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ENIGMA: ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Copyright 2012 Chris Park
For Sofia Grace, a new generation, with love
This ebook is an updated version of the book Francis: Life and Lessons which was first published in print format by Authorhouse in 2010.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1. Beginnings
Chapter 2. Hopes and dreams
Chapter 3. Turning point
Chapter 4. Spirituality
Chapter 5. Poverty
Chapter 6. Community
Chapter 7. Clare
Chapter 8. Nature
Chapter 9. Mission
Chapter 10. Final days
It would take too long and indeed it would be impossible to recount everything Francis did, and to summarize all he taught in his lifetime. THOMAS OF CELANO
They gathered in their thousands, from many different countries. They were quite a sight, a huge group of men of all shapes and sizes – tall and short, fat and thin, bearded and bald. They wore monks’ tunics in a variety of shades of black, brown or white, and they spoke many different languages. Some talked loudly into their mobile phones, hands gesticulating excitedly, while some sent texts and emails on their Blackberries. Some simply stood and gazed at the sea of kindred spirits all around them. Some smoked serenely in the mid-day sun. Many looked like cameo monks awaiting their entry in some great movie being shot. Some walked with a pronounced swagger, enjoying not only the occasion but also the public spectacle of it all. For a religious order founded on poverty and simplicity, there were some expensive haircuts, watches, digital cameras, mobile phones and briefcases on display!
This band of religious brothers had travelled from all parts of the world as pilgrims, visiting the mother church of the Franciscan order and movement, to walk in the footsteps of their founder and inspiration – Francis (Francesco) Bernardone, better known in his day simply as Francis, and known around the world since his death as Saint Francis of Assisi.
It was Easter 2009 in Assisi, Italy. This was a Chapter Meeting, the Franciscan equivalent of a gathering of the clans, which now takes place in Assisi every ten years when representatives of the Franciscan Order in different countries meet to pray, study, and make decisions. This particular gathering was very special, because it marked the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan Order.
Apart from being a rather theatrical sight, what is the relevance of this gathering to ordinary people today, more than eight centuries after the death of the man who established their religious order? Does Francis have anything meaningful to say to us, or is he simply a voice from the past, albeit a very well known one?
Francis and the Order he established were very much products of their time and place. The time was 13th century Europe, a period that, according to G.K. Chesterton – one of Francis’s biographers – witnessed "a fresh flowering of culture and the creative arts after a long spell of much sterner and even more sterile experience which we call the Dark Ages." Sweeping reforms of Church discipline were under way (which included the new obligation of celibacy for priests, and new constraints on financial corruption by the clergy, for example through the sale of indulgences or pardons), and the Crusades were in full swing in the Holy Land against the Muslims. Feudalism had declined and been replaced by capitalism; a new merchant class was emerging. Donald Spoto, author of Reluctant Saint, a recent biography of Francis, adds that there was also "an astonishing leap forward in what might be called the life of the mind and the spirit." Intellectual progress came as a result of the development of monastic schools, and then through the great universities of Bologna, Padua, Paris and Oxford. The late 12th century also witnessed great changes in religious life, with many monks abandoning the safe seclusion of the monastery to live alone as hermits, or in small scattered communities that rejected the wealth, land and privileges enjoyed by their abbots. Ordinary people were challenged to live in more Christian ways by the rise of lay poverty movements and the spread of independent preachers who summoned people to penance and a reformed life. This is the world that Francis was born into, and it strongly shaped all he did as an adult.
The place was Assisi, a typical medieval hilltop town in Umbria, central Italy, about ten miles south-east of Perugia and ninety miles south-east of Florence. The landscape of Umbria is littered with such hilltop towns, with building huddled together partly through lack of space but also for defensive purposes, more for defence against attacks by neighbouring towns than defence against the weather. These towns have narrow streets, steep hills and open squares (piazzas), with a skyline typically dominated by grand churches and tall stone domestic towers, built for family security but also as conspicuous displays of wealth and status.
