The Little Bedesman of Christ
T his is the legend of Francis, the Little Bedesman of Christ. Seven hundred years ago was he born in Assisi, the quaint Umbrian town among the rocks; and for twenty years and more he cherished but one thought, and one desire, and one hope; and these were that he might lead the beautiful and holy and sorrowful life which our Lord lived on the earth, and that in every way he might resemble our Lord in the purity and loveliness of His humanity.
Home and wealth and honour he surrendered, and the love of a wife and of little prattlers on his knees; for none of these things were the portion of Christ.
No care he took as to how he should be sheltered by night or wherewith he should be clothed by day; and for meat and drink he looked to the hand of God, for these were to be the daily gift of His giving. So that when he heard the words of the sacred Gospel read in the little church of St. Mary of the Angels—"Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves"—he went out and girt his coarse brown dress with a piece of cord, and cast away his shoes and went barefoot thenceforth.
Even to this day the brethren of the great Order of religious men which he founded are thus clothed, and girt with a cord, and shod with nakedness. And this Order is the Order of the Lesser Brethren, the Fratres Minores; and often they are called Franciscans, or the Friars of St. Francis.
But as to the thought he bestowed on his eating and drinking: once when he and Brother Masseo sat down on a broad stone near a fresh fountain to eat the bread which they had begged in the town, St. Francis rejoiced in their prosperity, saying, "Not only are we filled with plenty, but our treasure is of God's own providing; for consider this bread which has come to us like manna, and this noble table of stone fit for the feasting of kings, and this well of bright water which is beverage from heaven;" and he besought God to fill their hearts with an ardent love of the affluence of holy poverty.
Even the quiet and blessed peace of the cloister and the hermitage he denied himself; for he remembered that though the Lord Christ withdrew into the hills and went into the wilderness to refresh His soul with prayer and communion with His Heavenly Father, it was among the sons of men that He had His dwelling all His days. So he, too, the Little Bedesman, often tasted great happiness among the rocks and trees of solitary places; and his spirit felt the spell of the lonely hills; and he loved to pray in the woods, and in their shadow he was consoled by the visits of Angels, and was lifted bodily from the earth in ecstasies of joy. But the work which he had set his hands to do was among men, and in villages and the busy streets of cities.
It was not in the first place to save their own souls and to attain to holiness that he and his companions abandoned the common way of life. Long afterwards, when thousands of men had joined his Order of the Lesser Brethren, he said: "God has gathered us into this holy Order for the salvation of the world, and between us and the world He has made this compact, that we shall give the world a good example, and the world shall make provision for our necessities."
Yet, though he preached repentance and sorrow for sin, never was it his wish that men and women who had other duties should abandon those duties and their calling to follow his example. Besides the Order of the Lesser Brethren, he had founded an Order of holy women who should pray and praise while the men went forth to teach; but well he knew that all could not do as these had done, that the work of the world must be carried on, the fields ploughed and reaped, and the vines dressed, and the nets cast and drawn, and ships manned at sea, and markets filled, and children reared, and aged people nourished, and the dead laid in their graves; and when people were deeply moved by his preaching and would fain have followed him, he would say: "Nay, be in no unwise haste to leave your homes; there, too, you may serve God and be devout and holy;" and, promising them a rule of life, he founded the Third Order, into which, whatever their age or calling, all who desired to be true followers of Christ Jesus might be admitted.
Even among those who gave themselves up wholly to the life spiritual he discouraged excessive austerity, forbidding them to fast excessively or to wear shirts of mail and bands of iron on their flesh, for these not only injured their health and lessened their usefulness, but hindered them in prayer and meditation and delight in the love of God. Once, too, when it was revealed to him that a brother lay sleepless because of his weakness and the pinch of hunger, St. Francis rose, and, taking some bread with him, went to the brother's cell, and begged of him that they might eat that frugal fare together. God gave us these bodies of ours, not that we might torture them unwisely, but that we might use their strength and comeliness in His service.
So, with little heed to his own comfort, but full of consideration and gentleness for the weakness of others, he and his companions with him went about, preaching and praising God; cheering and helping the reapers and vintagers in the harvest time, and working with the field-folk in the earlier season; supping and praying with them afterwards; sleeping, when day failed, in barns or church porches or leper-hospitals, or may be in an old Etruscan tomb or in the shelter of a jutting rock, if no better chance befell; till at last they came to be known and beloved in every village and feudal castle and walled town among the hills between Rome and Florence. At first, indeed, they were mocked and derided and rudely treated, but in a little while it was seen that they were no self-seekers crazed with vanity, but messengers of heaven, and pure and great-hearted champions of Christ and His poor.
