Celano’s First Life of St. Francis

The earliest written account of Francis and the Leper occurs in Thomas of Celano’s The First Life (1C) written c.1229. The work was commissioned by Pope Gregory IX who asked Celano to write a vita of the newly canonized saint. Francis died in 1226, was declared a saint in rapid order and by April 1228, Gregory called for a burial church to be built for Francis. The commission to Celano was complementary to the architectural celebration. The vita was written in short order and declared official by Gregory in February 1229.

Fourteen years later, at the Chapter of Genoa in 1244, Thomas was again called. This time, it was not the pope but the brothers who sought his assistance. The Minister General, Crescentius of Jesi, acting at the direction of the General Chapter, called for a collection of the stories circulating about Francis. Thomas was commissioned to capture those memories in his classical style of writing. The result was The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul. Crescentius’s successor, Brother John of Parma, commissioned Thomas to write his fourth and final work on Francis, The Treatise on the Miracles. Although Thomas had reported on miracles in his earlier writings on Francis, he was asked to produce a systematic collection of all accounts of these extraordinary events during and after Francis’s life that were beginning to circulate.

As the first written account of the life of Saint Francis, Celano’s work holds a place of primacy among the various Franciscan sources given its early date of writing. But this is not to assert that this text is more “historical” in the contemporary sense of that concept. The text captures the first moments of something new that was entering the medieval church. The first life is not so much a history of Francis and the brothers (only about 25% of the text mentions the brothers), but it is more an account of Francis’ conversion, promotion of the gospel, and his living example of holiness – all qualities of sainthood.

The success of The Life of Saint Francis was important for Pope Gregory, not only for the promotion of the memory of Saint Francis and the strengthening of the Franciscan Order in the Church, but also as a part of his effort to promote spiritual renewal within the life of the Church. At a time when heresies abounded, crusades failed and the struggle for power between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy intensified, the poor and humble follower of the gospel, Francis of Assisi, offered an alternative way of Christian living.

To accomplish his purpose, Celano draws from the tradition of the martyrs, the ascetics and the monks of earlier days to illustrate that Francis is a saint rooted in the tradition of the Church. Celano explains that Francis’s participation in the same holiness as that of the great saints of memory is based on a conversion that frees him from many burdensome cares and leads him into the life of the Church where he hears the Word of God. It is from this basis that Francis spends his life rebuilding the life of the Church on traditional grounds. Consider the three churches that are described in The Life as being rebuilt. A chapel dedicated to the Virgin (Saint Mary of the Angels), to the apostles (Saint Peter) and to a martyr (Saint Damian). These are three solid foundations for the life of the Church: the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles and the Martyrs.

The official canonical purposes and hagiographical elements are used by Celano to construct his text, but do not lessen the value of The Life of Saint Francis as a primary source for historical elements of Francis’s life and of the early life of the new fraternity. Celano still presents a Francis situated in real places and connected to his concrete historical contemporaries, including early followers and many friends among churchmen and lay persons with authority and influence. However, narrating historical events about Francis and the early brothers is not his primary purpose. The canonized Francis is no longer a simple companion to his brothers. Now Francis is for the Church.

The Life of Saint Francis is a grand tapestry of witnesses, varying literary and liturgical sources, multiple hagiographical traditions and several ecclesial purposes. Although Celano included historical data, he intended primarily to announce Francis to the world. In the development of his text, he presents Francis as a model of conversion in order to express the unique gospel message of Francis’s life.

The Life of Saint Francis is divided into three books. Traditionally, this three-fold division is accented as chronological:

  • Book 1: from his youth to Christmas of 1223;
  • Book 2: the last two years of his life from early 1224 to his death on October 4, 1226;
  • Book 3: the canonization and the catalogue of miracles read at the canonization on July16, 1228.

This third book has a function different from that of the first two books. It is written in a different literary genre, that of miracle accounts, and differs in style from the other two.

One theme that emerges in Book One is the theme of humility as Celano summarizes the conversion, life, teaching and example of Francis. Humility enabled Francis to celebrate the birth of the Incarnate Word that he heard, preached, and lived throughout his life. Book One concludes with a vivid description of the great midnight Christmas liturgy of the cave at Greccio in which Francis “out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.” (1 Cel 30). One of the people in attendance sees a vision Francis approach a figure of the infant Jesus in the crib/manger. “He saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep” The gospel word heard and proclaimed through Francis’s life of conversion brought about a marvelous vision of the Incarnation. Thomas explains through the life of Francis, how the Church, with all of creation, is renewed because the Word made flesh, long forgotten, comes to life again.