Assisi is built on a spur on the western side of Mount Subasio, which shelters it from harsh winds. Through most of its history woodland and fields surrounded it, leading down to the Spoleto Valley below. The town is one of the oldest in Italy, and it was famous for its natural springs as far back as Roman times. It was an important Roman city, and still has remains of Roman walls and of a former Temple of Minerva, which was converted into a Christian church in the sixteenth century.
Assisi has attracted countless pilgrims over the centuries, eager to see where Francis was born, worked and lived, and to pay homage to this well-loved saint. They come alone and in groups, and they include people of all faiths and none. Shortly before he died, Francis had prayed a blessing over the city, saying "God bless you, holy city, for through you many souls will be saved, and within you many servants of God will dwell, and from you many will be chosen for the realms of life eternal." Assisi was declared a Word Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 2000 because of its architecture, its artistic and spiritual heritage and impact, its preservation of buildings and landscapes, and as the birthplace of the Franciscan Order and movement. On 26th September 1997 a string earthquake the town and surrounding area, which damaged the Basilica of St Francis and other buildings but most of the damage has since been repaired.
Whilst Francis lived many centuries ago, we know a great deal about him; indeed, it turns out that few if any medieval lives are better documented. According to the bibliography of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, more biographies have been written about Francis than about any other person. A search for 'Francis of Assisi' in the integrated catalogue of the British Library shows more than 400 entries. A search for 'Francis Assisi' in Google produces nearly two million results.
Inevitably most of this vast range of material about Francis relies heavily on the early sources that have survived. This early source material falls into two categories. First there are Francis’s own writings, include his directions to the Order he founded (including the Rule, the Admonitions and his Will), the rule for the Poor Clares, and some letters to Clare and one to Brother Leo. Secondly there are two early biographies written by contemporaries who knew him.
The first biography was the Life of Francis written in 1228 by Thomas of Celano (commonly referred to simply as Celano), who joined the Franciscan Order eleven years before Francis died and knew him personally. Celano’s biography was rewritten in 1247 (as the Second Life) to correct some questionable passages about Brother Elias. Whilst Celano insisted that "it would take too long … to recount everything Francis did", that did not stop him from writing with gushing enthusiasm, as one might expect from a writer whose main objective is to elevate his subject to the highest level of perfection. Christopher Stace, a recent translator of the First Life, cautions us to remember that "Celano tells the truth as he sees it, the truth seen through the eyes of the thirteenth-century religious whose subject was his hero and idol." Celano’s writing sits firmly in the category of hagiography (writing that deliberately idealizes a person) rather than biography, so we must treat his text with appropriate care and sensitivity.
The official biography of Francis was written by Bonaventure, a Franciscan philosopher, around 1236, shortly after Francis’s death. Recent biographers insist that it frames Francis more as a miracle-worker than the man of poverty, which is how he is more generally seen today. Like Celano, Bonaventure is unashamedly positive about his subject.
More recent biographies inevitably lean heavily on these two contemporary biographers. Particularly formative has been Paul Sabatier’s Vie de S Francois (Life of St Francis), first published in 1894. Although Sabatier had little empathy with Francis’s religious perspective and behaviour, is book helped to open up the modern era of Franciscan study.
Appearance and character
There are many popular images of Francis, who as St Francis of Assisi has been the subject of a great deal of iconography over the centuries. The typical image is of a deathly thin monk staring out from beneath a brown hood, with a long thin face, piercing eyes, a thin untidy beard, projecting a strong sense of humility and serenity.
Celano offers a very graphic description of Francis: "[He was] quite an eloquent man, with a cheerful and kindly face. … He was less than medium in height, bordering on shortness. His head was of moderate size and round, his face somewhat long and striking, and a smooth, low forehead. His eyes were black and clear and of average size; his hair was black and his eyebrows straight, his symmetrical nose was thin and straight. His small ears stood up straight and his temples were smooth. His speech was peaceable, but fiery and crisp; his voice was strong, sweet, clear, and sonorous. His teeth were closely fitted, even, and white; his lips were small and thin; his beard was black and not bushy. He had a slender neck, straight shoulders, short arms, slender hands with long fingers and extended nails; his legs were thin, his feet small. He had delicate skin and was quite thin."
