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Being Saint Francis

Illustration by Steven Adler

Scenes from the discomfiting life of Francis of Assisi

by Valerie Martin

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
The Varieties of Religious Experience


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.

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More on arts and culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Search for a No-Frills Jesus," by Charlotte Allen (December 1996)
A group of scholars looking for the "real" Jesus -- the human figure divested of theological raiment -- believe that they have found him in Q, a primitive text whose very existence, let alone content, remains a matter of speculation.

"The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher," by Dmitri Tymoczko (May 1996)
Do drugs make religious experience possible? They did for William James and for other philosopher-mystics of his day. James's experiments with psychoactive drugs raise difficult questions about beliefs and its conditions.

"Green-Hearted Italy," by Corby Kummer (September 1995)
A journey through the Italian region of Umbria, including the region's principal tourist site, Assisi.

"Who Do Men Say That I Am?," by Cullen Murphy (December 1986)
The study of Jesus has been an extraordinarily active enterprise in recent decades. Though rooted in the past, it is among the least antiquarian of historical or theological pursuits.


audioear pictureThe 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.

Francesco's brotherhood, the Fratres Minores, grew rapidly. Within a few years the original twelve had grown to 5,000 (in comparison, the Dominican order, the Friars Preachers, as they were known, founded at roughly the same time, had fewer than fifty friars by 1220). They met each year during the feast of Pentecost for chapter meetings at the Portiuncula, a wooded area owned by local Benedictine monks and leased to the friars for one basket of fish a year. At these meetings Francesco delivered various admonitions; the friars were assigned to different regions; the custos, or caretakers, and ministers were appointed; and problems of administration were addressed. Between meetings the mission of the fratres was to wander homeless over the world, preaching repentance, begging for their food, offering themselves as servants to all. This, they believed, was the way the early Apostles had lived, the way Jesus had adjured all his followers to live -- giving the world an example of virtue, loving poverty, making no preparations for the next meal or the next bed, but leaving everything to God.

A Rich Young Man on the Road

IN the morning, when he leaves Foligno, on the last leg of his journey from Rome to Assisi, Francesco's horse plods along at a steady pace, requiring neither guidance nor urging. Francesco is in no hurry, for his home has none of the charms of the adventure he brings to a close with his return. Everyone will want to hear about what he has seen; even his father will listen to his descriptions of Rome, the city of wonders, of the towers and bridges, the palace of the Laterano, and all the shrines and sacred relics he visited. But he will not mention the event that most fired his imagination, because anyone who hears of it will say it was a shameful, foolish exploit, the folly of a wealthy and useless young man who hasn't the sense to appreciate his position. Suppose, his father would exclaim, just suppose some neighbor from Assisi had recognized him. How could he hold his head up in the town?

Something has been coming to him now for some time. He cannot be sure what it is or when it began, but he can feel it moving toward him, gathering momentum. His dreams are full of triumph; voices speak to him and counsel him, showing him scenes of great glory and making a promise: All this will be yours. But when he is awake, there are no triumphs, though he is free to indulge himself in whatever pursuits and amusements his father's money can buy. Nothing obstructs him; no one contradicts him. When he made up his mind to visit the holy places in Rome, he met with no objections. His mother provided him with a pouch full of bread and sweets, and his father encouraged him to take the better of their horses; both parents were anxious that his clothes be the finest and that he carry enough silver to make proper offerings at the shrines.

His horse shakes his head, as if to remind Francesco that he has at least some small obligations as a rider, and he comes to himself with a start. It is a spring day of stunning perfection; the air is cool and fresh, the sky overhead as blue as the mantle of the Holy Virgin, and on either side of the road the fields stretch away pleasantly, olive trees on one side, grain on the other, bordered by ranks of cypress and pine. There are contingents of chaffinches chirping in the dusty leaves of the olive trees, and swallows whirling overhead in undulating formations, like fallen leaves twisting and turning in a stream. He passes two peasants digging mud by the side of the road and another leading a reluctant goat by a bit of dirty rope. They glance at him as he goes by, a rich young man, carefree, and they give terse responses to his friendly salutations. The goat gives a strangled cry, struggling at the end of his rope while his owner curses and threatens him. Francesco looks away, wounded, as he always is by displays of pointless ferocity. He has seen too many the past few days in Rome, where men and beasts are crowded together and tempers flare at the most innocent remark. At the Basilica of San Pietro he saw two men fighting on the very steps, and later, when he came out, there was such a quantity of blood, though no sign of the combatants, that he thought one had surely killed the other. And it was there, as he stood looking around nervously, that a voice called out to him from the shadows of the vestibule, and the peculiar and wonderful adventure began.

"Have you given it all to the thieving priests?" the voice inquired. "Or is there a coin to spare for those that may truly have need of it?"

