Historical Lectures and Addresses/St. Francis of Assisi

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St. Francis of Assisi  (1892) 
by Mandell Creighton
from Historical Lectures and Addresses. The second of a course of lectures given in St. Paul's Cathedral in November, 1892.

In my last lecture I pointed out to you that the work which Dominic achieved and the Order which he founded was a work of organisation, and that it owed much of its pre-eminence to the fact that it was inspired by the spirit not of Dominic, but of Francis. The two Orders springing up at the same time reacted upon one another, so much so indeed that it may be said that the Franciscan movement, if it had been left to itself, would probably have disappeared altogether before it had finished its work, while the Dominican if left to itself, could never have moved men as it did.

Francis, or as his real name was, Giovanni, was the son of Pietro Bemardini, a merchant of Assisi, and was born in 1181. His mother, Madonna Pica, came apparently from the south of France, and perhaps the name of "Francis" was substituted for that of "Giovanni" because her son was at one time known as "the Frenchman". We certainly know that in his youth it was his custom to sing Provençal songs to his companions, and there was much of the light-heartedness and geniality of the men of Southern France in his character. He was first brought up with the usual education of a boy in his days till he was old enough to enter his father's business. He was a mischievous boy, very prodigal of his money, and given to peccadillos, on one occasion robbing his father's till that he might have money for his pleasures. He had a serious illness when a young man which sobered and changed him a great deal; but his mind was filled with the desire for adventure, and in 1202, taking advantage of a war against Perugia, he became a soldier. He was made prisoner and kept in confinement for a year, and even then it was noticed that he was always patient and cheerful under his privations. On his release he returned to Assisi, and the outward marks of a change in his character were then apparent. One day a poor soldier begged of him by the wayside, and Francis having nothing else to give, took off his own fine clothes and put them on the beggar's back. In 1204 he went on another warlike expedition, and at its close on his return home he was entertained by his friends and companions at a supper. It was noticed that Francis was vacant and abstracted, and did not seem very happy. One of his friends said banteringly to him, "I know what has happened to you, you are in love". "Yes, yes," Francis made reply, "I am in love. I see it now; but I am in love with a fairer maid than ever your eyes rested upon." His friends laughed and did not catch his meaning. This is the first indication we have that Francis was growing enamoured of poverty, whom henceforth he was to regard as his heart's love.

All this was passing through his mind without his being conscious whither he was tending. But in 1205 there happened the event known as his conversion, which occurred suddenly and in an almost grotesque manner. Francis was sent by his father to sell some cloth at the neighbouring town of Foligno. As he was returning from the fair with the money in his pocket, it suddenly struck him that this money was mere worthless dross. He turned his horse's head, returned to the town where he sold his father's horse, and took all the proceeds of the day's sale to the priest of a ruined church as an offering for the restoration of the building. The priest refused to take so large a sum, knowing that Francis could never have come by it in an ordinary way. Thereupon Francis in a passion flung it out of the window into the backyard, but asked that he might live with the priest. To this the priest consented, but meanwhile the father of Francis made a hue and cry in search of his son and his goods, and Francis had to lie concealed in a loft for a month, until at last, in answer to his prayers for guidance, he became conscious that it was wrong to hide. He accordingly went to his father, who at once gave him a sound beating and locked him up in his room, demanding his money. Francis answered that he had thrown it away. He was kept a prisoner till one day, in the absence of Pietro, his mother came and unlocked the door and let Francis out. On his return, Pietro was still more angry because he had seen his son wandering about the streets, laughed at and mocked at by everybody. He dragged Francis before the magistrates who, perplexed to know how to deal with such a case, remitted it to the Bishop. The Bishop ordered Francis to return the money. Francis thereupon, in obedience to the Bishop, went to the place where he had flung the money away, found it and restored it to his father, with everything else he possessed, even the very clothes he was wearing, declaring, "Up to this time I called Pietro Bernardini my father, but now I am the servant of God". From that time forth Francis broke off all connexion with his family. There is no further mention made of either father or mother in his life. It would seem that by this strange proceeding, Francis felt that he had at last worked his way to freedom to follow his ideal; but he knew that freedom had to be paid for. If he desired to detach himself from the world and rise above it, he knew that he must demand nothing of the world. Poverty therefore was of the very essence of the position of Francis. It seemed impossible for him to express himself under the ordinary conditions of life; to obtain the power of self-expression he must free himself from those conditions, and he could not do that on his own terms. If he showed himself willing to give up father and mother and all family obligations, then he must be prepared also to give up everything else. Through all this Francis became conscious that he had purchased for himself spiritual freedom, that is to say, the liberty to live his own life according to the convictions of his inner soul, without interference from society or the world, even in their highest forms.

