Connecting Faith and Life

St. Francis of Assisi: His Life and Times

1. INTRODUCTION

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was a rare beacon of light during the darkest period in the history of the Church of the Medieval times. He lived a carefree life during his youth, but experienced a gradual conversion after his failed attempts to become a successful knight. Francis’ intimate experiences with God led him to a special way of life much contrary to the life of the people of his time. Francis’ way of life and teachings were radical and challenged not only the common people but the clergy as well. He was able to attract many people to his new way of life, which eventually led him to form a brotherhood that came to be called as the Franciscan Friars in later days. His legacy continues to this day and challenges mediocre Christianity to follow the way of Jesus Christ. This paper is an attempt to study the life and teachings of Francis within the socio-religious context of his time. The paper does not intend to cover every detail of his entire life in a chronological way. The research would limit itself to the time of the founding of the First Order (1208-1209) by Francis.

2. EARLY LIFE OF FRANCIS

Francis was the son of Pietro Bernardone and Pico, who were members of the rather well-to-do merchant class of the town Assisi in Italy. Of the youth of Francis we know very little. Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer wrote, “Until he was nearly 25, he squandered his time terribly. Indeed, he outshone all his friends in trivialities, suggested various evils, and was eager for foolishness of every kind.”1 Francis, along with his brother Angelo were put into business by his father at an early age. Although he became prudent in business, he was also a spend thrift. Lawrence S. Cunningham writes, “Francis seems to have been a typical indulged, wealthy, spoiled, and thrill seeking adolescent who was indulged by a family who could afford to look with a benevolent eye on the peccadilloes of youth.”2

In 1202, Francis marched with the soldiers of Assisi to fight against Perugia. Assisi lost the battle and many were slaughtered. However, Francis was not killed but imprisoned at Perugia for about a year. Later, his father took him out by paying a ransom. Following this Francis went into a time of depression and illness.3 But soon military ambitions began to motivate him to plan for another expedition. He decided to take up arms as a knight. This time joining with an Assisi count to go into battle near Apulia. Before Francis reached the battlefield, something happened to him, which made him return to Assisi as a changed man. Some accounts point out that Francis had a dream in which the Lord told him, “Go back to your land, and what you are to do will be told to you.”4 The defeat against Perugia, one year imprisonment and mysterious dream began to get Francis’ attention towards his way of living.

3. STAGES OF CONVERSION AND PENANCE

Changes began to appear in Francis’ life, though very gradually. A few incidents are cited in his early biographies which point out these changes. It is mentioned that Francis lost interest in the wild parties he used to get involved with his friends and started to think seriously about the vanities of life. He also began to give alms to the poor generously.5 In the beginning of his Testament, Francis wrote about one of the specific areas of change.

The Lord has given me, brother Francis, grace to begin to do penance in the following way. When I was in sin I was very upset at the sight of lepers. But the Lord himself led me to them and then I cared for them…what had previously seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.6

Francis also began to spend long times in prayer in solitary places, expecting God to show his will for his life. The citizens of Assisi were puzzled at this change in the life of Francis, but to them who enquired, he said that he was going to accomplish a great and noble enterprise in his own city.7

By 1205 Francis left his home to take up a life of solitude. He gradually adopted the traditional garb of a hermit and lived in a nearly abandoned church at the edge of Assisi called San Damiano.8 Living a simple life, Francis continued to involve in rebuilding churches, caring for the poor and lepers.9 Francis used his father’s wealth and income to serve the poor and restore the church buildings. Outraged by Francis’ association with the beggars and lepers, and generous giving to the poor, his father took the matter to the local bishop. On his father’s demand to renounce all claims and return his goods, in front of the bishop, Francis removed all his clothes and gave them and all that he possessed to the father. To his father he said, “Up to today I called you Father, but now I can say in all honesty Our Father who art in Heaven. He is my patrimony and I put my faith in him.”10

In 1208, during a mass held in honour of St. Matthew, a life changing experience happened to Francis. The words of Jesus, “Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or a staff,” struck him with force. He immediately went about changing his ways even more. He moved away from being a hermit to follow the commands of Jesus literally.11 He began to preach in churches wherever he was allowed to do so. He soon realized that his calling was to live in absolute poverty, wandering through the towns and villages preaching the gospel.12

