m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

A U G U S T  2 0 0 0 

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

The Friar and the Pope

THEY have arrived at the Lateran palace, a city within the city, and have made their way through the outer courts and inner vestibules to the great hall where the Lord Pope receives the never-ending tributes and entreaties of the horde that constitutes Jesus Christ's Church on earth. Clerics and prelates, secretaries and legates, lords and guildsmen, each in the costume suitable to his condition and rank, occupy themselves with the ceremonies required to command for even one moment the sublime attention of His Holiness. Bishop Guido guides Francesco and his brothers through the crowd, exchanging a word with a guard here and a secretary there, until they stand before a pair of doors as tall as trees, which open before them ponderously and with an impressive creaking of hinges, like the long-unopened gates of Paradise. They are herded inside by the bishop and passed along by a series of papal functionaries. The Lord Pope, seated at the far end of the great room on his high throne, leans forward to watch their approach. The babble of conversation does not entirely cease, but the volume drops appreciably as all eyes are gradually drawn to this ragged, uncouth, unwashed collection of bumpkins, whose bare feet slap the polished marble floors. Their small, dark, bright-eyed leader steps out ahead of them, his eagerness so barely contained that he seems to execute a bizarre new dance step as he charges forward. The Pope sends Cardinal Giovanni, who stands at his side, an incredulous and skeptical look: This is his discovery? This shabby, inelegant creature fresh from the sty? This is his idea of what the Church will require if it is to stem the flood of heresy and dissension that is washing down from the north? Truly, God's wonders have not ceased.

When Francesco reaches the foot of the steps leading to the Pope's throne, his progress is checked by a terse command from a guard. He looks up to Cardinal Giovanni, who nods at him distantly. He sweeps back the skirt of his patched and unsightly tunic as if it were the robe of an emperor and inclines his head and shoulders in a lordly bow. He can hear the cardinal's introduction: "Here is our Brother Francesco di Pietro Bernardone of Assisi, whom I have examined, and who begs the ear of Your Holiness." Francesco keeps his head down but raises his eyes and looks directly into the Lord Pope's opaque and chilly scrutiny. The Pope's golden corona is studded with jewels, and it rises like the dome of a gleaming beehive high above his head. The rigid collar of his cope is so high that it obscures the lower part of his face, so he appears to be a small mound of gold, brocade, and jewels from which peer steadily two heavy-lidded, skeptical eyes above a long aquiline nose. As Francesco stares, uncertain whether to speak, genuflect, or back cautiously away, the folds of the cope rustle, and a small, pale hand appears, the index finger extended, pointing at him. Then the finger crooks once in a summoning gesture. He casts an anxious look at the cardinal, who lifts his chin, reinforcing the Pope's command. Eagerly Francesco climbs the wide steps to the foot of the papal throne.

Francesco stands before the Lord Pope, nodding his head at something the cardinal is saying. Pope Innocent listens, his neck bent forward beneath the weight of his corona, his shoulders drooping beneath the weight of his robes. His gaze wanders from the cardinal to Francesco and then out to the brothers, huddled together nervously like dull sheep liable to panic and run off a cliff if their shepherd isn't quick about his business. He looks back at the shepherd in question, a dreamy fellow at best, full of enthusiasm, lacking judgment, doubtless barely literate, though Bishop Guido and Cardinal Giovanni have assured His Holiness that these penitents do much good in their district, nursing the poor and even the lepers, repairing churches, preaching repentance and, more important, respect for the Holy See. How much harm could they do if sanctioned, and how much more if refused? He presses his eyelids with his fingertips, listening to the cardinal, who seems determined to keep his protégé from speaking for himself.

The brothers have begun to feel more at ease and to look around curiously. Brother Egidio, gazing up into the gloom, makes a discovery, which he brings to the attention of Brother Angelo. Up there, on the capital of that column, can he see it? Angelo cranes his neck; he doesn't see anything. Then, as Egidio raises his arm to point, Angelo does see it. But what is it? Is it a sparrow or a wren? The bird hops from one marble leaf to another and then takes off in the direction of the doors. It is a sparrow. They follow its dizzy flight as it sails through the cloudy upper atmosphere of the room.

"It seems to me that your way of life is too hard," the Pope comments at last, addressing himself pointedly to Francesco, who smiles as if he expected just this objection, though he says not a word to refute it. Straightway the cardinal offers his unsolicited opinion, which is that it might cause painful and unnecessary misunderstandings among the laity if the Holy Father should decree that the way of life recommended in the Gospels is too difficult for a Christian to undertake. This is not, the Pope concedes, an insignificant point. And as he considers it, his gaze wanders again to the brothers huddled out there in the aisle -- surely an unpromising lot. One of them is rubbing his eyes with two fists, like a sleepy child, and two others stand apart, gazing up at the ceiling with their mouths ajar, like simpletons in a field making fantastic pictures out of the clouds.