What is believed to be the oldest surviving image of Francis was painted in about 1218 (although it is dated 1223), allegedly by a Benedictine monk during Francis’s visit to Subiaco. It is in the Sacro Speco at Subiaco, and shows a bearded monk with a compassionate face. It is a representation, not a portrait in the modern sense of the word.
Most people’s ideas of how Francis looked are heavily shaped by the fresco painting of him by Cimabue in the Lower Basilica at Assisi. It shows a thin, gaunt figure with pale skin, a serene look and piercing eyes, dressed in a rough brown tunic, clutching a Bible to his chest, with a bright halo surrounding his tonsured head. This image looks out at us from most of the vast range of Francis merchandise on sale today. Other representations of Francis include porcelain statues of him by Giotto and Andrea della Robbia, and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 movie Brother Sun Sister Moon which portrays him in soft focus as a quiet, rather other-worldly character prone to day-dreaming.
Celano describes Francis’s character in typically gushing style: "What a fine, shining, glorious example Francis was in his innocence of life: in his simple way of speaking, in his purity of heart, in his love of God, in his charity towards his brothers, in his fervent obedience, willing submission, and the angelic expression he wore! His manners were charming, his disposition was mild, his way of talking courteous; he was most apt in exhortation, most faithful in performing any service with which he was charged, shrewd in counsel, competent in administration, and gracious in all things. Serene, sweet-natured, sober, he was rapt in contemplation, assiduous in prayer, resolute in virtue, persevering in grace, the same in all things. He was swift to forgive and slow to anger; he was quick-witted, had a tenacious memory, was subtle in argument, cautious in decision-making, and simple in all things. He was severe on himself, kind to others, and discreet in all things. Francis was a most eloquent man, and a man with a cheerful and kindly face; he knew nothing of cowardice, and was devoid of arrogance."
Separating the man from the myth and distinguishing between the rhetoric and reality about Francis remain major challenges. But, as G.K. Chesterton emphasizes, although there is "a mass of legends and anecdotes about St Francis of Assisi … nobody but a fool could fail to realise that Francis of Assisi was a very real historical human being."
Francis has been framed in many different ways and has meant different things to different people. Ian Morgan Cron, author of Chasing Francis – a recent novel based on the life of Francis – points out that "Rembrandt painted him, Zeffirelli filmed him, Chesterton eulogized him, Lenin dies with his name on his lips, Toynbee compared him to Jesus and Buddha, Kerouac picked him as patron of the ‘Beat’ generation, Sir Kenneth Clark called him Europe’s greatest religious genius."
Francis was and is loved and admired by many because of the simplicity of his lifestyle, his faithfulness to the call of God, his love of God and of his fellow humans, his non-violence and his love of nature. He interacted effectively with all sorts of people, and he continues to have a universal appeal to people of all backgrounds and religions. His strongest qualities were without doubt his dedication to God and his integrity. Francis was one of that rare breed of people – like Mother Teresa, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who have been used by God in very special ways, in serving the poor and the needy, making peace and bringing reconciliation, healing the sick and challenging received wisdoms about such things as status, wealth, and power.
Francis holds a special place in church history because of how he challenged the established church from within. Marie Dennis, in St Francis and the foolishness of God, refers to Francis as the "first Protestant" because of his reform from within the body of the church, with a focus on church wealth, neglect of the poor, and neglect of pastoral responsibilities. Biographer Adolf Holl describes Francis as "the last Christian" because "no one after him worked as strenuously against the forces of modernity as he did, with his body, with his very life."
Even though he is an important figure from history, Francis stills speaks to us today through his life and works. He has much to teach the wider church today. Ian Morgan Cron underlines the fact that: "Francis was a Catholic, an evangelical street preacher, a radical social activist, a contemplative who devoted hours to prayer, a mystic who had direct encounters with God, and someone who worshipped with all the enthusiasm and spontaneity of a Pentecostal. He was a wonderful integration of all the theological streams we have today."
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