In those days of luxury and rapacity and of wild passions and ruthless bloodshed, it was strange to see these men stripping themselves of wealth and power—for many of the brethren had been rich and noble—and proclaiming the Gospel of the love and gentleness and purity and poverty of Christ. For not only were the brethren under vow to possess nothing whatever in the world, and not only were they forbidden to touch money on any account, but the Order itself was bound to poverty. It could not own great estates or noble abbeys and convents, but was as much dependent on charity and God's providing as the humblest of its friars.
Was it a wonderful thing that a great affection grew up in the hearts of the people for these preachers of the Cross, and especially for the most sweet and tender of them all, the Little Bedesman of Christ, with the delicate and kindly face worn by fasting, the black eyes, and the soft and sonorous voice? Greatly the common people loved our Lord, and gladly they listened to Him; and of all men who have lived St. Francis was most like our Lord in the grace and virtue of His humanity. I do not think that ever at any time did he say or do anything till he had first asked himself, What would my Lord have done or, said?
And certain it seems to me that he must have thought of the Thief in Paradise and of the divine words Christ spoke to him on the cross, when Brother Angelo, the guardian of a hermitage among the mountains, told him how three notorious robbers had come begging; "but I," said the Brother, "quickly drove them away with harsh and bitter words." "Then sorely hast thou sinned against charity," replied the Saint in a stern voice, "and ill hast thou obeyed the holy Gospel of Christ, who wins back sinners by gentleness, and not by cruel reproofs. Go now, and take with thee this wallet of bread and this little flask of wine which I have begged, and get thee over hill and valley till thou hast found these men; and when thou comest up with them, give them the bread and the wine as my gift to them, and beg pardon on thy knees for thy fault, and tell them that I beseech them no longer to do wrong, but to fear and love God; and if this they will do, I will provide for them so that all their days they shall not lack food and drink." Then Brother Angelo did as he was bidden, and the robbers returned with him and became God's bedesmen and died in His service.
Not to men alone but to all living things on earth and air and water was St. Francis most gracious and loving. They were all his little brothers and sisters, and he forgot them not, still less scorned or slighted them, but spoke to them often and blessed them, and in return they showed him great love and sought to be of his fellowship. He bade his companions keep plots of ground for their little sisters the flowers, and to these lovely and speechless creatures he spoke, with no great fear that they would not understand his words. And all this was a marvellous thing in a cruel time, when human life was accounted of slight worth by fierce barons and ruffling marauders.
For the bees he set honey and wine in the winter, lest they should feel the nip of the cold too keenly; and bread for the birds, that they all, but especially "my brother Lark," should have joy of Christmastide, and at Rieti a brood of redbreasts were the guests of the house and raided the tables while the brethren were at meals; and when a youth gave St. Francis the turtle-doves he had snared, the Saint had nests made for them, and there they laid their eggs and hatched them, and fed from the hands of the brethren.
Out of affection a fisherman once gave him a great tench, but he put it back into the clear water of the lake, bidding it love God; and the fish played about the boat till St. Francis blessed it and bade it go.
"Why dost thou torment my little brothers the Lambs," he asked of a shepherd, "carrying them bound thus and hanging from a staff, so that they cry piteously?" And in exchange for the lambs he gave the shepherd his cloak. And at another time seeing amid a flock of goats one white lamb feeding, he was concerned that he had nothing but his brown robe to offer for it (for it reminded him of our Lord among the Pharisees); but a merchant came up and paid for it and gave it him, and he took it with him to the city and preached about it so that the hearts of those hearing him were melted. Afterwards the lamb was left in the care of a convent of holy women, and to the Saint's great delight, these wove him a gown of the lamb's innocent wool.
Fain would I tell of the coneys that took refuge in the folds of his habit, and of the swifts which flew screaming in their glee while he was preaching; but now it is time to speak of the sermon which he preached to a great multitude of birds in a field by the roadside, when he was on his way to Bevagno. Down from the trees flew the birds to hear him, and they nestled in the grassy bosom of the field, and listened till he had done. And these were the words he spoke to them:
"Little birds, little sisters mine, much are you holden to God your Creator; and at all times and in every place you ought to praise Him. Freedom he has given you to fly every where; and raiment He has given you, double and threefold. More than this, He preserved your kind in the Ark, so that your race might not come to an end. Still more do you owe him for the element of air, which he has made your portion. Over and above, you sow not, neither do you reap; but God feeds you, and gives you streams and springs for your thirst; the mountains He gives you, and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees wherein to build your nests. And because you cannot sew or spin, God takes thought to clothe you, you and your little ones. It must be, then, that your Creator loves you much, since He has granted you so many benefits. Be on your guard then against the sin of ingratitude, and strive always to give God praise."
