Symbols of the world's religions



William M. Stephens

One of Francis's favorite places was the chapel of St. Damian, which stood atop a hill with a panoramic view of the Umbrian landscape. Seldom visited by Assisians, the chapel had fallen into ruins. One day, while Francis sat in the sanctuary, praying for guidance, a wood carving depicting Jesus Christ hanging on the cross seemed to come alive, and Francis's heart was filled with light and bliss. Crying with joy, he said, "Help me do Your will, Lord. Let Your will be known to me." And Jesus said, speaking from the cross, "Francis, repair my church."

Francis, of course, in his utter simplicity and humility, could never have dreamed that the Christ was assigning him the task of repairing and restoring the Catholic Church — of saving Christianity from ruin. He assumed, quite naturally, that his job was to repair the chapel of St. Damian, which he promptly set out to do.

By this time, his life at home had become almost unbearable, so he decided to live at the chapel while doing the repairs. He went home to gather his possessions and took a quantity of cloth from his father's stocks. He rode to the market at Foligno, where he sold everything, including his horse, and walked back to St. Damian with a purse full of money, with which he intended to buy nails and hammers and saws and building materials.

A few days later his father, boiling with rage, came looking for him. Francis hid in the forest, staying there for weeks, fasting and praying for guidance. When he finally came out, determined to face his father, his clothes hung on his body and his sunken eyes peered from a gaunt face surrounded by unkempt hair and a scraggly beard. As he stumbled through the city gate and up the narrow lanes of Assisi, a group of children shouted, "Pazzo, Pazzo!" [Madman! Madman!] Others took up the call, and a crowd was watching when Pietro Bernardone came outside his house to see what was causing the commotion.

When Pietro saw that his own son was the cause of the scorn and laughter, his fury knew no bounds. Seizing Francis bodily, he dragged him into the house, where he cursed and vilified him for hours, and then tied him up and locked him in a closet. "You will stay there until you learn respect and humility," he thundered, "and until I decide whether to flog you in the public streets or throw you to the wolves!"

Several days later, when Pietro left the house for a business trip, Pica unlocked the closet and fed her hungry son. (For this she was beaten by her enraged husband when he returned.) After eating a good meal for the first time in weeks, Francis gave his loving mother a long and tearful embrace, then bade her farewell and returned to his work at St. Damian.

Again his father came looking for him, but this time somewhat softened after venting his spleen on his unfortunate wife. Finding Francis in the chapel, Pietro tried to reason with him. "Don't you realize you have humiliated your papa in the eyes of all the city? Me — Pietro Bernardone, the most respected merchant in Assisi! The whole city is making jokes about my son, the pazzo. You have dragged the family name through the mud, and you do not even say you are sorry."

"If you remember, Papa," Francis said, "I left home in a peaceful manner, and you reacted with violence. I have done nothing to be sorry for."

Pietro tore his hair in frustration. "You really are a pazzo! How can you behave like this — after all I have done for you! I have given you everything you could have wished, and you repay me by taking cloth from my house and selling it." He glared. "All for your worthless beggar friends . . . yes?"

"The money is there on the window sill," said Francis. "I was going to use it to rebuild this chapel."

Pietro seized the money and put it in his pocket. "This place is not worth repairing. Assisi has enough chapels. Nobody ever comes here but tramps and robbers" — his voice broke — "and my pazzo son. Listen to your father, Francesco. I give you one more chance. Come home and behave like a true son of Pietro Bernardone. I will forgive and forget. Agreed?"

Francis shook his head firmly. "No, Papa. I am staying here until I finish rebuilding this chapel."

"You will not stay here! I will not permit you to live here, so close to Assisi, bearing the great name of Bernardone and behaving like an idiot. From this moment you are not my son. I disown you. I forbid you to live in this district — a constant reminder of the disgrace you have brought on my house." He threw out his chest and shook his fist. "I command you to leave this place, and this region, and never show your face in Assisi again."

"You are no longer my father, so you cannot give me orders," said Francis softly. "I take my orders from my Father in Heaven."

"I'll show you who can give orders!" Pietro roared. "I'll have you jailed, you thieving little pazzo, if you are not gone from this district by tomorrow morning!"

Pietro filed a complaint, seeking to have Francis expelled from the region. Francis sent word to the court that, as a servant of God, he was not under the jurisdiction of civil authorities. The magistrates referred the case to the church tribunal, which ordered a hearing. It was a cause celebre in Assisi, and the cathedral was jammed.

