies of L3C is this prayer: “Most high glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true Faith, certain Hope, and perfect Charity; give me perception and knowledge, Lord, that I might carry out your holy and true command.” It is known as Francis’ prayer before the Crucifix and seems to point to a part of the beginnings of conversion in the life of Francis. The many trips to San Damiano seem to have a cumulative effect – not so much in the “aha” moment of conversion when everything becomes luminescent and clear in a single moment, but the slow realization and conviction that there is a meaning and a direction – even though it is not clear at the moment. The Crucified Christ became the focus of Francis’ spirituality and form of life.
Next week: Francis of Assisi – “Leaving the World”
Previous articles in the series include: