The life of John Bernardone, better known as St. Francis of Assisi, was a short but full life of 44 years filled with twists and turns. Born around 1181/1182, Francis was not particularly religious, although he was given lessons based on the Psalms in his youth. He was a wild and carousing youth who reveled in partying and indulged himself in various things of the flesh, which he regretted later in life. Around the age of 19/20, Francis decided to join the fight against Perugia, and taking on armor he went to battle where he was captured and held in prison for a year. It was here that he was cut off from the life he had always known, and began to feel what it was to be lonely, isolated from society and dejected. Upon his release and return to Assisi, he began working for his father Peter, a cloth-maker (much as St. Paul was a tent-maker). Given a task, Francis occupied his time but the frivolous activities that once gave him value and meaning in life no longer held any significance or happiness for him. Instead, Francis was a depressed young man who could not find his purpose.
Around the year 1205, this all began to change, and his life would never be the same again. Francis decided to join a battle to finally earn his knighthood, and before he left Assisi, he had a dream that a man brought him into a palace filled with battle items, and Francis interpreted this dream or vision as a sign of divine permission and acceptance of his plans for knighthood. But fate had other plans - a few miles south of Assisi, he contracted an illness and had to rest. It was then that Francis heard a voice asking him of his plans, and instructing him to return home to await instruction, in order to understand the vision he had in a different manner. Francis eventually returned to Assisi and worked for his father until he one day entered into the small church of San Damiano. Much as Moses spoke to God from the burning bush, God then spoke to Francis from the cross at San Damiano and told him to rebuild his church. Francis interpreted this literally and began work on San Damiano itself. God brought Francis out of the depression he had been in, and this was simply the beginning of Francis’ life-long conversion. He wanted to keep an open dialogue with God.
Francis continued his life with his parents until various circumstances led him to flee home, and he eventually publicly renounced his earthly father – yet by doing so, also cut himself off from the only financial source and source of earthly stability he had ever truly known. This led Francis to becoming more dependent on God and more dependent upon the Church. He initiated this process by displaying himself naked, a sign not only recalling Christ crucified but also stripping himself of his family, his material possessions and his former ways of life. Shortly after this, lepers began to play a role in the life of St. Francis. Lepers lived outside of Assisi as did the beggars, and Francis was familiar with them. Around spring of 1206, however, when Francis was in contact with Bishop Guido he was sent to Rome. When in Rome, Francis encountered a community of lepers. He had no food or money to give, but Francis instead gave the lepers an embrace and words of comfort. When Francis finally returned home, he not only returned to his task of rebuilding San Damiano, but also began to care for lepers. He would beg for food for their sake and also carry them into streams to wash them. This was a big step for Francis, particularly because he was not simply associating with the outcasts, he was becoming one of them himself and in doing so, caring for those who others would not care for.
Poverty, money and the accumulation of things were on Francis’ mind at the time. These things were viewed in light of Jesus’ attitudes toward material possessions. Jesus once said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and Francis chose to be one who was poor in spirit in order to be rich in Christ, and to become poor in wealth and material possessions of this world in order to attain richness in God in the next life. By shaking off mortal possessions and setting his thoughts and heart on things above and not on things below, Francis believed that this allowed him to become closer to God and also emulate Christ in his earthly life. This became a key concept when the image of the crucified savior truly took center stage for Francis, which came after his experiences in Egypt in 1219.
Between this time and 1219, however, several things happened. Francis began to realize that his ultimate purpose was not to literally rebuild churches, but to rebuild its foundation as a brotherhood and familial tie. Francis preached the need for peace to many, and others began to follow his teachings. It was not until later that these men became a formalized Order, as Francis simply wanted companions who shared the same views. All the while, the image of the crucified Jesus enraptured and haunted the mind of St. Francis. Around 1209, however, Bishop Guido began to urge the Franciscans to get official approval from Rome, and Francis’ mind was then elsewhere. Through various circumstances, the 26-year old Francis was given permission to preach. Francis made it clear that he did not wish to be ordained, however – he was also well-known for preaching a strikingly different message of peace as opposed to the message of wrath and judgment conveyed by other preachers.
Francis is also well-known through various accounts of his relationship with animals and nature to have been a sort of early ecologist. He had a bond with God’s creation, and cared for his “brother birds” and “sister swallows.” This was an appreciation that would continue to grow and develop throughout the rest of his life, and is reflected in his later Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Francis cared also for his fraternity of brothers, and this care led to continued steps in his lifelong conversion. One night a brother became extremely ill, which led Francis to reconsider and revise how food and drink should be used by the Franciscans. It was around this time that St. Clare came into the picture. Clare showed a side of Francis that had not come out previously – the side that cared for the sisters. The bond and friendship formed between Clare and Francis was one that lasted the rest of their days, and the Franciscans began to care more for the women, which also led to further changes internally with Francis.
