Life of Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis was born in 1186 in the Italian town of Assisi. In addition to being the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he was also a social leader for the town’s youth. Francis wished to be a knight. In a war between Assisi neighboring Perugia, Assisi lost. Francis spent the next year a prisoner of war, enlivening the days for his cellmates with song and story. He then became ill. During this time he began to question his way of life. But soon another chance to fight arose. His father outfitted him with the best horse, the finest sword, the richest silk. An attack of fever struck him again on this journey. A voice asked, “Francis, who can do more for you, a Lord or a servant?” “A lord,” Francis said. “Why, then are you abandoning the Lord for a servant, the rich God for a poor mortal? Go back to your own land.” Francis returned in haste to Assisi to await the Lord’s will. (St. Bonaventure’s Major Legend of St. Francis, Ch. 1)
He spent the next year pursuing holiness. He would go with a friend to a cave outside the city, and spend long hours in prayer. Francis desired to experience what the poor experienced. In Rome he took one of the beggars aside and asked him to exchange clothing. In rags he went begging. Francis was not poor because he liked to be poor, but because Francis’ love for beggars and lepers was neither blind nor sentimental. In them he saw Christ. Formerly he had always hurried past the lepers. One day, having done so, he dismounted, and walked slowly back to the despised man embraced him and kissed his rotted hands. “What had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” (St. Francis Testament #3)
One day Christ spoke to Francis from the crucifix in the church of San Damiano. “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see is all being destroyed.” (St. Bonaventure’s Major Legend of St. Francis, Ch. 2) Being a simple man, he sold his horse and cloth from his father’s store to help repair the church. His father imprisoned him and demanded a showdown before the Bishop. He demanded back all that Francis had taken. Francis agreed, begged to be excused a moment and returned, having removed his clothing. He laid the money and his clothes at the feet of his father. Then Francis said to his father, “Until now I have called you father here on earth, but from now on I can say without reservation, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” (St. Bonaventure, Major Legend, Ch. 2) The Bishop covered the half-naked young man with his cloak and led him away.
Francis continued his life of absolute poverty. He took care of the lepers. He worked with his hands, prayed and sang. Some of his friends saw his genuineness and joined him. These were his first friars. Looking for guidance from the Holy Spirit, they opened the Gospels three times, and each time there was a similar message. “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor . . . then come, follow” (Matthew 19:21) “Take nothing for the journey.” (Luke 9:3) “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny him, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Francis said, “This is what I am looking for!” If it was in the Gospel, it was the Rule. In the beginning, the Rule was simply that – the Gospel.
Francis went to the Pope to gain approval from the Church. The Pope could scarcely believe that men could live the Gospel so literally. He sent Francis away to pray. During the night the Pope dreamed that the walls of his church were cracking and ready to collapse. A frail little man – Francis – appeared, put his shoulder to the wall, and held it up. Francis received his approval.
Francis wished to spread the gospel of Christ among the Moslems when he went to the Holy Land during the Crusades. He crossed the Crusaders’ battle lines, and was brought face to face with Sultan Malik al-Kamil. The sincerity of Francis and his utter willingness to die for Christ impressed the Sultan and defeated Francis’ desire for martyrdom. The Sultan and Francis shared for many days and departed with respect for each other.
Saint Francis is famous for his love for creation. Jesus became human because of his love for his creation; therefore, all creation was sacred. So, when Francis preached to the fishes and the birds, he was not being soft-headed and sentimental – he was reverencing the creation that God loved.
Francis was hard on his body, though he insisted that the penance for the other friars be comparatively mild. His eyesight began to fail; he found difficulty in eating. The government of the Order passed into other hands, and he was free to devote himself entirely to prayer. A favorite place to pray was on Mount Alverna. After a long period of solitude and prayer on the rugged heights of this mountain Francis received the Stigmata of Jesus – the actual wounds – in his hands, feet and side. This fulfilled his desire to become fully united to Jesus. The wounds pained him greatly, and he sought to hide them from others.
On October 3, 1226 Francis died near Assisi, in the circle of his brothers, after asking them to strip him of his habit and lay him on the bare ground, imitating the humility of Christ’s death. He was forty-four years old, recognized as a saint before he died. He was canonized less than two years later.