St. Francis of Assisi
Founder of the Friars Minor (1182-1226)
by Robert Ellsberg

Painting of Leo Tolstoy"We have no right to glory in ourselves because of any extraordinary gifts, since these do not belong to us but to God. But we may glory in crosses, afflictions and tribulations, because these are our own."

St. Francis was born in the Umbrian city of Assisi about the year 1182. His parents were Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and Pica, his French-born wife. Francis was one of the privileged young men of Assisi, attracted to adventure and frivolity as well as tales of romance. When he was about twenty he donned a knight's armor and went off, filled with dreams of glory, to join a war with the neighboring city-state of Perugia. He was captured and spent a year in prison before being ransomed. Upon his return he succumbed to a serious illness from which his recovery was slow. These experiences provoked a spiritual crisis which was ultimately resolved in a series of dramatic episodes.

Francis had always been a fastidious person with an abhorrence of paupers and the sick. As he was riding in the countryside one day he saw a loathsome leper. Dismounting he shared his cloak with the leper and then, moved by some divine impulse, kissed the poor man's ravaged face. From that encounter Francis's life began to take shape around an utterly new agenda, contrary to the values of his family and the world.

While praying before a crucifix in the dilapidated chapel of San Damiano, Francis heard a voice speak to him: "Francis, repair my church, which has fallen into disrepair, as you can see." At first inclined to take this assignment literally, he set about physically restoring the ruined building. Only later did he understand his mission in a wider, more spiritual sense. His vocation was to recall the church to the radical simplicity of the gospel, to the spirit of poverty, and to the image of Christ in his poor.

To pay for his program of church repair, Francis took to divesting his father's warehouse. Pietro di Bernarclone, understandably enraged, had his son arrested and brought to trial before the bishop in the public marketplace. Francis admitted his fault and restored his father's money. And then in an extraordinary gesture, he stripped off his rich garments and handed them also to his sorrowing father, saying, "Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say, 'Our Father, who art in heaven.'" The bishop hastily covered him with a peasant's frock, which Francis marked with a cross. And so his transformation was complete.

The spectacle which Francis presented - the rich boy who now camped out in the open air, serving the sick, working with his hands, and bearing witness to the gospel - attracted ridicule from the respectable citizens of Assisi. But gradually it held a subversive appeal. Before long a dozen other young men had joined him. They became the nucleus of his new order, the Friars Minor. The beautiful Clare of Assisi was soon to follow, slipping through the city walls in the middle of the night to join the waiting brothers. Francis personally cut off her hair, marking her for the life of poverty and her consecration to Christ.

The little community continued to grow. In 1210 they made a pilgrimage to Rome and won the approval of Pope Innocent. Some of the pope's advisors warned that Francis's simple rule, with its emphasis on material poverty, was impractical. But the worldly pope was apparently moved by the sight of the humble friar and perceived in this movement a bulwark against more radical forces.

Francis left relatively few writings, but his life -literally the embodiment of his message -gave rise to numerous legends and parables. Many of them reflect the joy and freedom that became hallmarks of his spirituality, along with his constant tendency to turn the values of the world on their head. He esteemed Sister Poverty as his wife, "the fairest bride in the whole world." He encouraged his brothers to welcome ridicule and persecution as a means of conforming to the folly of the cross. He taught that unmerited suffering borne patiently for love of Christ was the path to "perfect joy."

But behind such holy "foolishness" Francis could not disguise the serious challenge he posed to the church and the society of his time. Centuries before the expression became current in the church, Francis represented a "preferential option for the poor." Even in his life the Franciscans themselves were divided about how literally to accept his call to radical material poverty. In an age of crusades and other expressions of "sacred violence," Francis also espoused a radical commitment to nonviolence. He rejected all violence as an offense against the gospel commandment of love and a desecration of God's image in all human beings.

Francis had a vivid sense of the sacramentality of creation. All things, whether living or inanimate, reflected their Creator's love and were thus due reverence and wonder. In this spirit he composed his famous "Canticle of Creation," singing the praises of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even Sister Death. Altogether his life and his relationship with the world - including animals, the elements, the poor and sick, as well as princes and prelates, women as well as men, represented the breakthrough of a new model of human and cosmic community.

Ultimately Francis attempted no more than to live out the teachings of Christ and the spirit of the gospel. His identification with Christ was so intense that in 1224, while praying in his hermitage, he received the "stigmata," the physical marks of Christ's passion, on his hands and feet. His last years were marked at once by excruciating physical suffering and spiritual happiness. "Welcome Sister Death!" he exclaimed at last. At his request he was laid on the bare ground in his old habit. To the friars gathered around him he gave each his blessing in turn: "I have done my part," he said. "May Christ teach you to do yours." So he died on October 3, 1226. His feast is observed on October 4.

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David

See also: 
Dr. Maria Jaoudi's article on St. Francis and God-Centered Ecology.