Francis of Assisi – Integrating into the Church

Francis finished his military adventures and time as a prisoner of war in early 1205. It was during the latter part of 1205 into 1206 that Francis chose to “leave the world.”  In subsequent years , Francis’ model of following Christ began to attract other men to join him in the emerging way of life – even as the “way of life” was being discovered by Francis himself. Francis modeled the life, prayed with the brothers, exhorted them from time to time, and slowly the life began to take shape.

francis-innocentThe basic shape of the movement was not all that unique in Francis’ day. There were many other penitential and mendicant movements in the beginning of the 13th century in western Europe. – some scholars tallying 130 others. Interestingly, only one of them exists today: the Franciscan.  Why? Most scholars hold that it was because of Francis’ insistence on being “Catholic” and formally part of the Catholic Church.  There are several theories as to the reason for that insistence.  Like most things it is a complex reason, but likely primary among the reasons is Francis’ love of the Eucharist. But whatever the reasons, it is no surprise that in 1209 Francis and some of his brothers journeyed to Rome to seek an audience in a consistory with Pope Innocent III in order to receive formal recognition of his proposed way of life. Continue reading

Francis of Assisi: Francis and Nature, Part I

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

Francis of Assisi: The Problems of New Growth

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

Following Francis: The Exhortation to the Brothers

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

The Fraternity Grows and Someone Has to Lead

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

Francis of Assisi: A Period of Crisis – Embracing the Leper

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

Francis of Assisi: A Period of Crisis – “Leaving the World”

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

Francis of Assisi: A Period of Crisis – San Damiano

Francis of Assisi by Cimbue

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

Francis of Assisi – Military Adventures

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.

Even in Francis’ day Assisi was a small town’.but it was not untouched by the political, economic, and social changes of the late 12th century. The old guard of the city – the noble whose wealth stemmed from rural land holdings inherited from the feudal era were the majores – the people who counted. The popolo of Assisi were families whose wealth lay in their riches and successes from the new age of commerce.  This group strove to become majores – to be among the group of citizens who mattered. In any case, it was not a struggle that included the minores, the poor and landless people.

Francis was born in 1182, the son of a flourishing cloth merchant, Pietro Bernadone and his wife Pico. Francis grew up as a son of relative privilege, wanting for little, but he also grew up in an age when pilgrimage and Crusade were models of exemplary life. As Francis came of age, he traveled with his father to markets in France and other locales, where he learned French and the troubadours’ stories of knighthood. This fed Francis’ own imagination at the same time Assisi began to recover and celebrate the martyr saints of Assisi: Rufino, Vittorino, and Savino. The effect of all this seems to have instilled in Francis a desire for the glory of chivalry as a means to attain the status of majore through celebrated adventure and conquest – perhaps even martyrdom.

But Francis was expected to become part of his father’s business. To that end, Francis was fortunate to receive an education, which consisted of a rudimentary knowledge of Latin; basic reading, writing, and composition; and the skills needed to keep business records.  The formal education seemed to end at age 14 when he became an apprentice in the family business.

But it was not all work. One of the interesting phenomena of this age was the appearance of societas invenum. These were basically fraternity-party clubs that arose among the children of the nobles and wealthy merchants. Francis had access to fine clothing, funds, and by all accounts became a leader within the Assisi society of the well-to-do. Several early accounts report Francis as holding the leader’s baton aloft leading the society in singing, joking, and travel between their favorite drinking haunts – all the while footing the bill.  Francis was somewhat vain, charming, and cavalier towards expenses, so long as he was at the center of things. Still, Francis was a bit like the prodigal son, with his endearing qualities that included generosity and a courteous manner. It is not clear if Francis was patterning himself after the chivalrous nature of knights or merely aping the manners of his more connected and privileged peers. In general, the reputation of the societas invenum was that its members were immoral, intemperate, and debauched. While there is no direct evidence of Francis’ own participation, two years after his death, the biographer Thomas of Celano wrote that Francis was raised “indulgently and carelessly…was taught detestable and shameful things full of excess and lewdness…He boiled in the sins of youthful heat.”

Shortly before his death, Francis dictated reflections on his life and his vision for the future of the Franciscan Order. He began by referring to his youth as a time when he was “in sin.” It does not seem an expression of false humility, but an objective assessment of his misspent youth. It matches an “Office of Prayer” used soon after Francis’ death, in which his brothers prayed, “He was raised shamefully amid all sorts of folly, and as he grew up he surpassed those who raised him in even worse folly.” Some suggest this is an exaggeration of his youth meant to contrast with his later conversion – but there are no early sources which record an exaggerated account of youthful piety. Some 35 years after his death, those lines of the “Office of Prayer” were revised to say, “…as he grew up by God’s grace, he mercifully kept himself free of contamination.” Certainly a more suitable and pious, if unrealistic, picture of young Francis.

But there were moments. During this time, while busy in the family store, a poor beggar came in asking for help. Francis dismissed him and returned to work, yet the affair ate at him. He realized his courteousness extended only to his peers and noble folk. Contrite, he swore to show chivalry to everyone regardless of class and so ran after the beggar to make up for refusing alms. But there were limits. Chivalry did not offset Francis’ aversion to physical or social ugliness – and nothing was more revolting than the lepers. He avoided these outcasts whose outward deformities were considered an expression of an inward spiritual or moral deformation. Francis would hold his nose as he ran away from them.  Courtesy and manner only went so far.