4. FOUNDING OF FRANCISCAN COMMUNITY

As Francis started preaching in churches and public places, many were influenced by the new way of life taught by him. In the spring of 1208, some men from Assisi joined Francis to live a simple life. At this point, Francis did not have any specific plan other than living a poor life and honouring God. They stayed in a chapel given on loan to Francis by Benedictine monks at Portiuncula. By early 1209, the number of people at Portiuncula increased to twelve and this led Francis to think about a religious Order. However, it was a dangerous thing in those days to organise anything like that without the permission of the Pope.13 Therefore, in order to get the approval for his little group, in 1209, he went to Rome and met the pope Innocent III with a simple ‘Rule’ of life.14 The pope after some hesitation approved Francis’ idea for a community with certain principles. Francis himself writes about this incident in his Testament.

When the Lord gave me Frairs, no human person showed me what to do, but the most high God revealed to me that I must live according to the rule of the holy gospel. I wrote this rule down using a few, simple words and the lord Pope confirmed it.15

An official formulation of the Franciscan rule came into existence only in 1221. Later this came to be recognized among the Franciscans as the Earlier Rule.16 Thus, came into existence the ‘First Order’ of little brothers, who were later known as Franciscan Frairs.17

5. THE RADICAL TEACHINGS OF FRANCIS

The rules and various other writings of Francis reveal the characteristics of the new way of life which was practised and promoted by Francis and his followers. The following sections highlight some of the vital teachings of Francis.

5.1. Call to a Life of Obedience and Service in a World of Power and Prominence

Franciscan life itself is summed up in this one word – obedience.18 One of the primary rules of the community states,“The rule and life of these friars is the following: to live in obedience and chastity and without property, and follow the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.”19 Obedience for Francis was the foundation of humility, the cardinal value of a Franciscan Friar. If a person had an attitude of obedience, virtues like accountability, moral righteousness, helping and respecting others would follow spontaneously. This was the belief of Francis.20 Jesus was Francis’ model of obedience, humility and service. Regarding humility, he wrote to his friars, “Why do you not recognise the truth and believe in the Son of God, daily he humbles himself as when he came from the royal throne into the womb of the virgin; daily he comes to us in a humble form…” (Admonitions 1:15-18).21

Looking at the social context, especially of Italy, during Francis’ time, there were struggles going on between the feudal Lords and merchants to gain prominence and authority in society. Huge castles showcased the entire region as symbols of pride and power. On the other hand, there was a large multitude of serfs, who were serving the nobles and rich merchants. Their life was miserable to the core and no one cared for them.22 Hence, Francis’ call for obedience, submission to each other, and humility, were indeed radical views in an age that glorified power, might and oppression.

5.2. Call to a Life of Voluntary Poverty in a World of Materialism

Poverty was another aspect Francis emphasized. Francis saw Jesus as a person who took upon himself poverty. One of his prayers reflects this clearly.

O Lord Jesus, show me the way of your very dear poverty…When you came forth from the Virgin’s womb poverty welcomed you in the Holy manger, in a stable. During your stay in the world poverty deprived you of all things so that you had nowhere to lay your head… In the middle of your passion poverty alone stood beside you like a squire…You also gave up your soul in the tight embrace of this spouse…I swear to you most poor Jesus, that on account of the love of your name I have no personal possessions. As long as I live in this miserable body, I will always use sparingly the gifts other people offer me. So be it.23

Francis cited biblical passages which demanded a person to completely renounce everything (Lk.14:33, 9:24) in support his teaching. Following this principle, Francis forbade not only individual ownership of any item but forbade the Order itself from owning land or buildings.24 Glorying in one’s thoughts and deeds or lording it over brothers and sisters or owning property were all acts of appropriation.25 According to Francis, such acts blocked out God and neighbor in favour of self. Similarly, Francis observed literally Jesus’ command to take no thought for tomorrow to the extent he would not even allow the cook of his Order to soak vegetables overnight for cooking the next day.26 Francis believed that poverty brought forth suffering but considered it as self mortification which brought forth real joy and blessing from God.27

The Medieval world as well as Church were engrossed in a materialistic race during Francis’ time. For instance, by the twelfth century, the merchants of Italy assumed importance because of increase in trade all over Europe and beyond. Following this there was a mania for accumulation of wealth and riches by various sections of the society. The process of urbanization had fueled this further.28 The Church scenario was worse than the world.