In Book Two the focus changes from the gospel commission to sell and give all goods to the poor.  The focus moves to Christ on the Cross. The Word of God is experienced in a vision and events on La Verna. Francis sees what he hears. He comes to the mystical experience of both, the Word and the vision, in his own flesh, the stigmata. By the Word and the vision, Francis is transformed into the Incarnate and Crucified Christ. By employing the biblical image of the Seraph, an image rich in the contemplative tradition, Thomas identifies Francis’s transformative experience as one of burning and intimate love. The “charity of the Passion” is incarnated in Francis’s own flesh, transporting him into the heavenly liturgy. In the prayer that concludes Book Two, Francis places his stigmata before Jesus Christ, Son of the most high Father. This is a form of intimate intercessory prayer that has salvific significance for all. In response, Christ Crucified is moved to “bear his own wounds to the Father, and because of this the Father will ever show us in our anguish His tenderness.”

While praying on the mountain-side he received the stigmata. After seeing a vision of a Seraph fixed to a cross and suffering a frightful passion. As Francis contemplated what this all might mean, “Signs of nails began to appear on his hands and feet, just as he had seen them a little while earlier on the crucified man hovering over him.” (1 Cel 94) Later wounds formed in his side like that of Christ. In humility, Francis kept this conversion private, making it known to only a few.

The third book is a “Pentecost” experience that flows from the first two books. After celebration of Francis’s conversion leading to renewal of the Incarnation in Greccio and after the celebration of new life in the transformation of Francis in his stigmata and his death/transitus to heaven, there is new faith, healing and life in the community left behind. In the third book, the Church reaps the fruit of Francis’s conversion and conformity to Christ Crucified. Even in that historical time of crisis, a new grace of the Spirit is alive in the Church.

The Context of the Account of the Leper

The opening of The Life begins with “From the earliest years of his life his parents reared him to arrogance in accordance with the vanity of the age. And by long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant.” (1C 1) And that is just the start. Other adjectives used include: shameful, detestable, lewd, ruinous, lax, debaucherous, and wretched.  Actually the list is longer, but the point is made: this was the start of Francis’ life. Celano describes it as journeying through “the streets of Babylon.”

Celano skips over the details of the history, picking up the account after Francis’ return from the dungeons of Perugia when Francis “began to regard himself as worthless”  but he had not yet been “freed from the bonds of vanity…. Thus Francis still tried to avoid the divine grasp… vowing vainglory” through another military escapade. But the conversion is underway. Celano later (1C 8) describes Francis as a “a new soldier of Christ, aroused by piety.” All of this arouses a strong pushback from his father who wanted Francis to join the family cloth business. Eventually Francis is driven to choose between the secular and holy. Celano captures the moment when Francis strips all his clothing, a symbol of his former life, and naked stands before the people, to be clothed by Bishop Guido. Francis is now of and with the Church (1C 13-15)

The “half-clothed” Francis is now homeless and wandering the countryside. The vain and arrogant young man is descending the ranks of medieval life. He is treated miserably by monks and set upon by robbers. Francis was now the poorest of the poor. What could possibly mark a lower descent?

“Then the holy lover of profound humility moved to the lepers and stayed with them. For God’s sake he served all of them with great love. He washed all the filth from them, and even cleaned out the pus of their sores, just as he said in his Testament: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers, and the Lord led me among them and I showed mercy to them.” For he used to say that the sight of lepers was so bitter to him that in the days of his vanity when he saw their houses even two miles away, he would cover his nose with his hands.”

“When he started thinking of holy and useful matters with the grace and strength of the Most High, while still in the clothes of the world, he met a leper one day. Made stronger than himself, he came up and kissed him. He then began to consider himself less and less, until by the mercy of the Redeemer, he came to complete victory over himself.” (1C 17)

We can see Celano notes how the unconverted Francis thought of lepers:” the sight of lepers was so bitter to him that in the days of his vanity when he saw their houses even two miles away, he would cover his nose with his hands.” The encounter with a leper before the scene with Bishop Guido: “When he started thinking of holy and useful matters with the grace and strength of the Most High, while still in the clothes of the world, he met a leper one day. Made stronger than himself, he came up and kissed him.” The later work with the lepers is mentioned, thenFrancis’ own statement about the lepers made at the end of his life: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers, and the Lord led me among them and I showed mercy to them.” And finally, Celano’s description of the conversion: “He then began to consider himself less and less, until by the mercy of the Redeemer, he came to complete victory over himself.”

The account of meeting the leper is a single sentence, but with a context. The description is simple, brief, and refrains from any miraculous content. It is focused on conversion that manifests itself in respect, charity, and compassion for others. The latter is something Francis has lacked and did not receive in his descent from the privileged life. It is a journey to humility.

Later, St. Bonaventure would offer that humility is the guardian and gateway to all the other virtues.

Quotes are from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Vol 1, eds. Regis Armstrong, Wayne Hellman and William Short (New City Press, NY: 1999)

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