Being St. Francis

Scenes from the discomfiting life of Francis of Assisi
Steven Adler

A genuine first-hand religious experience ... is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its days of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and the stone the prophets in their turn.

-- William James


WHEN Saint Francis -- San Francesco -- lay dying, he asked to be moved from the bishop's residence in Assisi to the chapel at the Portiuncula, a distance of about two miles outside the city walls. As they passed the city gates, he bid the friars carrying him to set him down on the road so that he might say a final farewell to the place of his birth. "This town," he began, "has the worst reputation in the whole region as the home of every kind of rogue and scoundrel." Then he begged God to bless the place and to make it the home of all who sincerely honored his name.


The Canticle of the Creatures
Valerie Martin introduces a recording of the famous song composed by Saint Francis, from the CD Saint Francis and the Minstrels of God (1996), featuring the Altramar medieval music ensemble.

A Wonderful New Song
"So he is happy here, in the place they have made for him. Despite his illness, his blindness, the constant pain in his head, he is singing as cheerfully as a morning lark." An additional excerpt from Valerie Martin's Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis.

According to a contemporary brochure put out by the commune's busy tourist agency, Assisi is a city that cannot just be "seen"; it must be "experienced" as a place, perhaps the place, where "the spirit of St. Francis pervades all." Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors, art lovers, tourists, and pilgrims from all over the world flock to see the famous basilica where the saint is buried. The narrow streets in which Francesco begged for bread are lined with hundreds of shops selling all manner of atrocious trinkets and some of the worst food to be found in Italy, at prices as breathtaking as the view from the Rocca Maggiore, the late-medieval fortress that glowers over the prosperous, crowded town. The spirit that pervades these streets is the same one that whistled down the stone staircases and across the Piazza del Commune in Francesco's lifetime, the same spirit that drove him straight into the outspread arms of Jesus Christ: the cold, relentless, insatiable, furious spirit of commerce.

Francesco di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi, toward the end of 1181, to a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica, who may or may not have been French. He had an ordinary childhood, helping his father at his business and attending the church school near his house, where he was an unremarkable student. He grew to be a lively young man, fond of music and parties, given to romantic tales, dreams of knighthood, fantastical treasure quests, but also to prayer in solitary chapels. During one such occasion, at the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, God spoke to him from a crucifix, bidding him to repair the church. Francesco took some bolts of cloth from his father's warehouse, sold them, and delivered the money to the priest who lived there to pay for the repair of the chapel. Pietro, enraged by his son's extravagance, brought a complaint against him, which was resolved in the public square of Assisi. When the bishop gave Francesco the money and advised him to return to his father what was his, Francesco declared, "My Lord Bishop, not only will I gladly give back the money which is my father's, but also my clothes." He stripped off his clothes, placed the money on them, and standing naked before the bishop, his father, and all present, announced, "Listen, all of you, and mark my words. Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but because I am resolved to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will say, 'Our Father who art in heaven,' and not 'Father Pietro Bernardone.'" The crowd wept in sympathy, and the bishop covered the naked and rebellious youth with his own cloak.

Francesco then took refuge in the poor church, where he devoted himself to making repairs; he begged for food and oil on the streets of Assisi. His former neighbors mocked him and drove him away, but one rich young man, Bernardo of Quintavalle, impressed by Francesco's sincerity and evident contentment in his new life, decided to join him. Together the two men gave away all of Bernardo's money and possessions to the poor.

More followers joined them. When they numbered twelve, the group walked to Rome to ask the Pope to approve a rule by which they might live as liegemen of the Church. After a dream in which he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing and Francesco holding it up, the Pope, Innocent III, gave them an oral and very conditional approval.

Presented by

Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever (1999).

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