Page 12, 9th September 1938

9th September 1938
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Page 12, 9th September 1938 — St. Francis Of Assisi, iiGi (1182)-1226: Oct. 4
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St. Francis Of Assisi, iiGi (1182)-1226: Oct. 4

By Father Martindale

0 CTOBER is an awkward month because it contains at least three saints who cannot be left out, at any rate in a first series (if indeed it is but a " first " one) about saints, like this one. These three are St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thdrese of Lisieux, and St. Francis of ,Assisi. The story of all three is very well known-so well known that it is almost idle to repeat it here. I single out, therefore, only a few salient incidents from the life of St. Francis.

His father, Peter Bernardone, was a merchant and well-off. Peter traded largely with France; so, his son John, horn while he was there, got the nickname of Francesco, Francis.

Peter was proud of his son, and gave him a lot of money, with the usual result, that Francis enjoyed the money while entertaining a sort of contempt for the way in which it had been made, He was a poet, keen on singing, splendid in his clothes, and " in " with all the gay and elegant youths of his town. A Southerner will always defeat Protestantised England by the disconcerting way in which he can combine unruly behaviour with genuine " religion." Francis never refused an alms to one who asked for it in the Name of Christ, much as he detested the sight, let alone the smell, of the poor.

When he was twenty, war broke out between Assisi and Perugia, which is rather like saying that Hampstead set out to fight Greenwich, or Dublin, Bray. No matter.

Francis was captured and behaved with almost scandalous gaiety of soul in his gaol; set free, however, he fell sick; recovered, he resolved to fight in a larger war-for the Pope against the Germans in Southern Italy. He bought a superb equipment; met an impoverished gentleman who was shabby; felt ashamed and exchanged clothes, and dreamt a dream. He saw a magnificent arrneury belonging to him "and his men "-but all the arms were marked with the Cross.

At Spoleto he again fell ill. A voice told him; " Serve the master rather than the man." He returned home, but seemed abstracted. They told him he was in love. Yes. said he, he was: but with one far nobler and more beautiful than they guessed. Whom, they wondered, had he met? He did not know himself.

Transition He knew only that what was transitory Was not for him; that all his estimates had to be reversed; that what he had feared and hated he must now embrace and lovingly choose--and the actual crisis came when he met a leper, and, conquering his horror sufficiently to give him alms. realised that he had done nothing, dismounted from his horse and kissed the man.

After that there was no going back. He travelled to Rome; encamped among the poor on the steps of the basilica of St. Peter's, again changed his clothes with the poorest he saw there, and was treated as beggars are treated--as deep a wound to his mind as his kissing of the leper had been to his sensitivity.

He returned home. Praying in the Church of St. Damian outside Assisi he thrice heard a voice : " Francis, rebuild My Church, which is falling." Realist throughout his existence, he took this to mean the ruinous building where he was. He went home, sold a whole horse-load of his father's cloth (and also the horse), returned to St. Damian, asked the priest if he could stay there, and offered him the money. The priest said he could stay, but refused to take the money. Francis said it was no more his and left it on a window-sill.

Peter Bernardone was furious; when Francis reappeared, haggard and in rags, his father seized him, beat him, and chained him up at home. His mother let him escape. Francis returned to St. Damian's. So did Peter Bernardone, demanding that his son should either behave reasonably, or give up his inheritance and return the sale-money. He said yes to the first part-the renunciation; but insisted that the money was no more his. He was hailed before the Bishop who, too, refused the money. Francis said: "I have now no more father save my Father who is in heaven," stripped himself naked and gave back his very clothing to Bernardone. The Bishop covered him with his cope till a rough servant's tunic was brought, and SO he started on his new life,

Inauspiciously, you might say. He met some robbers who, presumably disgusted by finding that he had nothing worth taking though he had told them he was "the herald of the great King," beat him ande threw him into a ditch full of snow. How

ever, someone gave hint somearnorc rough clothei; he returned to Assisi, and among

the jeers of the populace, who thought he was mad. begged till he rebuilt St. Damian another church, and then that called the

"Portiuncula," so-called probably because it was built on so tiny a "portion or plot of land. Here he settled, and here it was that he applied literally to himself the words that Our Lord used about the Christian

Apostolate, and poverty especially, as quoted in St. Matthew x, 7-19. He gave

away his clothes and dressed in the single cloak of undyed wool proper to peasants, which he tied round him with a cord. This became the grey habit of his sons.

Others, in fact, began to join him-not just enthusiasts, but, for example, Bernard de Quintavalle, a wealthy tradesman and a

citizen of authority; a canon of the Assisi Cathedral; and a man called Giles, who became one of the most enchanting personages in Franciscan legend. Francis wrote an extremely simple " rule " for them, including the decision that no Brother should preach anywhere without the bishop's approval. He then went to Rome to get the Pope's approval. Innocent HI hesitated. It Was argued that no new religious orders were needed but that the reform of the old ones was. It was also said that poverty according to Francis's ideal was impracticable. The Pope then dreamed that he saw Francis propping up the Lateran basilica. falling, like most of those ancient churches, into ruins. He sent for him; tonsured him; approved his rule but only verbally-and gave him a general permission to preach penance.

An Idyll This kind of continuous mission now bzr,an. having the Portiuncula for its focus, so to say. The Brothers built huts of wood, reeds and clay around it-a sort of kraal.

