Being St. Francis
Scenes from the discomfiting life of Francis of Assisi
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.
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.
N 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.
IS back is stiff and sore from days of riding and from the long rounds of the shrines. He shrugs his shoulders, attempting to shake out the soreness, and rolls his head in a slow circle, easing the knotted muscles in his neck. As he does this, his horse starts, making a panicked sidestep that nearly unseats him. He catches up the reins as he lifts himself out of the saddle and then, when he drops back into his seat, he loosens his knees, gripping the horse's flanks with his calves. He knows as he goes through these automatic calming responses that there is something in the road just ahead, something that was not there a moment ago. The horse comes to a standstill in a cloud of dust that rises to his knees, and he stands working his head back and forth against the bit. Francesco rests a hand on his mane and says his name softly, reassuringly, as he looks down past the foaming lips to see what has so terrified this normally sedate and reliable creature.
The leper stands in the middle of the road, perfectly still. One hand rests on the bell cord around his neck, the other hangs limply at his side. He is dressed in a filthy garment, patched together from bits of sacking and undyed wool, which hangs loosely on his emaciated body. He regards Francesco and his horse steadily, his head slightly turned and his chin lifted, the better to see them, for his disease has eaten away half his face and he has only one eye.
Francesco does not speak. He cannot move. They face each other on the road, and the bright sun pours down great quantities of light over them, so there are no shadows anywhere, nothing to soften or dim the harsh reality of this encounter, and nowhere to hide from the necessity of playing it out. The leper's eye drills into Francesco. From childhood he has had a horror of lepers, and he has always avoided the lazaretto at the foot of Mount Subasio, where they sometimes congregate in the road, rattling their wooden bells and calling out for alms. He dreams of the foul stench rising from their rotting flesh, their grotesque faces, their phlegmy, guttural voices. He wakes sweating and shouting for help.
He glances back down the road and into the neat ranks of the olive trees. All is uncommonly empty and still. Even the birds, twittering only a moment ago, have been silenced.
He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. He could throw down his last coin to the leper as he passes. His horse lifts one hoof and paws the hard dirt. It is time to go on, to go home. As Francesco drops his hand to the reins, his eyes fall on his own well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not wearing gloves, which is odd, because he and his kind are required always to wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required always to wear and ring their bells to warn unwary travelers of their approach.
Again Francesco looks down on the solitary figure of the leper, who has not moved. His hand is wrapped around the cord, his head arrested at an angle. He is like a statue, lifeless and weather-beaten, and Francesco has the sudden sense that he has been standing there, in his path, forever.
Something has been coming toward him, or he has been coming to something; he has known this for some time, and he has bent his energy in the direction of finding out what it might be. This was the reason for his pilgrimage to Rome. At the shrines he had recited the requisite prayers; gazed upon the relics, the bones, the bits of hair and cloth, the vials of blood and tears; and proferred the proper offerings. But he had not felt the burden of his sins lifted, and this spiritual restlessness drove him on. Only when he was with the beggars in the vestibule of the basilica had he felt some respite from this condition of tense and urgent expectancy.
He is in the grip of it again as he swings one leg over the saddle and drops to the ground beside his horse. The stillness of the world makes every sound acute -- the clinking of the bridle chain as he leads the animal to a green patch nearby, the sound of grass tearing, and then the big jaws grinding. Francesco runs his hands through his hair, bats the dust from the front of his surcoat, and turns to face the man, who is there waiting for him.
The leper watches him with interest. His blasted face is bathed in sunlight; the black hole that was his eye has a steely sheen, and a few moist drops on his scab-encrusted lips glitter like precious stones. He moves at last, releasing his cord and extending his hand slowly, palm up, before him.
This supplicating gesture releases Francesco, for it dictates the countergesture, which he realizes he longs to make. Without hesitation he strides across the distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, extracts the thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he has ever before been to one of these unfortunate beings, and the familiar reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it down. He can hear the rasp of the leper's breath, rattling and wet. The battle between Francesco's will and his innate reluctance overmasters him: he misses a step, recovers, and then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which is hardly recognizable as a hand but is, rather, a lumpish, misshapen thing, the fingers so swollen and callused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh as black and hard as an animal's rough paw.