After Pietro Bernardone had stated his case, the bishop turned to Francis. "I have heard no evidence, my son, to convince me that you should be banished from this diocese. On the other hand, your father has threatened to disinherit you. Under the circumstances, would it not be best to return all property in your possession that rightfully belongs to your father?"

Francis nodded. Stepping outside the room for a moment, he returned stark naked, holding his clothes in a neat roll which he presented to the bishop, along with his few remaining coins. Livid with rage, Pietro Bernardone seized the items and left the room while Francis put on an old mantle and boots offered by the bishop's gardener. Leaving the cathedral and the city, he ascended the slopes of Mount Subasio.

It was April and the mountain seemed to swell with the joy of new growth and new life. Trees were budding and the forest pulsed with the songs of birds. Squirrels and chipmunks probed for food in the soft earth left by the melting snow. Intoxicated by the fragrance of spring, Francis laughed and sang and thanked God for His many blessings. While singing at the top of his voice, he came upon a band of ruffians, who ripped off his mantle and boots and threw him into a snowdrift. Now bruised and cold, he continued on his way, thanking the Lord for allowing him to suffer for the glory of God.

At the Benedictine monastery he offered to work for food and clothes, but his offer was refused. In the trash outside the monastery he found an old discarded shirt, which he put on. He walked to the house of a friend in the village of Gubbio, where he received clothes and shelter and food for a few days. At his next stop, a leper hospital, he was accepted with warmth and love, so he remained there for a time, helping to feed and bathe the patients, entertaining them with his songs and speaking to them of God. Inspired and rejuvenated, he walked back to St. Damian and set about to rebuild the sanctuary.

From time to time he went to Assisi to beg for building materials. First he would sing hymns in the town square to draw a crowd. Then he would speak of his plans to restore St. Damian and solicit their help. "Give me one stone and you will have a reward," he said. "Give me two stones and you will receive a double reward." Many of the people thought he was mad, but others were moved by his sincerity and gave him stones and other supplies, which he accepted gratefully and hauled on his back to the chapel.

It wasn't long before all of Assisi was accustomed to the gentle and shabby hermit who walked the streets or begged food at the kitchens. His presence was a source of constant embarrassment to his father, who would flush with anger and curse his son whenever their paths crossed.

After completing the restoration of St. Damian, Francis set about to repair other abandoned chapels in the area. The second one was on the site of an ancient temple that, according to local legend, had been there since before the birth of Christ. In the fourth century, four pilgrims returning from the Holy Land settled there and built a church. Later St. Benedict acquired the property and named it Portiuncula (Little Portion). His monks built a monastery that was used by the Benedictine Order for more than six hundred years. Before Francis came along, the Benedictines had abandoned the site as indefensible against the threat of invading Saracens and moved to the Benedictine fortress on Mount Subasio.

Francis loved the spiritual atmosphere of the Portiuncula. While laying stone and mixing mortar, he meditated on the untold generations of seekers who had lived and prayed there before him. Their love for God permeated the entire place and was a constant source of inspiration for him. He hoped for nothing more than to spend the rest of his life there in solitude and prayer.

A priest from the Benedictine monastery came to Portiuncula from time to time to say mass. Such occasions always filled Francis with great joy. One day while the priest was saying mass, Francis received a very special gift from God. It seemed to him that the priest became the living Christ, who was speaking directly to Francis. "Wherever ye go, preach, saying, 'The Kingdom of God is at hand,'" he intoned. "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. Freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither silver nor gold nor brass in your purse, neither scrip nor two coats, nor shoes nor staff, for the laborer is worthy of his meat."

That very day, Francis discarded his staff, writing paper, purse, and sandals, and made a decision to observe to the letter the precepts given to him from the Gospels. Each morning he walked barefoot to Assisi and preached a sermon in the streets. At first few people listened, but as time passed more and more came to hear his message about the peace and joy of following in the footsteps of Christ.

It is interesting to consider that Francis may have been the first Christian evangelist in the modern sense of the word. Before Francis came along, priests did not really communicate, in the true sense of the word. They lectured, harangued, and displayed their learning and piety. In public, they spoke only in Latin, a language that few ordinary people knew, and they gave stilted, pedantic monologues. Francis was the first to speak in the language of the people — as Christ had done.


SOULS ON FIRE, pp. 28-34
1998 © Oceanic Press


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