Much is being made of the newly elected pope’s taking of the name “Francis”. It’s been suggested that the name jointly invokes Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits. I thought I’d take this opportunity to make a few remarks about Francis of Assisi. Many people have seen the familiar portraits of him, frequently surrounded by animals, but I thought I’d talk about the historical Francis.

Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, born in 1181 in Assisi, a small, ancient town smack dab in the middle of the Italian peninsula, must have been a truly remarkable human being. He attracted an enormous following, mainly by force of personality, and created institutions, the Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order of Saint Francis, that have survived for a millennium dedicated to serving the poor and preaching the Gospel in conditions of extreme austerity without the ostentation of some austere religious movements.

He is, perhaps, one of the earliest important religious figures that we can have confidence actually existed. The portrait in this post, from the Sacro Speco in Subiaco, has been authenticated as having been painted from life when Francis visited there in 1216.

In the past skepticism about historical sources and figures, particularly from the ancient past, has been a common theme here. I think that we have very good reason to believe that Francis lived and that he did many of the things attributed to him. Some of his writings and writings about him by people who actually knew him have come down to us with solid provenances, something rare in very old historical materials.

Francis’s writings that have come down to us consist mainly of a few prayers, some letters, three rules he wrote for the religious orders he founded, his testament, and an odd little piece called “Perfect Joy”.

Francis’s Testament, written shortly before he died in 1226, is an account by Francis of his life, calling, and works.

Perfect Joy is an anecdote recorded by his early companion, Leo. It gives an idea of how severe a model Francis set.

Of the writings by Francis’s close associates among the most significant and informative about Francis are the “Mirror of Perfection” and “The First Life of St. Francis”.

The Mirror of Perfection is a polemic, written by Leo, recording Francis’s responses and reactions to errors which had crept into his order. I find it rather tough sledding but, again, it gives you the idea of how severe a model he set.

The First Life of St. Francis was written by an early follower of Francis’s, Thomas of Cerrano. Thomas had met Francis but probably did not know him well. He had access to many of Francis’s earliest followers and closest companions. The Life was written shortly after Francis was canonized a saint in 1228. It suffers by being, clearly, the life of a saint. I don’t find quite the vibrancy or vitality in it I see in Francis’s own works and those of his close associates.

I find reading Francis’s works and those of his close associates a very emotional, moving, even difficult experience. It makes me recognize how mean, trivial, and imperfect a person I am.

Here’s Francis’s blessing for his associate, Leo:

May the Lord
bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you
and be merciful to you.
May He turn His countenance to you
and give you peace.

I don’t know that any human being in history has better exemplified than Francis the prescription of the prophet Micah: “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.”

15 comments… add one
  • sam

    It’s apocryphal, I like to think he would have said it:

    “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

    To me, on my understanding of Jesus’s time on earth, that captures his mission better than anything I’ve ever read. A Zen Master couldn’t have put it better.

  • That’s the quote that inspired me to write this post. I generally think it’s helpful to distinguish between history and folklore. In the case of Franceso Bernardone the history is plenty interesting.

    Something I didn’t mention in the body of the post, reported in the earliest biographies, is Francis’s mission to the sultan during the Fifth Crusade. There is, unfortunately, no Muslim source for the story. I have my doubts about it. It’s a bit too close to earlier accounts from saints’ lives for my comfort.

  • PD Shaw

    I like the story about embracing the lepers, that he was a man born to privilege and enjoyed beauty, and was deeply repulsed by the uncleanness of the lepers, until one day he realized the lepers were the objects of special attention in the Bible and rushed over to hug (or in some accounts kiss) a leper. Its a nice account of knowing and overcoming one’s self.

  • That’s alluded to in the Testament and more fully reported in the First Life:

    And then the holy lover of all humility betook him to the lepers, and was with them, serving them all most zealously for God’s sake, washing all foulness from them and even wiping away the matter from the ulcers; even as he says himself in his Testament, “For when I was in sin it seemed to me exceeding bitter to look on lepers, but the Lord brought me among them, and I showed mercy unto them.” For indeed at one time the sight of lepers was (as he used to say) so bitter to him that when in the days of his vanity he looked at their houses about two miles off, he stopped his nostrils with his hands. But when now by the grace and power of the Highest he was beginning to think of holy and profitable things, one day, while still in the habit of the world, he met a leper, and, having become stronger than himself, went near and kissed him.

  • PD Shaw

    On the other hand, the fact that unkempt holy men were as common flies at the time, both Christian and Muslim, could be as seen as adding credibility. I can easily see the sultan acquiescing to such a figure, doing him no harm, but perhaps not taking him entirely seriously.

  • The commentary is that the sultan thought he was a Sufi. I have a vague recollection that in the early days of this blog I wrote a post on the subject of Francis’s movement as a sort of Christian Sufism and I doubt that its emerging when it did is a coincidence.

    For me the more fascinating aspect is from the point of view of Francis. He clearly had absolutely no fear. I’ve known a few people like that over the years. It’s a remarkable thing to see.

  • PD Shaw

    Thanks for the quote, Dave; I’ve only read re-tellings.

  • michael reynolds

    Also, few people know this but he moonlighted as Radagast the Brown.

  • jan

    Even as a child I was attracted to Francis of Assisi — the only ‘Saint’ who, for me, stood out as someone special. Perhaps it was the array of animals depicted around him, or the simple garb worn which seemed to clothe a man having innate unvarnished kindness within his heart. Nevertheless, we have several statutes of him around our garden, lending it a Zen kind of serenity and sensitivity.

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