We are all familiar with the image of St. Francis of Assisi, the benevolent, bearded man who speaks to animals and allows the birds to perch on his shoulders. However, the real Francis was a controversial figure who impelled many people to abandon their worldly lives and roam the country in poverty.
Francis, pictured in his simple robe and cord, which were the only articles of clothing he believed a friar needed. (He made allowances for a pair of shoes, if absolutely necessary.)
Francis was a mystic and a radical whose life and death are surrounded in mystery. He was born in 1186 in Italy, the son of a successful merchant who had aspirations of nobility. As a young man, Francis preferred enjoyed drinking and singing and to studying, and dreamed of one day becoming a knight. He took up arms against Perugia and ended up a prisoner of war for a year.
When he was twenty years old, he had an experience which changed his life forever. He was praying in a crumbling chapel in Assisi when he heard a voice say, “Francis, go repair my house.” Francis went home, sold his horse and goods from his father’s clothing trade, and gave the proceeds to the church for repairs. When his father found out, he was furious and hauled him before the bishop to take him to task. Once there, Francis took off his clothes and handed them to his father, stating that from that point on the only father he had was in heaven. The bishop had to scramble to cover up the naked young man with a cloth.
Francis found that he felt liberated once he gave away his possessions, so he began his new life, which he dedicated to God and to a love of poverty. He begged in the streets for money to help rebuild the church. He became dirty and disheveled and spent his nights either in the streets or sleeping in churches. He was mocked as a fanatic by friends and neighbors and became a source of mortification for his father. Nevertheless, he began attracting a following of people who felt that the message of Christ had been lost in the increasingly-bureaucratic church of the 13th century.
One day, while listening to a preacher sermonizing, he realized that he had misinterpreted the voice that told him to to “rebuild my church.” The voice had not been instructing him to rebuild a structure made of stone and mortar, but to spread the work of the spiritual church across the world. He soon began traveling through Europe and beyond, attracting followers everywhere he went.
Francis welcomed women to be friars, and one of the women who followed him was named Clare. When she joined his movement, he cut off her hair and gave a rough tunic to wear. So inspired was Clare that she founded the “Second Order” of Franciscans and founded a convent for nuns.
He did not care much for scholarship, and never was comfortable writing. If writing was unavoidable, he would dictate to a scribe and mark his name with a cross. However, in 1225, he wrote The Canticle of the Sun, a sacred poem that expresses joy at all of God’s works.
The Canticle of the Sun did not preach of the fear of damnation or of a vengeful God, but rather of the goodness that exists in the natural world. Human beings, he stated, were unique because of their ability to comprehend and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation, but this same goodness was also present in the beasts and birds. Even death was part of God’s goodness and was not to be feared. He spoke to animals, which gives us the popular image of him surrounded by chirping birds. (What my professor refers to as “the Walt Disney version of St. Francis.”)
Francis prayed to experience the pain that Jesus suffered on the cross, and in 1224, he reportedly was afflicted with stigmata (physical wounds in the hands, side, and feet that corresponded to the wounds Jesus received.) He kept this wounds secret, even though they were excruciatingly painful and permanent.
After he reached 40, his health deteriorated rapidly. The years of living in poverty had taken their toll on his body; he grew blind and was unable to travel. When he finally died in 1226, his followers uncovered the secret of his stigmata. Furthermore, his skin was said to have turned smooth and white, with the miraculous wounds standing in stark contrast.
The mysteries of his dead body led some to believe that Francis was a “second Christ,” and that his departure marked the approach of the Apocalypse.
Pope Gregory IX canonized St. Francis in 1228, only two years after his death. The pope began construction on the Basilica of St. Francis almost immediately after his canonization. It took them two years to build his tomb, during which time his body was said to remain in perfect condition.
Today, the bones of St. Francis of Assisi–a man who eschewed riches in order to live in poverty like Christ–rest beneath an enormous basilica, a monument that my professor calls “the most ironic building in Europe.”