The Goodness of Creation

Over the last few weeks, we described Francis of Assisi in the role in which he is most popularly recognizable: the lover of nature and animals. Interestingly, this role is not original in the Christian tradition. In a valuable book reviewing the nature stories of Franciscan literature, Edward Armstrong shows that many of Francis’ attitudes have precedents in biblical, early Christian, and medieval ideas about nature. One group of scholars place Francis in the tradition of hermits who retired to wilderness and befriended animals. Others associate him with a theological trend, unfortunately not dominant, which affirms creation as containing intrinsic value. Most see the stories about Francis as having precedents in the already-known lives of saints, although they may have been true of Francis as well. Continue reading

Francis and Nature, Part II

People are surprised to learn that the Early Rule of the friars instructed the brothers not to own pets – as well they were not to ride horses. These rules are only partly about poverty; they encouraged friars not to treat animals as objects or possessions. And, in the case of horseback riding, his rule distanced the friars from the proud world of chivalry. Later in his life when sickness compelled him to ride, Francis always preferred a donkey.

In his own writings, Francis does not adopt images from his experience of nature, rather he took those images from Scripture. In the five passages outside the Rules where he mentions animals, only once does he go beyond the imagery from Scripture, and it is to hold up animals as an example of obedience to God. Continue reading

Francis and Nature, Part I

st-francis-of-assisi-birdsSt. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Italy, merchants, stowaways, ecology, but most famously, of animals.  If one searches the internet, you can easily find all kinds of pious, ecologically insightful, and often amazingly-modern sounding quotes from St. Francis. And they are inevitably without a citation from one of Francis’ writings or at least a later Franciscan source writing about Francis. As I noted in the beginning of this series, Francis has always been reinvented and marketed as needed.  Perhaps the one book most responsible for casting Francis as the lover of animals and nature is a collection of stories – many miraculous and all very saintly – that first appeared in 1390 in Tuscany: the Fioretti (The Little Flowers). It should be noted that this is about 160 years after Francis’ death.

But can we say about St. Francis, the patron saint of animals? Continue reading

Growing Pains

By the spring of 1213, four years after the founding of the “order,” Francis’ reputation had risen to the attention of the Italian aristocracy – not just in Assisi but throughout central Italy.  The order was beginning to attract men from the higher social classes. Sons of merchants like Francis, sons of the landed wealthy, sons of ruling households, men with established careers in law, music and the arts, and also ordained priests. They joined the already formed group of men from middle and lower backgrounds in muddling through what it meant to follow Christ in the manner of Francis. G.K. Chesterton’s later definition of the Catholic Church – “here comes everybody” – was being lived out in Francis’ day. Continue reading

The stories spread

francis-in-stained-glassOver the last several weeks we have been considering what awaited the men who came to join Francis of Assisi and this growing fraternity of believers seeking to follow Christ more fully in the world. We had mentioned there were no rules, regulations, or even a formation program; there was only Francis and the other brothers. But what drew the men to want to “come and see?” Undoubtedly, as today, a complex of reasons, but key among those reasons was Francis of Assisi’s reputation for holiness and miracles.

Francis’ reputation for holiness began at home among the brothers, not necessarily in the public square. The more “public” Francis was still a few years down the road when the reluctant saint began to be called more often to speak and appear and to increasingly gain public exposure. In the beginning, it was his brothers who experienced the holiness of Francis. First and foremost, Francis was a compassionate brother – especially for those who were tempted, spiritually troubled, or depressed. The medieval age was a time when these things were attributed to diabolical powers. Francis had a special gift for consoling those who suffered from such illnesses. Perhaps it stemmed, not only from the grace of God, but also arising out of Francis’ own experience of these same aliments.

