It is later in the autumn of 1206 that with his decision to “leave the world” Francis began to be aware of the powerful Divine Presence in his life through, his work among the lepers near Assisi, and his habit of taking refuge in churches for prayer and rebuilding the structures. At San Damiano he encountered the consoling presence of the Savior who had suffered and died for him. It was a presence he soon came to recognize in other churches: “And the Lord granted me such faith in churches that I would pray simply and say: We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, in all your churches throughout the world, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.” (Testament 4-7). Francis was at the beginnings of an inner peace.
Perhaps his former friends and companions only saw the lost soul, a rich boy playing at conventional forms of medieval piety. There are accounts of Francis being insulted by citizens of Assisi and occasionally physically abusing him as he went about the town seeking work – and when unable to secure work, begging for funds to complete the work at San Damiano. But it is also clear that despite his outward appearance as a pious church hanger-on, other people were watching and his way of daily life and his now joyful demeanor were becoming attractive.
At the end of his life he rather dryly recounts the events of the spring of 1208: “And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel” (Testament 14). Within days of each other, Bernard of Quintavalle (a person of comfortable status) and Peter (a poor person) arrived and after living with Francis for a few days asked to join him in his way of following Christ. As Francis later wrote, indeed, there was no one to show him what all this meant. His “protector,” Bishop Guido of Assisi was away.
On Wednesday, April 16, Francis and his two brothers when to the family church, San Nicolò di Piazza in Assisi, and found the parish priest. The three asked the priest to reveal the Lord’s will for them by performing a sortes biblicae – the opening of the Bible at random three times to find verses that would reveal God’s will. Theologians of the day considered this the near occasion of superstition and church rulers debated whether it was even permissible – but it was a popular practice of the laity in Francis’ time. The parish priest used the altar missal to guide the brothers. Interestingly, that altar missal is now part of the collection of the Walters Museum in Baltimore – but that is another story. The random opening of the missal revealed the following passages:
- Mark 10:17-21: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
- Luke 9:1-6: “Take nothing for the journey, no staff, no bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.”
- Matthew 16:24-28: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.”
“…no one showed me what I had to do, but Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.” These texts would become the basic form of Franciscan life.
But it was not a unique way of life even in Francis’ day. This basic form of lay people seeking to live a life of penance (medieval wording we would better understand as “conversion”) by renouncing their worldly good, seeking freedom from self-will, and be subjected to others in obedience, was not uncommon. There were approximately 130 other lay penitential movements, e.g. the Waldensians in Italy and France and the Beguines in Belgium. But the only one which exists continuously up until today are the Franciscans. The one element that seemed to distinguish the Franciscans was their seeking the approval of the Church and their adherence to the teachings and sacraments of the Church.
In his Testament, between the verses already cited, Francis wrote that he had great faith in priests – not because of their own holiness nor despite their lack of holiness – but because “…in this world, I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God except in his Most Holy Body and Most Holy Blood, which they receive and which they alone minister to others. And these Most Holy Mysteries I want above all things to honor, to have venerated, and to be placed in precious places.” It was the Eucharist that compelled and focused Francis. Francis returned to the theme of the Eucharist in his writings, far more consistently than poverty. He returned daily to receive the Eucharist and that meant he would always lead his followers to be part of the Catholic Church. It is then no surprise that in 1209 Francis and his two brothers journeyed to Rome to seek an audience in a consistory with Pope Innocent III.
According to the earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, Pope Innocent addressed the little group and said something to this effect: “Go with the Lord, brothers, and, as the Lord will see fit to inspire you, preach penance to all. When the almighty Lord increases you in number and grace, come back to me with joy, and I will grant you more things than these and, with greater confidence, I will entrust you with greater things.” (cf 1C31-32; AP 32-36).
They were approved by the Church for a life of dependence upon God with nothing of their own, a life of humility and fraternity – and a mission of preaching penance! One wonders if Francis saw that one coming?