Having gone so far, Francis had to remake his life. How was he to use the freedom and detachment from the world which he had gained? He began with a series of wanderings which had not much aim in them. Once he was met by a band of robbers, who asked him who he was. He replied that he was "the herald of a great King," but they stripped him, threw him into a ditch and left him lying in the snow. It is difficult to know what to make of Francis all this time. Indeed he did not know what to make of himself. He returned to Assisi, and set himself to the work of restoring churches. With his own hands he rebuilt three—St. Damiano, St. Peter and the Portiuncula. The traveller who gets out at the railway station of Assisi sees close by the magnificent Renaissance Church, which rises over the original building called the Portiuncula, at which Francis worked. The original little church itself is hardly bigger than a cottage room, but that was the church at which Francis laboured, in which he prayed, and which became the centre of his Order. It was while he was here, after he had been joined by a single companion, that he discovered what he had to do with his life. Hearing the Gospel read one day, the familiar words fell on his ears with a new meaning: "Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves. And as ye go preach, saying, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand'." "This is what I wish," he exclaimed. "This is what I am seeking for. This I desire to do with all the powers of my soul." Henceforth his object in life was to go forth as the first Apostles had done, carrying the same message, the message of repentance and of the peace of believing. Accordingly he started as a herald of peace and repentance. When he met any man his greeting was, "God give you peace". If the man returned the greeting and showed a disposition to listen, Francis pressed upon him the need of repentance if that peace was to be his. So he wandered along the roads, first of all laughed and mocked at, and then gradually heeded and listened to, until at last it became clear that Francis was a power. Many men became ready to join him, and before the end of the year there were no fewer than eight who were anxious to lead the same sort of life as he was leading.

The question then arose, what were they to do? How was this life to be led? Francis was the exact opposite of Dominic who from the first had desired to found an Order, and to organise men for a particular purpose. Francis, on the other hand, was troubled when men gathered round him. He had no desire to organise a community, or to do anything whatever except live his own life in the way that he thought best. But when other men gathered round him, it was necessary that they should have some account to give of what they were doing. At first they were known as "the Brothers of Assisi". The Bishop objected to this, and then they called themselves "Men of Penitence". But they took no further steps towards organisation. The first regulations drawn up by Francis did not contemplate an Order at all. He simply settled what was to be the mode of life of the brethren, and that in the simplest form. The three principles upon which they lived were, that a man should give his goods to the poor, that he should live his life in imitation of the Apostles of the Lord, and that he should live in poverty that so he might be free from society. The object was detachment from the world and entire dedication of the heart to God. So Francis and his brethren went forth as preachers, like many of the heretical teachers, but not at all on the same lines as any previous development of monasticism. As they wandered from place to place, they spoke simply their message of peace, and their sole call was a call to repentance.

It was a mere chance whether Francis would be called a heretic or not. The matter was decided by the fact that the moment he saw others gathering round him, he conceived it to be his duty to seek the opinion of the Pope; for in those days orthodoxy was mainly distinguished from heresy by its submission to authority. Accordingly in 1210, Francis and eleven companions went to Pope Innocent III. and asked for permission to preach. That permission was somewhat difficult to get, because these men were laymen, they had no claim to be educated people, there were no grounds whatever upon which they could press their request.

They had been commended by the Bishop of Assisi to a certain bishop in Rome, who first advised Francis to become a hermit. But Francis replied that to be a hermit would not fulfil his object. Accordingly he was at last taken to the Pope, and the Pope gave him a verbal permission to preach: "Go in God's name and preach repentance to all". There was no idea of founding an Order, but this step was important, because it was really the beginning from which the Order arose and spread.