Continue reading

St. Clare of Assisi

In the last several articles we have described the brothers who gathered around Francis and committed themselves to his way of following Christ. Two of the earliest arrivals were Leo and Rufino.  The first became Francis’ chaplain and confessor, as Leo was an ordained priest already. Rufino, a lifelong confidant and wisdom figure for Francis, was also the first cousin of an aristocratic woman of Assisi, the niece of Monaldo, lord of Coriano.  Clare di Favarone di Offredicio was a woman from the very class of landed aristocrats that the young Francis had imitated and longed to join socially. Continue reading

Franciscan poverty

Francis and Lady Poverty

Many people have a very romantic idea of Franciscan life and the vow of poverty. What I can tell you is that the meaning and the manner of living poverty has vexed Franciscans since the beginning with very little about it being terribly romantic. Most of the descriptions and stories of the life of early poverty were written years after St. Francis’ death, when the manner of living the vow – in conjunction with the vow obedience – was a divisive issue among the brothers. In one of the more notable descriptions from the Sacrum Commercium, an anonymous text from a latter period, the author tries to give his or her insight into St Francis: “While they were hastening to the heights with easy steps, behold Lady Poverty, standing on the top of the mountain. Seeing them climb with such strength, almost flying, she was quite astonished. ‘It is a long time since I saw and watched people so free of all burdens.’ And so Lady Poverty greeted them with rich blessings. ‘Tell me brothers, what is the reason for your coming here and why do you come so quickly from the valley of sorrows to the mountain of light?’ They answered: ‘We wish to become servants of the Lord of hosts because He is the King of glory. So, kneeling at your feet, we humbly beg you to agree to live with us and be our way to the King of glory, as you were the way when the dawn from on high came to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.'” Continue reading

Itinerancy

As we noted in last week’s article, Francis expected his brothers to learn by imitation – and to understand that as Francis sought to imitate Christ, so too should the brothers. But in reality, the first generation of Assisi-area brothers simply did what Francis did: daily prayer, work at a local leprosarium, go to local churches to participate in Eucharist, eat, pray again, witness to the local Umbrian people near Assisi, and live a life in community.  You have to remember this was all new. Prior to this “Franciscan moment” the spiritual journey of medieval people consisted of being a monk or cloistered nun behind the walls of the monastery, being a priest and living close to the sacraments and the Scriptures, or being a lay person and hoping the other groups were praying for you. And then along comes this different, new, intriguing way of being spiritual in the world. And it was not set down in writing; it did not come with instructions. But sometimes is borrowed from the past. Continue reading

The penitential life

The small band of brothers living at Rivo Torto and later at the Porziuncula, were drawing others to their way of following Christ in the world.  And if they expected to find a uniform dress code, posted rules, a great deal of organization, a formation program, or even someone to sit them down and explain what was expected – they were in for a surprise. Francis assumed that his followers would learn by imitation. Giving them rules or structures to follow was not merely difficult for him, it went against the grain of the meaning of minority – to be the lesser brother. The new arrivals simply did what Francis did: daily prayer, work at a local leprosarium, go to local churches to participate in Eucharist, eat, pray again, witness to the local Umbrian people near Assisi, and live a life in community.  The brothers had to watch Francis closely and do their best to understand. Continue reading

A reluctant leader

One aspect of Francis’ changing life that has attracted recent attention is the movement of Francis from solitary figure, living a quasi-hermetical life for four to five years, now beginning to live in a growing community of brothers – all of whom are looking to Francis for spiritual and communal leadership. There was something attractive about Francis, his way of following the gospel, and perhaps the recent “commissioning” by Pope Innocent III gave a certain cache of legitimacy to this way of being Christian in the world. Eventually many people came to join the Franciscan movement, which soon enough became a religio and eventually an ordo, but those demarcations are eight to ten years in the future ahead of the Spring of 1209.

Virtually all scholars agree that Francis, at this point, did not envision his group to be more than a small group of men living an evangelical life in common. But there are also no indications that Francis thought too far ahead in any matter at this point in his life. Things just seemed to unfold, signs appeared along the way, and Francis followed the path in faith. And people followed Francis.  Whether he liked it or not, Francis was their leader. Continue reading