These earlier years were idyllic. The Brothers worked at trades or in fields for their daily bread. I was assured, in Rome. that Franciscans in Spain-redeemed are doing the same. 1 cannot vouch for this, hut I should not be sorry to see (among so many changes) the clergy itself foregoing that privilege of "living by the attar" which St. Paul insisted undoubtedly is theirs, and. by means of manual work, earning that modicum of " frugal comfort " which is all men's right. It is true that for this they would have to unshoulder a great deal of their intolerable weight of work on to the backs of properly " formed " laymen; and " Catholic Action " undoubtedly envisages something of that sort. But this is a digression; nor was Francis himself a priest: his personal humility forbade him to ask for the priesthood.

In 1212 he instituted his " second Order " in the person of St. Clare, whom he "enclosed" along with other young girls at St. Damian's. This all-heroic Order subsists in its integrity. and any town should be grateful to have a convent of Poor Clares within it.

Twice about this time did Francis attempt to go and preach to the Mohammedans, once by way of Syria, and again, Morocco. But shipwreck and then illness turned the friars back; this kind of apostolaie came later, and though indeed in 1219 he actually went to Egypt, and came into the presence of the Sultan and had many interviews, this, too, came to nothing, and (heartbroken quite as much by the dissoluteness of the Crusaders as by his failure with the Saracens) he returned to Italy. Still later, the Franciscans became the most glorious of oriental missionaries, and we regret very much that any Catholic school should fail to inspire its pupils with the thrilling incidents of that high romance. Incredible that we should know (inaccurately at that, as a rule), the almost insipid story of Columbus. and nothing of the Franciscans in the Far East.

Met St. Dominic

In 1215 Francis went to the General Council of the Lateran, and here probably met St. Dominic for the first time. In 1217 the Friars Minor held thdir own first general chapter, and had become so numerous that organisation had to be invented, little enough to his own taste. It was. however, now that the Order was recognised as more than Italian. Missions were to be sent to

Spain, Germany and 'Hungary, and he hint,,c1 wanted to go to France, but Cardinal Ugolino, afterwards Gregory lx, dissuaded him.

It was out of the question that so vast a number should share fully in Francis's ideals. There were many dissensions. Francis went straight to the Holy See; obtained from Honorius III the appointment of Ugolino as official protector; and drew up a revised rule solemnly approved in 1223. It is unnecessary for us to discuss the vicissitudes through which the Franciscan rule has passed since then, nor yet the character of Brother Elias, who was so often exhibited as the villain of the piece, but who was a man who profoundly venerated Francis and was no less convinced that the Saint's ideal of poverty could not work. Hence his tragedy.

What we can safely say is this. Francis himself wished that there were far fewer friars, rather as St. Ignatius at first did not conceive of there being more than sixty Jesuits. To be " undiluted "-to combine the sublimest vision with the hardest realism-is not granted to many.

The ," Stigmata"

In 1224 Francis retired for a " Lent," lasting from mid-August to the end of

September. He went to the mountain of Alvernia, which had been given to him in 1213. lt was here that the marvel of the "stigmata" occurred.

It would be wholly out of place to discuss the psychopathology of this event. It is granted that a strong emotional or mental shock can produce physical and external results. The essence of this miracle is that the love of St. Francis for Christ crucified was strong enough to reproduce in his flesh the wounds of Our Lord's passion. On his return, for the first time he wore shoes and kept his hands

hidden in his sleeves. He had but two years of life-his sight was failing; the stigmata caused him intense agony; Ugolino ordered him to be treated by physicians.

While almost maddened with his own sufferings and those added by the doctors (like cauterisation) he composed the radiant and immortal Canticle of Brother Sun, which in reality stands at the head of Italian poetry as truly as St. John of the Cross's "On a Dark Night" transcends anything written before or since in Spanish. In the midst of his pain he was called upon to make peace between two cities, and he added a stanza in honour of brotherly peace; and when he was told that he was SOOR to die he added perhaps the loveliest stanza of all, in honour of Sister Death. He asked to be taken down to the little Portiuncula. On the way he turned his blinded eyes towards where he knew Assisi lay and blessed it.

Finally, he asked for bread and broke a piece for each of those present in token of mutual love. When the evening of October 3, 1226, arrived, clouds of larks rose into die sunset singing their delirious evening hymn; he gave his last blessing to his disciples present and afar; the Passion of Our Lord according to St. John was read to him; and he died.

True Imitation Many books are accessible to you for filling in the details that I have omitted. But the tremendous rebirth of devotion to St. Francis must never be allowed to degenerate into a kind of drawing-room cult in which the Saint is seen surrounded by birds and lambs and converted wolves; nor again into an inculcation of philanthropy. The whole of his life would have seemed to Francis to be but nonsense had it been based on anything save the know: ledge and imitation of Jesus Christ, of Christ in His extreme poverty, and of Christ nailed to His Cross.

May I add a postscript? Some time ago we translated M. H. Gheon's play about the Saint under the title The Marriage of St. Francis (Sheed and Ward). It has often been acted (sometimes without permission, or again, with such limited leave as I can give), and, I think, on the whole by nonCatholics; e.g., in a Nonconformist hall; and recently by a group of the W.E.A., who went to the extremest trouble over it, even to getting episcopal permission to receive from a convent of Poor Clares exact explanations as to how to construct their " habits."

The scenery can be almost nil; the music is by far the hardest part to make sure of -it can be managed in various ways, though I confess to extremely definite ideas of my own about it. The success of the play depends almost wholly on the spirit„of the actors. into which (after a little explanation) these non-Catholic players have entered superbly. Success (also in Ireland) has been invariable. I would like the idea of St. Francis to be spread yet further by means of this play, the poetry Of which rises at times to the sublimest beauty, without once deserting Franciscan simplicity.




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