St Francis of Assisi

So much change has taken place in recent years that 1896 seems a very long time ago. When we go further back, time telescopes in our minds so that the two hundred and fifty year interval between 1050 and 1300 A.D. seems nothing.

I have recently been reading about the development of monasticism from the time of the "Early Fathers", the third to sixth centuries A.D. up to about 1200 when St. Francis came on the scene. It is a huge timespan, and the contribution which monasticism made to the survival and development of civilisation over that period makes a fascinating story. I had always thought that Francis was quite unique, which he is of course, but as the power and influence of the monasteries in secular terms peaked and began to wane there were repeated returns to the simpler life. The Cistercian Order was founded at Citeaux in Burgundy in 1098 and the Carthusian Order arose from Chartreuse, founded in 1084. In 1115 a young German canon, son of a baron, named Norbert was thrown from his horse in a thunderstorm and had a conversion experience very much like St Paul. He became an itinerant preacher and later had a dream about a band of white-robed monks which led him to build an abbey at Premontre in France. The order which he formed was very strict and the monks worked as preachers and parish priests; they expanded very rapidly and were known as Premonstratensians.

It is staggering that in 1210 only four years after his "conversion", St. Francis and a few followers were able to go to Rome to see Innocent III, the very able and powerful Pope, who approved their first Rule and had a dream in which he saw Francis propping up the church. Ten years later the Pope approved the first Rule of the Dominican order.

Returning to the opening paragraph, these were times of great changes, perhaps as great as in our own. People began to live in towns and cities, and there was growing prosperity. Universities were founded in Paris and Oxford, and literacy and education were no longer a monastic preserve. Many of the great cathedrals of Europe were built with amazing energy and speed.

Into this exciting world Francis was born in 1182. His parents passed on to him their love of the Troubadours of Southern France, and he learned French and was fascinated by their culture of pure romantic love, expressed in poetry and music.

When he was about 25, just like Norbert, he went through a period of conversion when he renounced his wealth, fell out with his family, and embraced Lady Poverty as he described her, using the language of the Troubadours and taking love of God, mankind and the whole of creation quite literally.

He was a man of action and was soon at work rebuilding a local ruined church and you would have thought that his life of absolute poverty which involved begging in order to survive would have had little interest for anyone else. You might say the same about Jesus' appeal to the first disciples. But Francis, like Jesus, had a compelling and attractive personality and message, and soon others were joining him. He called them the Friars Minor to emphasise their lowly position and their identification with the poor.

The fundamental difference between the friars and the monks was that the monks pledged themselves to a monastery, a fixed location, and their orders accepted property. Noblemen and kings gave property to them because they thought it would help them get to heaven. The friars moved about and preached and ministered to the people in the towns. They had no property to administer or to use as a base. There was an amazing response and by 1219, five thousand friars attended a meeting known as the Chapter of Mats.

Francis' relationship with Clare is another remarkable story. He met her in secret for a year, both chaperoned, and she eloped from her parents with a friend at the age of 18, on Palm Sunday in 1212. She went to one of the nearby churches which he had restored, had her long hair cut off and donned a habit. She came from the nobility and later was joined by her mother and her two sisters. Francis did not want them to be called sisters or nuns, and he called them instead the Poor Ladies, and kept in touch with them throughout his life.

He died at the age of 44 after increasing ill-health, due in part to the way he mistreated Brother Ass, as he called his body. We are fortunate in knowing quite a lot about his life; we have his own writings, and one of his biographers, Thomas of Celano, knew him and wrote about him shortly after his death. One little story Thomas relates is of a brother who said to a beggar "How do I know you are not really rich and pretending to be in need?" Francis was deeply saddened at this, and he severely rebuked the brother who had dared to utter such words and ordered him to strip before the beggar and beg his pardon, kissing his feet. His embrace of Lady Poverty was - you might say - ruthless, it was absolute, as was his humility.

On another occasion Francis told the brother gardener not to plant the whole garden with vegetables but to set aside a plot for those plants which in their season would bloom with Brother Flowers. The reason he said was because it would invite all who saw it to praise God; for every creature says "God made me for you, O human!".

St Francis has been an inspiration to literally millions of people. Franciscans comprise the largest religious order, and the Pope's dream nearly eight hundred years ago certainly came true.

Thomas of Celano described Francis as quite eloquent, with a cheerful and kindly face; short, with black hair, slender build and with a delicate skin. He wore rough garments, slept sparingly, gave most generously. And because he was very humble, he showed mildness to everyone, adapting himself to the behaviour of all. Amongst the holy he was even more so; among sinners he was one of them.

Brian Dunn, May 1996

Brenda Stephenson's article - Saint of the Month
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997