Many priests have lived luxuriously. They have passed the time in drunken revels, neglecting religious rites. When they have been at Mass, they have chatted about commercial affairs. They have left churches and tabernacles in an indecent state, sold posts and sacraments, promoted ignorant and unworthy people to the clerical state, thought they had others better suited for it. Many bishops have appropriated the income of a parish for themselves, leaving the parish indigent. They have gone to the enormous abuse of forcing parishioners to make special payments so as to have still more income. They have extorted money from the faithful on every pretext. They have made a scandalous commerce of relics. They have allowed the illegitimate children of canon to succeed the father in the benefice.29

In such a context, Francis’ teaching on renunciation and voluntary poverty acted as a prophetic voice rebuking the greedy and materialistic Medieval Christians and calling them back to consider the teachings of Jesus Christ.

5.3. Call to a Life of Chastity in a World of Moral Degradation

Chastity was another feature of Franciscan life style. The members of the Order had many restrictions which were in place to protect them from falling into temptation.

All friars must, whenever they are or travel to, avoid evil glances from women and the company of women. No friar should talk alone with a woman…if a friar, at the instigation of the devil, commits fornication, let him be deprived of the habit of Order and do penance for his sins.30

Mark Galli observes, “As the history of asceticism shows, this freedom is hard to win, and Francis’ brothers found it no easier than aspirants of any era.”31 However, the Franciscans attempted to lead a holy life consistently though it was difficult. For those who sinned, Francis imposed penance as the only way towards recovery. Penance involved prayers, fasting, and sometimes self-flagellation. It also involved giving alms to the poor and acts of mercy.32 This emphasis on Purity or Holiness was a challenge set out by Francis and his followers against the moral degradation of the day. The church’s moral condition during Francis’ time was deeply troubled. Clergy were accused of promiscuous life style and luxurious extravagant life style. The monastic orders were hardly more reputable. A great number of these had sprung up in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, their reputation for sanctity soon stimulated the liberality of the faithful, and thus fatally brought about their own destruction. There were instances of assassinations, adultery, incest and other violations reported among monks of this time.33

5.4. Call to a Life of Peace and Love in a World of War and Violence

The Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was full of wars. Crusades were declared against the Muslims. Small independent states were fighting with each other.34 The commune of Assisi to which Francis belongs, was in the middle of a century long war with the neighboring Perugia when Francis was born.35 In short, bloodshed and destruction was the order of the day.36 The message Francis and his followers shared was totally a radical one when compared to the context of the day. The friars preached of peace and love. They greeted each other and the public with the salutation, “Peace and Good.”37 Moreover, they preached about loving the enemies. In one of his letters to all his faithful, Francis wrote, “We must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, thus, following the precepts and counsels of our Lord Jesus Christ.”38

6. CONCLUSION

Francis was indeed a reformer of Medieval Christianity. Throughout his life he stayed within the Catholic Church and attempted to revive the Church and Society. Studying Francis against the socio-religious context of the time enables us to see the significance of his teachings. His teachings were based on the values of the Gospel and the life of Jesus. Moreover, Francis drew much from the various Christian traditions of the past to set up a way of life for him and his followers. However, in doing so, instead of creating another monastic order, Francis formed a community that would exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ to the maximum. One of the vital contributions of Francis to Christianity was his teachings on voluntary poverty. Thus, Francis and followers worked towards the restoration of the Church and Medieval society through their teachings, simple life and gracious deeds. The legacy of Francis continues to this day through the work of Franciscans who are spread all across the world.

Endnotes:

1Francis probably received a bit of primary schooling which enabled him to read and write. He also spoke French. Lawrence S. Cunningham, “Tattered Treasure of Assisi,” Christian History 13/2 (1994) 8.

2Cunningham, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life (Cambridge: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004), 6.

3Cunningham, “Tattered Treasure of Assisi,” 8.

4Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (Oxford: Lion Publishing Plc, 2002), 24-26. Some scholars have argued pointing to various records that whatever happened to Francis which changed him is not clear. They comment that records do not show any road to Damascus conversion Drama. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi, 8.

5Galli, Francis of Assisi, 32-34.