Francesco stepped away from the blood soaking into the paving stones and approached the man -- if he was a man, for all he could see of him was one bare foot, so swollen and bruised that it looked more like a rotten vegetable than human flesh. "I have not given it all," he said, stepping in under the arch. He could see nothing, for the bright daylight had dazzled his eyes and now the shadows confounded them, but he heard the harsh laughter of several men. One of them said, "Here is the last honest man in the world," and another responded, "It proves what I have been telling you, that the Judgment Day is near, for here is the new Christ among us to prove it."

"And the Pope is the Antichrist," the first speaker declared. Francesco gazed down at them as his eyes became accustomed to the dark. There were three of them; two were old fellows, or so they appeared. The third, the one who had announced the imminence of the Judgment Day, was a youth of perhaps Francesco's age with thick blond hair, scarcely any beard, and an open, ingenuous expression. He looked Francesco up and down with a bold, rapacious eye. "Now, that's a fine cloak such as only a nobleman could afford," he observed.

"I am not a nobleman," Francesco replied. "But my father is a cloth merchant."

The young man got to his feet awkwardly, pressing his hands against the wall behind him. When he was halfway up, he hopped forward onto his one good leg. The other was stunted and shriveled. He could put his weight on this leg long enough to make a quick step; he crossed the space with a rolling, out-of-kilter gait, and then propped himself against the wall. "Wouldn't I look a prince in such a cloak as that?" he said, smiling up into Francesco's face. His lower right teeth were missing, and when he smiled, his lower lip fell in over the gap.

"For the love of God," one of the old men said, "give us a coin if you won't give us the cloak."

Francesco turned to look at the speaker, narrowing his eyes to make him out in the shadows, crouched beside his friend, who rubbed his face with his palms and echoed, "Yes, give us a coin, for the love of God."

"For the love of God," Francesco said.

He looked into the eyes of the ragged young man who imagined no greater glory than to have such a cloak as his. "Will you trade your clothes for mine?" he said. In reply the youth gave a hoot of delight. The old men cackled together; here was an odd business. "Will you let me sit here with you?" Francesco continued, as he pulled off his cloak, his doublet, his leather girdle. The young man began stripping off his rags, which took no time at all, because he wore only a short sackcloth tunic and a pair of filthy breeches embroidered with holes. "I will have to take my other clothes back when I go," Francesco explained, examining the contents of his purse, "but I will leave you my cloak and all but two of these coins; I will need that much for my journey home."

"Giuseppe is right," one of the old men remarked. "This proves that God's judgment is nigh on this world."

Francesco laughed. Half-naked, he bent over to pull off his leggings. Giuseppe had already donned his shirt. "And will you share your food with me?" Francesco asked. This sent them all into a riot of laughter. "Oh, yes," they agreed. Giuseppe slid down the wall to the stones, clutching his new cloak, which he had bundled in his arms like a baby. "You are welcome to everything we have," he announced, with the casual grace and courtesy of a lord offering hospitality to some bedraggled traveler.

Francesco stayed with them all day, and the people who saw him took him for one of the beggars. What was this sensation, so delicious and unexpected, when a passing lady paused to look down at him with a haughty yet pitying eye? As he stretched out his hand to her, she turned away, drawing her heavy skirt in close, lest he should touch it. Did she thank heaven that no son of hers would ever be found in such disgraceful circumstances? And what would she say if she knew that this importuning beggar was a sham, deserving neither charity nor pity, for he had a horse, a purse, and fine clothes, and would return in a day or two to his father's comfortable house, where a servant would greet him at the door?

When evening came, two more men joined the group, and they all sat down in the street to share the food they had begged. It was poor stuff, black bread and a little grain, which they made into a porridge, for one of them owned an iron pot, and another had begged some sticks of firewood. Francesco listened to their lively conversation, full of profanity and derision for the vanity of the world. Though he was wealthy, they included him, as if he, too, did not know when he would find a meal again. After they had eaten, he changed back into his own clothes and laughed with them over the miracle of his transformation. Yet he felt an aching, premonitory sadness as the crisp linen settled across his shoulders; it was as though he were putting on a costume that would deceive only a fool, for a wise man would see at once that it did not suit him, that it must belong to some other man, an elegant, stylish young man, and that Francesco was an impostor in his own clothes. He folded his cloak and laid it in Giuseppe's lap, accepting his enthusiastic blessing and the boisterous farewells of the others, who promised him their hospitality whenever he should return. Then, bowing and waving as they repeatedly called his name, he wandered out into the dark streets alone.

Now he is himself again, but not himself; something has changed, and the world looks different because of it. He has acquired, among other novelties, a memory he will not share. His horse carries him back over the same road he traveled before. His senses are open; he is prey to sudden and conflicting emotions. He sees himself from the outside, and he is not entirely gratified by what he sees.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever (1999). Her article in this issue is taken from her biography Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis, to be published by Knopf next spring.

Illustrations by Steven Adler.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; Being St. Francis - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 52-61.