God's troubadour - Francis of Assisi
Hail, Wisdom Queen, may the Lord
May the fiery and honey-sweet power of Your Love
detach my soul from all things under heaven,
so that I may love for love of Your Love,
for you have condescended to die for love of my love.
I once remember hearing Francis described as a man who "walked at right angles to the world." This is an apt description. Francis lived in an age, much like our own, where the "world" of wealth and power blinded many (and many among the hierarchy!) to the treasures of divine love. While medieval man was very conscious of God and of eternity, a trait sadly lacking today, this hardly meant that he was any more inclined to virtue than were those of any other time. Simple in approach, and frequently illiterate, those in the Middle Ages had little guidance from many of the clergy. As Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" exquisitely expresses, those who were, for example, selling indulgences were trading on their "flock's" fear of hell, not encouraging them to love and virtue. (Hardly profitable, that!)
Saints are said to be products of their age, but this concept is misunderstood. Virtue has never been in fashion. The truly great lovers, in the spiritual scheme, fulfilled neglected needs of their ages. Francis's own love was boundless, but he also was perfectly suited to appeal to the longing for the Creator that remains within the heart of all - and which is never stimulated by fear, but only by joy. Francis, the poet, the mystic, the "herald of the king", indeed was well suited to his age, yet his approach would never lose its popularity.
Though medieval man had a rich knowledge of the (supposed) daily lives and histories of Christ and his family, the Church hierarchy was far more interested in wiping out the rampant heresies that were propagated at the time. Among Founders of religious Orders, Francis was unique in his emphasis on the humanity of Christ, and on how incidents in His life showed the perfection of virtue. The Christmas crèche and the Stations of the Cross (a meditation on the events of the Master's crucifixion) are among the devotions which Francis would popularize. Yet his preaching went far beyond formal devotion. He would speak with tenderness of the humility of Christ, the "Sweet Babe of Bethlehem" who could hide His divine glory in a life of simple poverty.
Francis, of course, hardly started out with any intentions of founding a religious Order. Giovanni (Francesco) Bernadone, the son of a silk merchant, was later to bemoan the excesses of his youth. It is unlikely that Francis ever bordered on debauchery, nor do we ever learn what were the great sins for which he remained ever repentant. (All that is chronicled is a love for a good time that was hardly unusual for any young man of any age.) With his love for chivalric concepts, and the ever-present idealism that would not bring the realities of the battlefield to the mind of the future pacifist, Francis had dreams of knighthood in youth, but his trial of the life was short-lived. If indeed Divine Providence brings good from all of our experiences, as Francis certainly would have maintained, we can be grateful for that period of Francis's life - for, perhaps, it was during his brief time as a prisoner of war that awareness of something beyond himself became strong in what previously (in his own view) was a mind too occupied with pleasures.
Though Francis fully enjoyed the wealth he knew in youth, he later was to use the term "wretched son of Pietro Bernadone!" as self reproach when he failed in the poverty that was this knight's Lady. Francis's poverty was to embrace not only the physical but the spiritual, and he, with the vision that only the greatest of lovers has, regretted any time when God's ways had not been his sole priority. But perhaps he was a bit too hard on his father! When Francis, in the early days of his conversion, began to distribute Pietro's stock of priceless silk to beggars, it's a fair assumption that Pietro assumed his son was becoming insane. If Pietro was to lock Francis in the cellar, it well may be that he was protecting his son from a public reputation as crazy - and one forgives Pietro for undoubtedly considering his own reputation as well.
I mention this because Francis was to remain a radical. There were no half measures for our troubadour! Just as he embraced the wealth and good times wholeheartedly, he would develop a devotion to things heavenly with a single-minded passion.
In relating the details of his conversion, Francis always was to note the time when he, a fastidious and pampered youth, overcame a natural revulsion and embraced a leper to whom he gave alms. Years would pass between that incident and his life as a friar, but it was a moment of transformation nonetheless. All of his life, Francis was to have a special love for the outcast or the despised. In fact, he was to welcome many a vagabond into the Franciscan fold in later years.
Poverty, especially for such a mystic as was Francis, involves a total detachment wherein alone one may find total freedom of the will. In making us free, God gave us the ability to choose and to love - and that choice is hampered by our fallen nature. Francis, who hadn't the slightest knowledge of his own heroic virtue, believed that it was a simple (though never easy) matter to love fully. One detached from anything except God would be able to love unreservedly.