And when the Saint ceased speaking, the birds made such signs as they might, by spreading their wings and opening their beaks, to show their love and pleasure; and when he had blessed them with the sign of the cross, they sprang up, and singing songs of unspeakable sweetness, away they streamed in a great cross to the four quarters of heaven.
One more story I must tell of the Saint and the wild creatures.
On a time when St. Francis was dwelling in the town of Agobio, there appeared in that countryside a monstrous grey wolf, which was so savage a man-eater that the people were afraid to go abroad, even when well armed. A pity it was to see folk in such fear and danger; wherefore the Saint, putting his whole trust in God, went out with his companions so far as they dared go, and thence onward all alone to the place where the wolf lay.
The wild beast rushed out at him from his lair with open mouth, but St. Francis waited and made over him the sign of the most holy cross, and called him to him, saying, "Come hither, Brother Wolf! In the name of Christ I bid you do no harm, neither to me nor to any one." And when the wolf closed his jaws and stopped running, and came at the Saint's bidding, as gentle as a lamb, and lay down at his feet, St. Francis rebuked him for the slaying of God's creatures, the beasts, and even men made in God's image. "But fain would I make peace," he said, "between you and these townsfolk; so that if you pledge them your faith that you will do no more scathe either to man or beast, they will forgive you all your offences in the past, and neither men nor dogs shall harry you any more. And I will look to it that you shall always have food as long as you abide with the folk of this countryside."
Whereupon Brother Wolf, by movements of body and tail and bowing of head, gave token of his good will to abide by that bargain. And in sign that he plighted his troth to it he gave the Saint his paw, and followed to the market-place of Agobio, where St. Francis repeated all that he had said, and the people agreed to the bargain, and once more the wolf gave pledge of his faith by putting his paw in the Saint's hand.
For two years thereafter Brother Wolf dwelt in Agobio, going tame and gentle from house to house and in and out at will, doing hurt to none, but much loved of the children and cared for in food and drink and kindness by the townsfolk, so that no one lifted stone or stick against him, neither did any dog bark at him. At the end of those years he died of old age, and the people were grieved that no more should they see his gentle coming and going.
Such was the courtesy and sweet fellowship of St. Francis with the wild creatures.
It remains yet to say of him that he was ever gay and joyous as became God's gleeman. Greatly he loved the song of bird and man, and all melody and minstrelsy. Nor was it ill-pleasing to God that he should rejoice in these good gifts; for once lying in his cell faint with fever, to him came the thought that the sound of music might ease his pain; but when the friar whom he asked to play for him was afraid of causing a scandal by his playing, St. Francis, left alone, heard such music that his suffering ceased and his fever left him. And as he lay listening he was aware that the sound kept coming and going; and how could it have been otherwise? for it was the lute-playing of an Angel, far away, walking in Paradise.
Sweet new songs he made in the language of the common people, folk of field and mountain, muleteers and vine-dressers, woodmen and hunters, so that they in turn might be light of heart amid their toil and sorrow. One great hymn he composed, and of that I will speak later; but indeed all his sayings and sermons were a sort of divine song, and when he sent his companions from one village to another he bade them say: "We are God's gleemen. For song and sermon we ask largesse, and our largesse shall be that you persevere in sorrow for your sins."
Seeing that ladies of the world, great and beautiful, took pleasure in the songs of the troubadours sung at twilight under their windows, he charged all the churches of his Order that at fall of day the bells should be rung to recall the greeting with which Gabriel the Angel saluted the Virgin Mother of the Lord: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women." And from that day to this the bells have rung out the Angelus at sunset, and now there is no land under heaven wherein those bells are not heard and wherein devout men hearing them do not pause to repeat that greeting angelic.
In like fashion it was great delight to him (the Pope having given him leave) to make in the churches of the Order a representation of the Crib of Bethlehem on the feast of the Nativity. Of these the first was made at the hermitage of Greccio. Thither the peasants flocked on Christmas Eve, with lanterns and torches, making the forest ring with their carols; and there in the church they found a stable with straw, and an ox and an ass tethered to the manger; and St. Francis spoke to the folk about Bethlehem and the Shepherds in the field, and the birth of the divine Babe, so that all who heard him wept happy tears of compassion and thankfulness.
And as St. Francis stood sighing for joy and gazing at the empty manger, behold! a wondrous thing happened. For the knight Giovanni, who had given the ox and the ass and the stable, saw that on the straw in the manger there lay a beautiful child, which awoke from slumber, as it seemed, and stretched out its little hands to St. Francis as he leaned over it.
Even to this day there is no land in which you may not see, on Christmas Eve, the Crib of Bethlehem; but in those old days of St. Francis many souls were saved by the sight of that lowly manger from the sin of those heretics who denied that the Word was made flesh and that the Son of God was born as a little child for our salvation.