6Halcyon Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994), 58. To know more about the wretched state of lepers in Medieval period, see Arnaldo Fortini, Francis of Assisi, trans. Helen Monk (New York: Crossroad, 1981); trans. of Nova Vita di San Francesco (Santa Maria: Tipografia Porziuncola, 1959), 206-213.

7Fortini, Francis of Assisi, 198.

8Cunningham, “Tattered Treasure of Assisi,” 10. To know more about this event, see Fortini, Francis of Assisi, 215-216. In obedience to voices he heard in church, he began literally to rebuild the Church. With his own hands he began to repair the ruined walls of San Damiano.

9Fortini, Francis of Assisi, 203. In 1206, he went to Rome on a pilgrimage, and during that time he was deeply moved by the plight of beggars.

10Cunningham, “Tattered Treasure of Assisi,” 10.

11Francis exchanged his traditional hermit’s garb for something even simpler. He took off his sandals, and replaced his tunic to a hard one. He also stitched a sign of cross over his tunic. Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 57.

12Cunningham, “Tattered Treasure of Assisi,” 10.

13 There were a few attempts made during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to reform the Church and society. In trying to reform the Church, some of these reformists fell into some sort of heresies. One group that were condemned by the Roman Catholic church during Francis’ time was the Albigensians or Cathari. They taught that there existed two eternal principles, God and Satan. However, there were groups like Waldensians and Humiliati, who preached about poverty, penance, and perfect equality. They also lashed against the evils of the clergy. Nevertheless, the Church viewed all these groups with suspicion as their teachings were sometimes radical and challenged the establishment and at other times heretical. Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 53-54.

14The Rule he presented to the Pope and got it ratified was an informal one but it became the basis for the later rules which evolved over a period of time.

15Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 59.

16Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 84. The Rule evolved gradually within the Franciscan community.

17In 1212, a rich young Lady of Assisi, Chiara di Favarone (Clare), was influenced by Francis and took up this new way of life. Following her many women left homes to join her. Francis put them in the chapel at San Damiano as a separate community. This became the ‘Second Order’ of Franciscans. This order later was known as Poor Clares. Within another decade the number of Franciscans increased rapidly all over Europe. Franciscan missionaries were sent to many places. Lay people who wanted to join the new way of life were given a modified rule of life and were enrolled in the ‘Third Order.’ Cunningham, “Tattered Treasure of Assisi,” 13.

18The writings of Francis, 65. It was not a mindless obedience which Francis propagated. He wrote, “If anyone of the ministers commands one of the brothers something contrary to our life or his soul, he is not bound to obey him because obedience is not something in which a fault or sin is committed.”

19Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 21.

20Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 86-88.

21William S. Stafford, “The Case for Downward Mobility,” Christian History 13/2 (1994) 30.

22Fortini, Francis of Assisi, 38.

23Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 145-147.

24Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 27.

25Stafford, “The Case for Downward Mobility,” 31. Appropriation means arrogating to oneself what is God’s.

26Galli (ed.), “Did you Know? Little Known or Remarkable Facts about Francis of Assisi,” Christian History 13/2 (1994) 2.

27Stafford, “The Case for Downward Mobility,” 32. Francis wrote, “People who despise the world and seek heaven are the real blessed ones.” Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 70.

28Fortini, Francis of Assisi, 38.

29These words of Pope Innocent III at the fourth Lateran council reflects the status of the Church in Europe during this period. Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 51-52.

30Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 31.

31Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 97.

32Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 69.

33Paul Sabatier, The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, trans. Louise Seymour Houghton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919); trans of Quivere monachus est nihil reputat esse suum nisi citharam (New York: Scribner Press, 1984), 32.

34Arnoldo Fortini, 53. In Italy, war was a condition of life for every city. It was sign of liberty, a joy of living. It was also the way to wealth and commercial expansion.

35[n.a.], “Francis’ Troubled World,” Christian History 13/2 (1994) 29. Even the Catholic Church fought wars in trying to control the states under its reign.

36Fortini, Francis of Assisi, 11. The abbots of monasteries were more often warriors than men of the Church. Such an atmosphere favoured the existence and glorification of Knights.

37Cunningham, Christian history, 12.

38Backhouse (ed.), The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, 80.

By Sam K. John

Comments are closed.