Francis's words about "perfect joy" are most telling. Francis was to know great trials in his later life, when those with a greater love for power and education were to usurp much of his authority. One who follows a crucified man will not be spared misunderstanding and betrayal, as Francis knew well.
He described a situation to his confessor, Friar Leo, where they would repeatedly knock at the door of their own friary and be flatly denied entrance, indeed would be scorned. Were this to happen, and they did not become troubled, this, Francis said, would be perfect joy.
The tender and expansive Francis, it must be noted, did not speak of the rejection by beloved brothers as joy - and knew well that it was not. The joy is in a dedication to God that is so complete as to prevent even one as emotional as our Francis from being troubled in his spirit.
Joy is at the heart of one who, though totally blind at the time, could write the marvellous Canticle of the Creatures with vivid imagery and poetic intensity. Joy came from living the gospels, as the brief Rule of the Order, composed largely of quotations from the gospels that Francis so loved, embodied. Joy was the perfect freedom of detachment. Above all, joy was God Himself.
Francis's detachment is well expressed his prayer inspired by the Lord's own:
Thy will be
done on earth as it is in heaven,
That we may love Thee with our whole heart by always thinking of thee,
with our whole soul by always desiring Thee,
with our whole mind by directing all our intentions to Thee and by seeking Thy glory in all things,
and with our whole strength by spending all our energies and affections in the service of Thy love and nothing else.
and may we love our neighbours as ourselves,
by drawing them all, with our whole strength, to Thy love
by rejoicing in the good fortunes of others as well as our own
and by sympathising with the misfortunes of others
and by giving offence to no one.
It is particularly moving to note how, when one is repentant and loving, divine grace can transform the weakness into virtue of the deepest sort. Poverty's becoming the quite prodigal Francesco's guiding virtue is a key illustration of this. Equally delightful is the innocence that divine love would foster in the heart of one who had enjoyed ... the pleasures of this world quite excessively. (Bonaventure cleans it up, but Thomas of Celano has no reticence about mentioning Francis's having been rather a wild sort.) For some centuries after Francis's time, some writers were ill at ease with mentioning how Francis assisted Clare in an elopement with the Heavenly Bridegroom. The virtue and innocence of these two was great by that time, and it is both warm and amusing that it never occurred to either that those familiar with Francis's previous reputation would have considered this "holy abduction" to be questionable.
But that is the
key for us to recognize. The degree of one's love or
devotion is not cancelled by one's weaknesses. In some
aspects (charity and commitment not among them),
Francis is not to be imitated. Yet, to quote a Dominican,
the gift comes according to the manner of the recipient -
and Francis's case was to be the only one I have seen in
which is having the stigmata seemed perfectly natural.
all powerful, good Lord God,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and every blessing,
To You alone, most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather
through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.
You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
You, My Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us, and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
You, My Lord, through those who give pardon for (the sake of) Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are they who endure in peace, for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Death, from whom no living man can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks And serve Him with great humility.
Laudato sie, misignore, cum tutte le tue creature, spezialmente messor lo frate sole: lo quale iorna et allumini noi per loi; et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore; da te Altissimo, porta significazione.
Laudato sì, misignore, per frate vento, et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo, per lo quale ale tue creature dai sustentamento.
Laudato sì, misignore, per sora aqua, la quale è multo utile et umile e preziosa e casta.
Laudato sì, misignore, per frate focu, per lo quale enn'allumini la notte, ed ello è bello et iocundo et robustoso et forte.
Laudato sì, misignore, per sora nostra matre terra, la quale ne sustenta et governa et produce diversi frutti con coloriti fiori et erba.
Laudato sì, misignore, per quelli che perdonano per lo tuo amore, et sostengo infirmitate et tribulazione; beati quelli che 'l sosterrano in pace, ca da te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.
Laudato sì, misignore, per sora nostra morte corporale, da la quale nullu omo vivente po' scappare: guai a quelli che morrano ne le peccata mortali; beati quelli che trovarà nele tue santissime vuluntati ca la morte secunda no 'l farrà male
benedicete misignore et rengraziate et serviateli cum