Around 1213, Francis preached to a crowd at Count Orlando di Chiusi’s castle, where Orlando offered the Franciscans an abandoned and solitary area: Mount La Verna. This mountain became used by the Franciscans as a retreat for prayer, contemplation and peace. Meanwhile, the cross continued to play an important and continued role in the mind of St. Francis. He began to believe that those who suffer and “take up their cross” participate in the poor and oppressed in this world, in likewise have a deep relation to Christ. Now, the message of peace was also a message that Francis continued to preach and when there were rumblings about a new Crusade, he tried multiple times to join as a preacher but to no avail.
However, around 1219 - what Donald Spoto (author of Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi) believes is the most important year in the conversion of St. Francis – Francis was able to go to Egypt with several of the brothers. After numerous attempts to change the mind of the Christian general in charge of negotiations, Francis took the mission of peace upon himself and went to the camp of the Muslim leader al-Malik al-Kamil himself. Francis was not given the martyrdom he so strongly desired (as it was honorable in that time period), but instead Francis and his brothers were honored by al-Kamil for their faith and their courage; through it all, however, the Muslims did not convert. After several days, the brothers eventually left and finally returned home. Francis was utterly dejected and despondent, as he not only failed to attain martyrdom but also he was unable to convert the supposed “Christian” Crusaders or the Muslims, and he was completely unable to make peace in the Fifth Crusades.
Changes to the Franciscans in regard to leadership, a Franciscan Rule approved by Rome, the beliefs of other followers who disagreed with Francis and a variety of other problems plagued him at this time. After Francis turned over the head of the order to someone else, he began to become more introspective and focused on Jesus. At this time, as his failing health began to continue, his focus was on the crucified Christ. Various legends claim that Francis had a vision at La Verna of a seraph and subsequently had the marks of Christ (the stigmata), but this can hardly be verified by early sources. What is known is that Francis’ body had been ravished in his short years and his body did indeed bear marks and scars. In his final months, Francis composed the Canticle of Brother Sun, which marks to ultimate conversion point. In his canticle, Francis recognized and acknowledged God’s creation – the sun, the moon, the stars, nature – as his brother and sister. He acknowledged and accepted the unity of the Divine Creator in all of His Creation, and this was the culmination of his life’s work. When Francis started his conversion, he saw people as separate through the beggars in the lepers, but now, he accepted and was awestruck by the beauty and unity of God in His creation. Many reports say that on the day of his death, birds flew above: a sign that not only had Francis accepted creation as his brother and sister, but they had accepted him.
On a personal level, I feel that I can relate to Francis. Although I was raised a non-denominational Christian and I have wavered in and out of my faith – and thus, I was not the son of a cloth-maker and known as master of the revels –I went through a phase of partying. Much like Francis, it was within the year or two following those activities when God made His presence known to me. He then reminded me of who I was and who it seemed He wanted me to be, and I was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. My future and my current goals are extremely different than that of my younger self.
The Franciscan ideas of brotherhood and helping others are not only honorable but I have also striven to attain these things myself in my life. After the death of Abel, God asks Cain where his brother is. Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or in other words, “how should I know? Is it my responsibility to look after my brother?” God’s silence in the matter seems to imply that yes indeed - we are to take care of our fellow brother and sister. In fact, if we treated each other as brothers and sisters and did the same to God’s creation of which we were given dominion over, I believe the majority of the problems we have in the world today would either be solved or a lot less of a problem. We do not take care of ourselves, of others or of God’s creatures and nature as we should. We ought to care for one another as brother and sister and help each other to live life together.
Finally, a point that has been continually driving itself home in my life of late is the difference between knowledge of religion and religious knowledge. The knowledge of religion comes through learning, reading, researching and observing, whereas religious knowledge comes through the experience of participating. For example, I could devote five years to researching the Eucharist and how it is utilized at a typical Sunday Mass (knowledge of religion) but unless I actually experience and participate in the act itself, it will never truly become personal or experiential to me (religious knowledge). I recall that Stephen Hawking once said something along the lines of, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Indeed, we may think we know something but until we truly experience it or attempt to participate in it ourselves we will never truly be able to understand or grasp it. This is what appeals to me in the life and teachings of St. Francis. He did not deny the usefulness of academics, but did not believe it was as necessary or completely relevant to his cause. The experiential nature of Franciscan life – of climbing the ladder in order to grasp at the heels of the divine – is one that later Franciscan St. Bonaventure taught could come through knowledge that is refined and explored through faith in order to reach a mystical union with God. St. Francis lived out his life in search of these truths, and found in the end the relational and experiential nature of the divine.