Assisi

“There was a man in the city of Assisi, by name Francis, whose memory is
blessed, for that God, graciously presenting him with blessings of
goodness, delivered him in His mercy from the perils of this present
life, and abundantly filled him with the gifts of heavenly grace.

So speaks Saint Bonaventura of the noble character of the holy man of
Assisi, whose figure arises before us as we tread the streets of the
town of his birth. For Assisi is a place of pilgrimage, filled with
fragrant memories of that saint of whom even the heterodox speak with
loving reverence. St Francis stands distinct in an age of fanatic
religious zeal, as an example of tolerance, a lover of mercy, and a
practical follower of the teaching of Christian benevolence.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III. offered
indulgences to the faithful who would unite in a crusade against the
Albigensian heretics of Languedoc. For twenty years blood was shed
plentifully in this war upon heresy; for twenty years the hounds of
persecution were let loose on the hated enemies of papal absolutism.
“Kill all; God will know,” was the answer of the Pope’s legate during
this massacre, when asked by the crusaders how they could recognise the
heretics. While Languedoc and Provence were ravaged by the truculent
persecutors, and fires were lighted to burn the bodies of men, women and
children, St Francis lived in Assisi, preaching humanity and good will.
There is no testimony that he protested expressly against the
Albigensian crusades; but we know from his life and his writings that he
detested cruelty and violence, and never directly counselled
persecution.

In “The Golden Legend” we read that “Francis, servant and friend of
Almighty God, was born in the city of Assisi, and was made a merchant in
the twenty-fifth year of his age, and wasted his time by living vainly,
whom our Lord corrected by the scourge of sickness, and suddenly changed
him into another man, so that he began to shine by the spirit of
prophecy.”

Putting on the rags of a beggar, St Francis went to Rome, where he sat
among the mendicants before St Peter’s. Then began the miraculous cures
of lepers whose hands he kissed, and his many works of charity and
healing. He extolled “holy poverty,” and called poverty his “lady.” When
he saw a worm lying on the path, the compassionate saint removed it, so
that it should not be trodden on by passers-by. The birds he called his
brothers and sisters; he fed them, bade them sing or keep silence, and
they obeyed him. All birds and beasts loved him; and he taught the birds
to sing praises to their creator. St Francis was perhaps the first
eminent Christian who showed pity and love for the lower animals. In the
morass of Venice, he came upon a great company of singing-birds, and
entering among them, caused them to sing lauds to the Almighty.

St Francis taught asceticism to his followers, but it was the asceticism
of joy rather than of grief and pain. The saint had in him the qualities
of poet and artist as well as of pious mystic. He lived for a time the
life of the luxurious, and found it profitless and hollow; he passed
through the ordeal of the temptations that beset a young man born of
wealthy parents.

“The more thou art assailed by temptations, the more do I love thee,”
said the blessed St Francis to his friend Leo. “Verily I say unto thee
that no man should deem himself a true friend of God, save in so far as
he hath passed through many temptations and tribulations.”

Flung into the prison of Perugia, he rejoiced and sang, and when the
vulgar threw dirt upon him and his friars, he did not resent their
rudeness.

Trudging bare-footed through Umbria, scantily clothed, and subsisting
upon crusts offered by the charitable, St Francis set an example of the
holiness of poverty which impressed the peasants and excited their
veneration for the preacher and his gospel.

He worked as a mason, repairing the decayed Church of St Damian, and
preached a doctrine of labour and industry, forsaking all that he had so
that he might reap the ample harvest of Divine blessing. In winter the
saint would plunge into a ditch of snow, that he might check the
promptings of carnal desire. He refused to live under a roof at Assisi,
preferring a mere shelter of boughs, with the company of Brother Giles
and Brother Bernard. A cell of wood was too sumptuous for him.

As St Francis grew in holiness there appeared in him the stigmata of
Christ’s martyrdom. In his side there was the wound of the spear; in his
hands and feet were the marks of the nails. St Bonaventura relates that
after his death, the flesh of the saint was so soft that he seemed to
have become a child again, and that the wound in the side was like a
lovely rose.

He died, according to this historian, in 1226, on the fourth day of
October. His remains were interred in Assisi, and afterwards removed to
“the Church built in his honour,” in 1230.

After the canonisation of the holy St Francis many miracles happened in
Italy. In the church of his name in Assisi, when the Bishop of Ostia was
preaching, a huge stone fell on the head of a devout woman. It was
thought that she was dead, but being before the altar of St Francis, and
having “committed herself in faith” to him, she escaped without any
hurt. Many persons were cured of disease by calling upon the blessed
name of the Saint of Assisi, and mariners were often saved from wrecks
through his intervention.

St Francis lived when the fourth Lateran Council gave a new impetus to
persecution, by increasing the scope and power of the inquisition. This
gentlest of all the saints was surrounded by a host of influences that
made for religious rancour, and yet he preached a doctrine of love, and
was, so far as we can learn, quite untouched by the persecuting zeal
that characterised so many of his sainted contemporaries. It is with
relief, after the contemplation of the cruelty of his age, that we greet
the tattered ascetic of Assisi, as, in imagination, we see him pass up
the steps of the house wherein Brother Bernard was a witness of his
ecstasy.