Stigmata

THE shadows have lengthened, and the night birds have begun their plaintive chorus. Brother Leone lights the lamp, adjusts the flame, and returns to his occupation, cutting long strips from a square of white wool. Francesco sits next to him on a stone, his hands resting palms up in his lap. Leone's method is to cut the edge and then rip the strips away. The repeated complaint of the tearing cloth is the only sound in the dim cell. Francesco dabs at his eye with the sleeve of his robe.

It is always worst on Saturday, because Francesco refuses to have his bandages changed on Friday, the day when the Lord Christ suffered on the cross. Leone has removed the cloths from his hands and feet without much difficulty, but they both know that the wound in his side is the most painful to clean, because it bleeds more copiously than the others. So they leave it for last. Leone lays out his strips, takes one up, and kneels at Francesco's feet. Because the nailhead protrudes from the flesh, he lays the strip beneath the iron, passing the cloth around the foot until it is level with the hard black disk. He does this carefully, gently. Moving the nail is excruciating to Francesco, though he never complains, only draws his breath in sharply.

When he has finished with Francesco's feet and hands, Leone helps him pull his tunic over his head, so that he can change the wide bandage that wraps his torso. Francesco groans as he lifts his arms, and Leone winces, apologizing for the pain. Francesco's fingers flutter around the waist of his breeches, touching the edge of the bandage. Leone bends over to inspect it. The blood has soaked through and dried.

Leone has confessed to Brother Rufino the anxiety in his heart when he thinks of his own sinful nature and how unworthy he is to serve so holy a man, yet he is convinced that only through the grace of Father Francesco has his poor soul any hope of salvation. God has chosen Francesco as his instrument to save many souls that would otherwise be damned, and Leone's most fervent prayer is that through no merit of his own but through his devotion to Francesco he will be one of that select company of the redeemed. Yet even as he nourishes that hope, he knows that he has no right to it, because he is so sinful and plagued by temptations.

Now, as he studies the bloodstained bandage, he feels a welling up of emotions: fear, pity, devotion, heart-smiting love. For a moment he does not move, and Francesco asks, "What is it, brother lamb of Christ?"

Leone shivers, drawing away. "It's dry," he says. "But when I unwrap it, it will open again."

Francesco straightens his spine and opens his arms out from his sides as if he were praying, and perhaps he is. Leone unfastens the end of the bandage and slowly pulls away the outer layer. It comes loose easily, but with the next layer he feels a slight resistance, and Francesco's knitted brow tells him what he already knows. "Forgive me, Father," Leone says, pulling the cloth free with a quick jerk. Francesco bites his lower lip without speaking. There is one layer to go, and it will be the most painful. Leone brings the loose part of the bandage just to the edge of the wound, and then pulls it lightly to find the deepest part. Francesco's face has gone white, but he does not flinch. Instead he raises one hand and lays it on Leone's chest, just over his heart. "My dear son," he says softly.

Leone looks down at the bandaged hand pressing gently against his chest. The wonder of the moment overcomes him. Francesco's hand is like a burning sword plunged into his heart, inflaming him with such passionate devotion that his vision blurs and he gasps for air. How is it possible that he is here, tending the miraculous wounds of this new Christ, who is also his dearest friend and companion, his brother, father, and mother, who inspired him, when they were both young and in love with Lady Poverty, to follow him on a great adventure of the soul? They have walked a thousand miles in this quest, only to come to this cell, where Francesco touches Leone's heart with the hand that bears the proof that he is the most dearly loved of all those who serve the Lord Christ, because of all the saints only he has been chosen to share in Jesus Christ's own suffering.

"Francesco," Leone says, leaning into the hand that presses, that holds, his heart, and meeting his beloved's eyes, which, though they can scarcely see him, still pour forgiveness, love, and perfect understanding over him like warm rain. Brother Leone is swooning. He fears he will be destroyed by the power of this love. Yet his hands are still engaged in their task. With a cry of terror commingled with joy, he pulls sharply at the cloth, freeing it from the wounded flesh. As he loses consciousness, he sees the blood gushing forth, and it seems to him that his whole body and his soul are bathed and refreshed in this blood, which is shed for him, and which he cannot deserve.

Epilogue

SOME see the stigmata as the crowning achievement of Francesco's life, signaling his complete identification, and hence union, with his beloved Jesus Christ. Others suggest that there was an element of despair in the miracle -- that Francesco saw himself as crucified by the unrest and infighting in the great movement he had founded. His contemporaries, though they had never heard of such a thing before, seem to have accepted it as well within the realm of possibility, and even in keeping with what they understood to be the nature of God's continual interference in the world of men. Francesco had, in their view, been singled out and marked by Jesus as his own. It proved what everyone already suspected -- that he was a living saint. Two years later, in October of 1226, Francesco died peacefully at Assisi, revered by all, his devoted friars gathered around him. He was forty-five years old.

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


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 Saint Francis - 00.08 (Part Three); Volume 286, No. 2; page 52-61.