Carefully Francesco places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and white. For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back. It was only so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow; he has found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire. Tenderly he takes the leper's hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness that pours over his tongue, burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. These tears moisten the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this moment -- this moment he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might not live through it.
He reaches up, clinging to the leper's tunic, for the wind is so strong and cold that he fears he cannot stand against it. Behind him the horse lifts its head from grazing and lets out a long, impatient whinny, but Francesco does not hear it. He is there in the road, rising to his feet, and the leper assists him, holding him by the shoulders. Then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down and the air is hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about; their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life.
E can hear their voices, angry and exultant, over the terrified cries of their prisoners, like the shouts of butchers one to another when they are herding squealing, struggling pigs into the slaughtering pen. These captors are neither men nor beasts; in spite of their hairy backs, black horns, brutish snouts, and birds' feet, they stand upright and brandish in their large human hands the tools of their trade: lashes; slashing hooks; glowing, red-hot irons. One digs his talons into the neck of a naked man who writhes beneath him, his face swollen and blue, his body drawn up in an impossible arc. The man's mouth is opened wide in a howl, for his captor has forced a thick rod between his buttocks and is bearing down hard upon it. Behind these two a woman has fallen to her knees as she struggles to release her shoulder from the jaws of another demon. The creature's thick reptilian tail is wrapped around her torso, holding her fast against his thighs. He mocks her suffering, pointing out her destination: a black tube with teeth, like the mouth of an enormous serpent, down which two of his fellows have thrown another victim -- whether male or female is uncertain, because only the legs and feet are visible. The feet are curiously flexed. All but two of the prisoners are naked: a man in rich garb, carrying a sack across his shoulders and entering the awful scene through a flaming gate at one side, and another man crawling on the ground near the serpent's mouth, naked but for the bishop's miter still firmly in place on his head, his torso wrapped tightly in the coiled tail of another demon. The bishop is gazing at another man, who has a demon crouched on his stomach. The creature is positioned so that his buttocks are poised just over his victim's face; his sharp talons are sunk in the man's genitals. The sufferer's mouth is held open by an iron device, and his eyes are rolled back in agony and horror. From the demon's anus flows a stream of gold coins, filling the open mouth, choking the man with gold.
Francesco lets out a soft huff of amusement as he examines this last image. He looks up from the dark and lurid sufferings of the damned to the bright sunlit window next to him, but he does not notice the limpidity of the light that illuminates the book and the table he is bending over, because he hears the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside. Hurriedly he crosses the room and drops down into an open recess in the floor, a space so narrow and shallow that he has to curl himself in a ball to fit into it. He reaches up to slide the flat stone that serves as a lid for this, his own personal hell, into place, closing his eyes tight against the dirt that always showers down when the stone's edge lodges in the earth.
The door has opened, the intruder has paused, and then the footsteps come purposefully to the hiding place. Two sharp raps bring down a fresh shower of dirt. Francesco pushes against the stone, lifting it, while his friend grabs the edge and pulls it back across the floor. Francesco sits up in his hole and rubs the dirt from his eyes.
"Your father has not relented," the old priest says. "He knows you are in hiding hereabouts, and he has sworn to find you if he has to pay the entire guard."
"He won't have to pay anyone," Francesco says flatly.
The priest throws up his hands. "What will you do?"
"I'm going to Assisi," Francesco says. "He will find me in the street easily enough."
