December 6, 2012
Book: St. Francis: A short biography
Author: Kathleen M. Carroll
Franciscan Media. Cincinnati, OH. 2012. pp. 58
An Excerpt from the Jacket:
He is the guy on the birdbath in your neighbor's garden. He fascinated biographers in his own century and continues to inspire films, novels, poems, and music in our century. He is the little poor man whose influence spans eight hundred years; a "king of revels" who became servant of all; a man of war who became a man of God.
Though he lived and worked in the Catholic tradition, his fame has spread to all Christians and beyond. His name is synonymous everywhere with joy, with simplicity, with peace.
An Excerpt from the Book:
Some of Francis's biographers oversimplify his early life. "There was a dapper young man," they tell us, "who one day had a vision that changed his life." This does Francis a disservice. His "conversion," as it's often called, was not instant and it was not easy. He was born and raised in a devout family; doubtless he thought that he was doing his Christian duty simply by following the path his family and friends laid out for him. Once that notion was taken from him, he had nothing to take its place.
Though it is still somewhat true today, people in Francis's day were best identified by what they did. Whether one was a soldier, a merchant, a cleric, or a serf, this was far more than a job or even a career --- it was a vocation. While we might be tolerant of young people who try their hands at several trades in an effort to "find themselves," this was a rarity in the Middle Ages. One was what one did and if one did nothing, well, one was nothing. A son of wealth, Francis was able to coast longer than most, but it was becoming clear to all that Francis was no longer pursuing a knighthood, took only slight interest in his father's business, and did not even fully embrace the rich playboy lifestyle offered to him.
The fog began to clear one day when Francis stopped by a wayside church. Then, as now, the Italian landscape raised churches as profusely as olives. The church named for St. Damian was one of many just outside the walls of Assisi. The ancient walls of the tiny building were crumbling with age and neglect. Francis looked constantly for places where he could be alone to pray, to beg to know God's will. San Damiano may have been the hundredth --- or the thousandth --- door he breached in his quest. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a terse but poetic way of telling the story: "While Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix in the forsaken wayside chapel of St. Damian's below the town, he heard a voice saying: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."
Though Francis had had many "visions" up to this point, they seem to have come in dreams, or a voice in his head, or even a nudge in a direction of thought. St. Bonaventure explains that, this time, it was different: "Francis was alone in the church and he was terrified at the sound of the voice." Even though he had pined and begged and waited for God's voice, Francis was stunned when it came. Thomas of Celano says that the message was so powerful, so clearly the one for which Francis had been waiting, that in time it "penetrated his heart." Francis abandoned his fear and embraced the ecstasy that followed.
So eager was Francis for direction that his enthusiasm in following it was nearly comical. He plundered his father's shop and loaded his horse with all the cloth it could carry. He rode to nearby Foligno and sold the cloth --- and his horse. He took the proceeds back to Assisi (presumably on foot) and presented them to the priest who ministered at poor San Damiano.
The priest was not quite as willing as Francis to throw caution to the wind. He recognized Francis and knew the money must be traceable to Pietro Bernardone --- a man not known for his generosity. He refused the money, which Francis tossed onto a windowsill in disdain, but allowed Francis to stay with him and make such repairs to the little church as his soft-skinned hands would permit. Far from a mercenary gesture, the priest seems to have been trying to protect Francis from Pietro, who, he was certain, would not be pleased by this turn of events. The priest was right.
Table of Contents:
His father's son