Finding peace

There are three events that seem to highlight the “period of crisis” in Francis life during the period from late 1205 until the summer of 1206:

  • Francis’ experiences at the abandoned San Damiano chapel – especially his prayers before the cross
  • Francis’ “leaving the world” as he turns away from his family towards the Church and an unknown path with God.
  • Francis and the leper (or lepers)

There is no consensus on the order of the events – and there is some question about later embellishments of the event – and even questions about whether some accounts indicating a single event is actually a compilation of a series of experiences. But then the 13th century writers were not trying to capture “history” they were trying to tell their understanding of the “meaning” of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The struggling veteran

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) Continue reading

Honor, chivalry and war

Much of Francis’ youth had been spent as an apprentice in his father’s cloth business by day and as playboy by night – a time that the older Francis refers to as “When I was in sin.” At the same time, the intrigue and rivalry of imperial and papal politics swirled around Assisi. When Francis was 16-years old, the popolo, as the merchant and new generation of leaders were called, rose up in revolt against the nobles of Assisi (1198 AD). The last remnant of feudal governance was replaced by the “commune” of the city-state of Assisi.  Loyalty to the Emperor was replaced by nominal loyalty to the Papal State. The noble families of Assisi – likely including the family of the young woman who would become St. Clare of Assisi – fled to Perugia, the age-old enemy of Assisi, across the Spoleto Valley. While the people of Assisi thought it to be the definitive victory, it was but a lull in the conflict. Continue reading

Francis of Assisi – The Young Man

The first article of the series about St. Francis essentially proposed that what most people think they know about St. Francis of Assisi is a very limited and romanticized version of the “poor man from Assisi.” Such versions often emphasize the Francis who loves animals, who was an ecologist before “ecology” was a word or a concern, and who wrote the “peace prayer.” The first article ended with a challenge: discover the “real” Francis whose story will challenge, inspire, unsettle, amaze, and maybe…. just maybe, change your world.

Continue reading

Francis of Assisi – An Introduction

Note: every Saturday for the next 20 or so weeks, I will re-post a series on St. Francis of Assisi. I hope you find the series engaging and fruitful in your spiritual life.


Every year – or so it seems – very good biographies of St. Francis of Assisi are published. The ones published in the last 10 years all share some great qualities: readable and increasingly historical – introducing the “real” St Francis of Assisi to the world.

You might ask why I say the “real” St Francis? Did you know that statues of St Francis are the second most popular lawn/garden ornament sold every year – right behind pink flamingos.  Rather like the popular icon shown above. That is an image many people have of St Francis, certainly one reinforced by Franco Zefferelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, another in a long line of romantic interpretations of the poor man from Assisi.  Especially in the 20th century, Francis was portrayed as “a free spirit, a wild religious genius, a kind of medieval hippie, misunderstood and then exploited by the ‘medieval Church.’ Or perhaps they know him as the man who spoke to animals, a nature mystic, an ecologist, a pacifist, a feminist, a ‘voice for our time.’  For others he is the little plaster man in the birdbath, the most charming and nonthreatening of Catholic saints…. almost everyone has his or her own Francis” (Francis of Assisi, Augustine Thompson OP). Continue reading

God and St Francis on Lawn Care

In cleaning up files from my computer, I ran across this classic bit of saintly humor. Enjoy!

GOD:   Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles. Continue reading

The Body of Christ for Francis

During these last days as the topic of racial justice was omnipresent around us, someone emailed to ask if Francis of Assisi had ever written on race relationships. The short answer is “no.” Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century growing up in the Umbria region of Italy. His world was provincial and focused on the world in which diversity meant which town you were from and the “other” referred to the “Saracens,” against whom the Crusades were aimed in order to free the Holy Land from Islamic control. Continue reading

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

In a 13th century text called the Il Foretti (The Little Flowers), a story is told about St. Francis in which a brother friar came to him and asked, “Why after you? Why is the whole world coming after you, wanting to see you, to hear you, to follow you?” Some 800 years after the life of St. Francis, this question remains. What is it about this unpretentious figure from the early 13th century which continues to exert such a perennial fascination for Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and agnostics alike? What is it that has made Francis the subject of more books than any other saint? Why has he inspired artists, led ecologists, peace activists, and advocates for the poor to claim him as a patron? Why has he inspired countless tens of thousands of men and women to follow his Rule of Life in religious and secular communities? Continue reading