The Life of St. Francis of Assisi
By Paul Sabatier, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1894.
From Harvard University Library.
A copy of this book is digitized and can be found at archive.org.
Prepare your heart to suffer all that this world throws at you—humbly and patiently.
In The Early Days
Francis was born in 1182 to a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone. Merchants who dealt in textiles were among the richest of the time. They were considered nobles as they went from town to town selling their wares, bringing news to the people. His mother, Pica baptized him at the font of San Rufino, actually naming him John, to which his father changed to Francis. In his younger years, Francis enjoyed the life of wealth and all its luxuries. He was cultured, good humoured and well liked. He went to war with a neighbouring state Perugia where he was captured and treated well due to his father’s wealth. When he was released, he had changed and began to feel that his life was empty. Francis began a journey that lead him away from the values and lifestyle he grew up with towards the value and lifestyle of the Gospels. He needed to find worthy causes to sanctify his life. He sought higher truth and wanted to dedicate his life to it.
Francis experienced a pivotal moment. He was riding on horseback one day, hoping to lead a life of pure devotion, when he found himself faced with a leper. His first thought was repulsion, quite a normal response during this time. Following his instinct, he set off in another direction. He stopped himself, disappointed by his cowardice. He went back, dismounted his horse and gave the leper all the money he had with him and “kissed his hand as he would have done a priest.” (pg 26, The Life of St. Francis, by Paul Sabatier, 1894) This marked a new era in Francis’ spirituality and changed him forever.
It is important to understand the Church during this time (1205-1206). Some of the clergy was corrupt and was no longer respected where any real reform seemed impossible. The church had become like society—rich, self-serving and stuffy. Public worship was reduced to mere ceremonies with not much depth. New sects were popping up all the time where people would join a new movement and then go back to their previous group. It was the labourer, the poor and the oppressed who threatened the church at this time because they felt the church was failing them. It was Francis who brought ideas of reform, a return to the Gospels where his preaching effected the whole world. His faith was not intellectual, but rather moral.
He found his love in poverty—the beauty in sunsets, hillsides, animals and people of every social group. The true beauty was to share in the passion of Jesus and the suffering of others. Francis could see the dangers of materialism and actively pursued simple living. People thought he was crazy yet he maintained his charm and good humour. He gave his money, actually his father’s money, to the poor.
Francis was praying at the altar at San Damiano where he found the sanctuary falling apart with only a Byzantine crucifix that was popular in Italy at the time. He was praying that the Lord shed light on the darkness of his mind asking that he act by His holy will. Francis felt something marvelous taking place as he stared at the statue of Jesus—Jesus took on life.
“This union marks the final triumph of Francis. His union with Christ is consummated.” (Life of St. Francis, Sabatier, pg 56) Francis asks how he may repay Jesus for His love. While meditating, Francis believed that repairing the church was his assignment. He responded literally and begged for stones and repaired the little church. Not only was he to rebuild the actual buildings, but also reform it as a community, carrying on the work of Jesus. Francis was not called for his individual salvation, but for our salvation, the church’s living members. This marked a totally new direction for him. It was at this time that his father went looking for him. Francis hid from him for days but knew he couldn’t do this forever. When they did finally meet up, Francis told his father that he was now a ‘servant of Christ’ and that he no longer had to receive orders from him. His father made an appeal to the Magistrates. The Consuls summoned Francis before them whereby he again states that he is a ‘servant of Christ’ and that he didn’t come under their jurisdiction. Not knowing what to do with him, the Consul referred the matter to the diocese. This gave Francis the opportunity to declare himself publicly to the obedience of God. His father renounced and disinherited him. The Bishop advised Francis to give up his property—so standing naked Francis handed his clothes and the little money he had over. Francis states:
“Listen, all of you, and understand it well; until this time I have called Pietro Bernardone my father, but now I desire to serve God. This is why I return to him this money, for which he has given himself so much trouble, as well as my clothing, and all that I have had from him, for from henceforth I desire to say nothing else than ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’.” (Sabatier, pg 61) He trembled with emotion and cold. It was on this day that Francis won many supporters as his words were profound and sincere. Incidentally, the Bishop instructed his gardener to give Francis a simple tunic to wear, to which he was later robbed and the tunic stolen!
Francis actions ran counter to the Spirit of the Age. He gained many followers where they lived among the people restoring churches depending on the generosity of others. They called themselves the “Band of Little Brothers” , a movement, not an Order, living by the Gospels. Here began the Franciscan spirituality—simple, peace-filled, joyful living in harmony with God and nature with great concern and care for the poor.