NSIDE the gates of Assisi two boys, returning from the forest, each burdened by a large dead hare, push past Francesco, and he is so weak that he staggers into the wall. Their heads come up like those of young wolves alerted by the misstep of a sheep, their eyes fix coldly upon him, and their nostrils quiver, testing the air, deciphering the scent of vulnerability and fear. "Idiot," one observes to the other. Francesco rights himself and continues up the street, holding the skirt of his tunic so that he will not trip on it. The boys fall into step behind him. Each is half his size but has twice his strength. "You know who this is," one says to the other. "This is the son of Pietro Bernardone, the one who has robbed his father and disgraced his name." Francesco plods on, his eyes on the paving stones rising ahead of him.
"Why have you come back, madman?" one of the boys taunts him. "Do you think your father will welcome you?" The other steps up quickly, overtaking Francesco and dancing out ahead of him, brandishing his hare. He squeezes his nose with his free hand and whines, "God, how he stinks."
"He stinks of his friends at the lazaretto," his companion offers. "He is searching for his new love among the lepers." At this Francesco looks briefly over his shoulder, his expression a mixture of exhaustion, fever, and irony. The boy feels the hot black arrow of this regard as a momentary hesitation, instantly banished by the arrival of a boisterous trio clattering down the steps from San Giorgio. They are just released from school and wild from a morning of Latin declensions, intent now on merriment or mischief, whichever comes easiest. At once they spy Francesco and his persecutors and rush forward to join in the game, shouting imprecations -- "Idiot," "Swine," "Thief," "Madman." Circling Francesco, they pluck at his sleeves, bump him hard with their hips and elbows, mock his efforts to keep his footing and to continue on his way. His resistance is feeble and he does not protest, which excites their contempt. They speak for him, grinning and winking at one another, "Oh, do not push me so, my dear Giorgio." "Matteo, why are you so rough with me?" The racket brings women to the upper windows along the street. "It is Pietro Bernardone's son," one observes to another. Like a feather riding on the air, this phrase is borne away along the streets, fluttering across the piazza at San Giorgio, sucked into the narrow passageway and puffed out across the marketplace, where the stalls are closing for the day. Old women, trudging homeward with their baskets half empty -- summer is over, and already there is little to buy but turnips, apples, and quinces -- lift their sharp faces to hear the news: "Pietro's son, Francesco, has come back."
As Francesco makes his way through the town, the mocking entourage thickens around him, and he can scarcely see what is ahead. The children pick up stones and clods of dirt, which they pitch at him, shouting with delight when they hit their mark. He plods on, indifferent to all provocation; but when they pass the ancient columns of Minerva's temple, the press in front of him suddenly parts, and he is faced with a sight that weakens his knees, though not his resolve. His father rushes toward him, bellowing, cursing, calling on God and on all his neighbors to witness his disgrace and his fury. His face is bright red, his eyes bulge in their sockets, his lips are pulled back over his teeth like an enraged dog's. Francesco stands his ground, but at the last, as his father charges down on him, he throws up his hands to protect his face.
"Ingrate!" Pietro shouts, grabbing his son by the hair. "Thief! Scoundrel!" He knocks Francesco to his knees with a backhanded blow and then jerks him up and slaps him across the ear. Francesco does not struggle or cry out. He has been living in a hole for a month, refining his courage for this confrontation, and though the father has superior strength, the son's will has been formed as igneous rock is formed, under pressure, and it is unyielding.
The crowd now takes the side of youth against age, and chides Pietro for his anger. This criticism stings him, and he protests vociferously. How could they know what he has been through day after day, with this good-for-nothing boy who claims he has God's blessing to steal from his own father? He grips Francesco by the elbow and pulls him forward so roughly that he feels the sinew pop at Francesco's shoulder, but he will not be stopped now. If his son resists, he will take his arm right out of the socket. Francesco reels, his eyes roll back in his head, and he stumbles forward, endeavoring to keep up. Pietro rains down curses on his son, on his neighbors, on his town, on the world, on God himself, who has cursed him with the infamy of an ungrateful son.
Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including (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.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; Being Saint Francis - 00.08 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 2; page 53-61.
HEY 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.
HE 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.
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.
Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including (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.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; Being Saint Francis - 00.08 (Part Three); Volume 286, No. 2; page 52-61.