No turning back

St Francis of Assisi – Cimbue

“When I was in sin…. I delay a little and left the world.” (Testament of St Francis 1-2)

In the previous article about this period of Francis’ life we highlighted his experiences at the abandoned San Damiano chapel – especially his prayers before the cross – and how they seemed to lead Francis from a burdened and directionless existence to the first steps on the path of conversion. In this same time period we also have the moment when Francis chose to “leave the world.”  The order of the events in late 1205 and early 1206 are not clear and are the content of some debate within the Franciscan world.  In other words, did Francis choose to “leave the world” and then have the San Damiano experience or vice-versa?  When did his famous encounter with the leper occur with respect to these events (the topic of the next article)? Hard to say, so I will simply tell the stories as best I can.

After Francis’ pilgrimage to Rome, he seems to have taken some advice from Bishop Guido of Assisi and as a result began wandering the wild places – forests, caves, and uninhabited countryside. While this fits the notion of “Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” it was not Francis the lover of nature who wandered, it was a troubled soul who found no pleasure in nature in that moment. From the perspective of his family, Francis simply disappeared. After about a month, his father Pietro, found Francis at San Damiano – a haggard shadow of his once happy-go-lucky son. Thomas of Celano tells us that Pietro “learned that Francis was living in that place in such a way, he was touched inwardly with sorrow of heart and deeply disturbed by the sudden turn of events.” (1C10) Pietro sought the help of friends to return his son to Assisi, but Francis, hearing of the plan, hid for over another month. When Francis did appear in Assisi he was so emaciated and unkempt that people threw mud at him and announced he was insane – caused by his excessive fasting and ascetic practices. Pietro “retrieved” his son from the streets – or depending on which account you read he “arrested,” “kidnapped,” or “forced” his son to return to the family home. There Pietro locked Francis in his room and spent several days arguing with his son in hopes of “bringing him to his senses” or as it says in 1C13, “bend him to his will.” I mention this ambiguity because as biographers are more removed in time from the life of Francis, the portrait of Pietro becomes harsher and harsher moving him from a father with “sorrow of heart” to the persecutor and instrument of Satan trying to turn Francis from his destiny.

Eventually, Pietro left Assisi on business. During this time, Francis’ mother, Pica, released her son, whereupon Francis returned to San Damiano. All the accounts agree that Pietro went to San Damiano. All agree that Pietro left that place without Francis but with proceeds from Francis’ much earlier sale of merchandise (from the family business), a horse, and arms. All agree that his father went to the Assisi communal magistrates – and all agree that any pending civil action was quickly deferred to the ecclesial judgment of Bishop Guido. What scholars do not agree upon is what was at stake – nor the import of what happened next, and even the different accounts, e.g., Thomas of Celano (1C) and Legends of the Three Companions (L3C) don’t exactly agree.

Giotto – Renunciation of Worldly Goods

In the Celano account, the matter at hand is not the proceeds from the earlier sale since that was already returned. What is at stake is the inheritance of the family business and resources.  Francis dramatically strips naked and gives his clothes to the family (apparently dressed in finery), whereupon the Bishop wraps his episcopal mantle around Francis. In this early telling, Francis is renouncing worldly possessions to take on the role of a penitent under the protection of the bishop. (1C 13-14)

In the L3C account,  Francis withdraws for a moment, removes the fine clothing, appearing in the hair shirt of the penitent hermit, and places his father’s clothes at the feet of his family. He announces, “Until how I have called Pietro di Bernardone my father. But, because I propose to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also the clothing which is his, wanting to say, from now on: ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernadone.’” (L3C 19-20) In this account, Francis is dramatically (and in a saintly fashion) definitively “leaving the world” – in medieval Italy, an expression indicating entering religious life. In any case, Francis is now free and unencumbered to follow his own path as God wills.

1 thought on “No turning back

  1. I admire Saint Francis and all like him, who were willing to “leave the world” behind and follow their hearts to follow Christ. I think each of us do that in a certain way as we try to be someone who follows Christ’s teachings: to love one another and care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger among us

    Father George, thank you for your own journey, as all of us at Sacred Heart would never come to know you, and the beauty of the faith that you have shown us!

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