In the spring of 1208, Francis and the help of good people, finished the restoration of San Damiano – having begged for food, supplies and oil for the church lamps. He went on to repair the sanctuaries of St. Peter and Santa Maria of the Portiuncula, the latter being the centre of the Franciscan movement. Francis was thinking of living his life in meditation and silence, but the Lord had other plans for him. The Lord told him to go out and preach the Kingdom of Heaven, heal the sick and cast out the devil.
Francis went to Verna (Italy) for quiet prayer with three other brothers. He spoke with his companions about his approaching death, preparing himself with deep prayer and contemplation. He was distressed about the future of the Order, and prayed for new spiritual direction. He was getting older and needed an ass to help him make the trek. Imagine a beautiful scene, with nature at its best– lush trees, plants and birds. Birds flocked to him, hovering around him, perched on his head, shoulders and arms.
Francis went into deep meditation, remembering Golgatha, re-reading the Gospel and asking God to show him the way. It was the eve of a festival “Elevation of the Holy Cross” (sept. 14th) that was hugely celebrated during the 13th Century. During his prayer, he had a vision:
“A seraph, with outspread wings, flew toward him from the edge of the horizon, and bathed his soul in raptures unutterable. In the centre appeared a cross, and the seraph was nailed upon it. When the vision disappeared, he felt sharp sufferings mingling with the ecstasy of the first moments. Stirred to the depths of his being, he was anxiously seeking the meaning of it all, when he perceived upon his body the stigmata of the Crucified”. (Life of St. Francis, pg 295-296) (Francis was the first saint to receive the Stigmata.)
Clara was born to a wealthy family in 1194 in Assisi. She was 12 years younger than Francis. She heard Francis preach in the Cathedral and was immediately moved by his words. She felt he was speaking directly to her. Clara decided to break away from the luxurious life and make herself a servant of the poor, living for only love and poverty. Clara offered herself to Francis, not in a way that we could understand today, but consecrating her life to the Gospels—to the poor. Both she and Francis had a love that was not of this earth, it was a ’holy love’. Francis received her into the Order: She met him at St. Damiano, vowed to conform her life to the Brothers, “her hair was cut off, all was finished”. (Life of St. Francis, pg 152) She left her life for the life of poverty where Francis sent her to a house of Benedictine nuns. Clara’s father, Favorino, was extremely unhappy but realized the strong convictions of his daughter.
It was when Clara’s sister Agnes joined the Order that their father became truly angered. Francis knew that other women wanted to join them, so he set them up at St. Damiano under his direction, with Clara leading the sisters and Francis lead the Brothers. Clara and Francis became a community together, with the sisters and brothers helping each other serving the poor and living the Gospels.
Clara survived Francis 27 years. She fought daily for the Franciscan ideal. She defended Francis to others and even to himself. When Francis doubted his own mission, it was Clara that became his rock.
Canticle of the Sun
After receiving the stigmata, Francis went from town to town preaching, evangelizing and performing miracles. He healed a friar who was possessed. He helped a woman who had been lying several days between death and life unable to give birth to her child. The friars brought the horse’ bridle that Francis had touched, laid it on the woman’s body, and she was then able to give birth to her child without the slightest pain. He also healed a woman who suffered from nervous disorders.
He found himself internally tormented, his sight had been taken away with only Clare comforting him. He took to living in a cave, where in his darkness he composed the Canticle of the Sun. Joy had returned to Francis as deep as ever. His writings were minimal, but Francis did leave us with inspirational words. In his last year, Francis wrote letters as his way of evangelizing because he could no longer travel.
Francis died ‘in the arms of Lady Poverty” on October 3, 1226. His Feast day is October 4th.
Canticle of the Sun
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord,
Praise, glory and honor and benediction all, are Thine.
To Thee alone do they belong, most High,
And there is no man fit to mention Thee.
Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,
Especially to my worshipful brother sun,
The which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give;
And beautiful is he and radiant with splendor great;
Of Thee, most High, signification gives.
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair. p. 153
Praised be my Lord for brother wind
And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather,
By the which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment.
Praised be my Lord for sister water,
The which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire,
By the which Thou lightest up the dark.
And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth,
The which sustains and keeps us
And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.
Praised be my Lord for those who for Thy love forgive
And weakness bear and tribulation.
Blessed those who shall in peace endure,
For by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, the bodily death,
From the which no living man can flee.
Woe to them who die in mortal sin;
Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no ill.
Praise ye and bless ye my Lord, and give Him thanks,
And be subject unto Him with great humility.