The important feature of the teaching of Francis was that he preached not the doctrine of Christ, but the Person of Christ. He held up before men righteousness, not as the secret of future happiness, but of present happiness, of peace beginning in this world, here and now. He preached not the law of God, but the love of Christ. He opposed nobody, he rebuked nobody, he was in no sense antagonistic to anything. He did not denounce sin, he spoke only of joy and righteousness. The teaching of Francis was in every way absolutely positive, the embodiment in his words and actions of the joy and peace of the believing soul that is at one with God. On that ground only did his appeal come home to the hearts of men. He soon kindled their imaginations. A man of the people, speaking their own tongue by the wayside and wherever he found them, he appealed to the popular fancy as a representation of the life of Christ. That is the secret of the myths and legends that have gathered round Francis.

Francis lived for a short time in a hut outside Assisi, but subsequently he withdrew to a cell which he had made for himself near the Church of the Portiuncula, and this henceforth was his home. Inside the modern church, the cell in which Francis died still remains, beside the little church which his own hands had built. Francis impressed upon the minds of his brethren that, having withdrawn themselves from the world and being poor, their first duty was to work. They were not yet an Order, still less had Francis any idea of founding a mendicant Order. He and his followers might beg sometimes, but it was only for their own spiritual good; their object was to win souls by preaching, and the mode in which they were to do it was by imitating the Apostles. So it was that they took to themselves the names of Fratres Minores, because they were subject to all in loving service. The first friars did not live entirely in cities or in any fixed place; they were in constant movement, remaining only a short time in one place lest they should gain possessions. Their life varied between going forth at times to preach, and, at other times, living in retirement in cells and caves.

But as their numbers increased, it became impossible for them to remain unorganised. The growing numbers by degrees altered the nature of the community and widened its scope, and it became clear that some steps must be taken towards organisation. In 1212 Francis projected a mission to unbelievers, intending first to go to Morocco, but this was put off. In 1219, he planned a mission to all Italy, Spain, France and Hungary. In this way the body of brethren unconsciously became a body of mission preachers, and there came in consequence a greater need of recognition by the Pope. If they were to go forth and preach throughout Christendom, it was necessary that they should have some kind of introduction. Accordingly a bull was published in 1219 which commended them to all Christendom as "Catholic-minded and faithful men," and the Pope bade the French clergy receive them as good Catholics, who had laid aside the pleasures of the world to sow the Word of God.

Early in 1220 Francis had an opportunity of realising his dream of going to the East. A crusade was setting out, and he went with it as far as Damietta, where he remained for the space of a year, but what he did there is not really known, though a number of legends are told about it. In his absence great disorders broke out amongst the body of the brethren, and various changes were made which were utterly contrary to his wishes, and threatened to merge his society in ordinary asceticism. It became clear that more organisation was needed, and for that purpose a definite body must be formed with a head and a declaration of its objects. The result was the founding of the first Rule. Francis did the best he could under the circumstances, but he viewed the step with regret, and withdrew more and more from the affairs of the society which no longer needed a man of simple, open mind at its head, but rather an organiser such as was found in Brother Elias. That the Order should be organised was inevitable, but none the less disastrous, and Francis recognised it as a disaster that an ideal conception should have to be expressed in a concrete form. Moreover, the Order must have some ostensible means of support, and when it was written down in black and white that it was to be maintained by the alms of the faithful, it was thereby converted into a mendicant Order. Originally simply an ideal of life, and then going on to find practical occupation in mission preaching, it now became a definite organisation on the basis of mendicity. In truth the necessity for this development had existed from the beginning. But Francis was inevitably disappointed. The ideal which he had followed seemed to be lost, and with it his sense of freedom. He withdrew more and more from men, to seek God only. Hitherto he had divided his life between prayer and preaching, now he gave himself almost wholly to prayer. He was, of course, still influential in the Order, but he was no longer its mainspring.

The next change that came over the Order was that, instead of consisting of wandering missions, it began to make settlements in cities. Originally, Francis had preached to his followers a life of activity and retirement combined, but those who loved activity tended to gravitate to the towns, and those who loved retirement to live the life of hermits. The consequence was a beginning of separation in the Order. The men of marked abilities went to the towns, while the men of no particular account lived in obscure comers in the country. The result was a decay of the first enthusiasm, and a greater conformity to the world.

All these things, it would seem, Francis was conscious of. He lived more and more in retirement, passing from place to place and being increasingly regarded as an object of reverence by all who saw him, suffering greatly in health, chiefly from an affection of the eyes. Never was there a man more absolutely simple, never was there a man who thought less of self, never was there a man who more carried the overwhelming power of love into everything which he did. Not only did he love all men whom he came across, but he loved all things. The conception of the love of animals was exceedingly remote from the temper of the Middle Ages. Animals were simply regarded as dependent on men, to be used for their benefit. But Francis showed an exceptional love for all created things. The accounts of his life are full of stories of his relations with animals, some grotesque, some exceedingly pathetic and all within the bounds of possibility. The most incredible would probably seem the account of Francis's preaching to the birds. Once, when he was preaching in the open, a number of sparrows made so much noise with their twittering that he turned to them and said: "My brother sparrows and my sister sparrows, please be still for a while that I may preach the Word of God". No sooner had he spoken than the birds were silent; they sat upon the trees and held their peace till Francis had finished. He then turned to them and said: "Now brothers and sisters you may resume your song". Thereupon they began to sing. Again, one day in his wanderings, Francis saw a field entirely covered with birds. "It seems to me," he said, "that our brothers and sisters, the birds, want to listen to me;" and he accordingly went and stood in the midst of them and preached to them about God's care for them, and the sin of ingratitude. The story tells us that while Francis was speaking, the birds bowed their heads before him and were silent. Doubtless these stories are partly parables, but there is no doubt that Francis spoke the words, whatever may have been the behaviour of the birds. There are people who have a special attraction for birds, and Francis seems to have been one of these; and he had this special attraction not for birds only but for animals of all sorts. The stories of his love for animals are innumerable, and show the way in which he sympathised with all things, and also show the power of parabolic teaching which that sympathy gave him. As he walked about and observed everything, he gathered materials for preaching sermons of infinite pathos, and in that way he carried his message home to men's hearts. He died, quite worn out, on 4th October, 1236, long before his time, and, as he died, he sang a song in which he again repeated his sympathy with all created things.

     Praised be the Lord by our brother Death of the body,
     Whom no living man can escape.
     Woe to them who die in mortal sin,
     Blessed are they whose wills are at one with Thine
     For the second death can work them no ill.

If we are to estimate Francis aright, we must think of him as a poet, whose life was his poem. He was a man full of sentiment and emotion, but his life was absolutely consistent. Full of deep poetic feeling, but never sinking below the ideal which he pursued, he saw Christ everywhere, in everything upon earth, in flower and in beast. His belief was to him absolute joy. He may have been exaggerated, but he was certainly sincere. His one idea was love, absorbing love. His morality was not according to rule and regulation. He sometimes caused dismay amongst his followers by his actions, as when, for instance, he gave a poor woman his book of hours, with the remark, "Greater is love even than prayer". He broke the fasts of the Church, and encouraged others to do likewise when he thought it was necessary. He was lively, humorous, enthusiastic in prayer, loving to pray most often in lonely churches or woods. It was said that when he prayed, his whole self seemed to be an incarnate prayer. He was not as one absorbed in prayer, but his whole self was a prayer. Men thought that his prayers were specially heard, and from that belief they assigned to him many miracles. Yes, he was a worker of wonders, because he had the magic of the poet—of the poet who carries men outside and beyond themselves. Many men before Francis had boasted that they got outside the world by retiring from it; but Francis, in the world, but not of it, rose above self and the world alike. It was said of him, "He made of all things steps whereby he mounted to the throne of God". In the clash of material interests that he saw around him on every side, his pure spirit awoke the cry of an exalted and renovated humanity before which the weapons of war dropped.