The joy and gaiety of St. Francis were of two kinds. There was the joy of love, and there was the joy of suffering for love. And of this last he spoke a wonderful rhapsody as he journeyed once with Brother Leo, in the grievous cold of the early spring, from Perugia to St. Mary of the Angels. For, as Brother Leo was walking on before, St. Francis called aloud to him:
"O Brother Leo, although throughout the world the Lesser Brethren were mirrors of holiness and edification, nevertheless write it down, and give good heed to it, that not therein is perfect joy."
And again, a little further on, he called aloud:
"O Brother Leo, though the Lesser Brother should give the blind sight, and make the misshapen straight, and cast out devils, and give hearing to the deaf, and make the lame to walk and the dumb to speak; yea, should he even raise the four days' dead to life, write it down that not herein is perfect joy."
And yet a little further on he cried out:
"O Brother Leo, if the Lesser Brother should know all languages, and every science, and all the Scriptures, so that he could foretell not solely the hidden things of the future but also the secrets of the heart, write down that not therein is perfect joy."
A little further yet, and once again he cried aloud:
"O Brother Leo, God's little sheep, though the Lesser Brother were to speak with the tongue of the Angels, and know the courses of the stars and the virtues of herbs, and though the treasures of the earth were discovered to him, and he had craft and knowledge of birds and fishes and of all living creatures, and of men, and of trees and stones, and roots and waters, write it down that not therein is perfect joy."
And once more, having gone a little further, St. Francis called aloud:
"O Brother Leo, even though the Lesser Brother could by his preaching convert all the unbelievers to the faith of Christ, write down that not therein is perfect joy."
And when, after St. Francis had spoken in this manner for the space of two miles, Brother Leo besought him to reveal wherein might perfect joy be found, St. Francis answered him:
"When we are come, drenched with rain and benumbed with cold and bespattered with mud and aching with hunger, to St. Mary of the Angels, and knock at the door, and the porter asks wrathfully, 'Who are you?' and on our answering, 'Two of your brethren are we,' 'Two gangrel rogues,' says he, 'who go about cheating the world and sorning the alms of the poor; away with you!' and whips the door to, leaving us till nightfall, cold and famished, in the snow and rain; if with patience we bear this injury and harshness and rejection, nowise ruffled in our mind and making no murmur of complaint, but considering within ourselves, humbly and in charity, that the porter knows well who we are, and that God sets him up to speak against us—O Brother Leo, write down that therein is perfect joy."
And perfect joy, he added, if, knocking a second time, they brought the porter out upon them, fuming, and bidding them betake themselves to the alms-house, for knaves and thieves, and nevertheless they bore all with patience and with gladness and love. And yet again, he continued, if a third time they knocked and shouted to him, for pity of their hunger and cold and the misery of the night, to let them in, and he came, fierce with rage, crying, "Ah, bold and sturdy vagabonds, now I will pay you," and caught them by the hood, and hurled them into the snow, and belaboured them with a knotty cudgel; and if still, in despite of all pain and contumely, they endured with gladness, thinking of the pains of the blessed Lord Christ, which for love of Him they too should be willing to bear—then might it be truly written down that therein was perfect joy.
This was the perfect joy of the Saint most like to Christ of all the Saints that the world has seen. And of all joys this was the most perfect, seeing that it was by the patient way of tears and tribulation, of bodily pain and anguish of spirit, of humiliation and rejection, that a man might come most nearly to a likeness of Christ.
Through all his gaiety and gladness and benignity he carried in his heart one sorrow, and that was the memory of the Passion of our Lord. Once he was found weeping in the country, and when he was asked whether he was in grievous pain that he wept, "Ah!" he replied, "it is for the Passion of my Lord Jesus that I weep; and for that I should think little shame to go weeping through the whole world."
Two years before his death there befell him that miraculous transfiguration, which, so far as it may be with a sinful son of Adam, made perfect the resemblance between him and the Saviour crucified. And it was after this manner.
In the upper valley of the Arno stream there towers above the pines and giant beeches of the hills a great basalt rock, Alvernia, which looks over Italy, east and west, to the two seas. That rock is accessible by but a single foot-track, and it is gashed and riven by grim chasms, yet withal great oaks and beech-trees flourish atop among the boulders, and there are drifts of fragrant wild flowers, and legions of birds and other wild creatures dwell there; and the lights and colours of heaven play about the rock, and the winds of heaven visit it with wholesome air.
Now a great and wealthy gentleman of Tuscany, Orlando of Chiusi, gave St. Francis that mountain for a hermitage where he could be remote from men, and thither, with three of the brethren most dear to him, the Saint went to spend the forty days of the Fast of St. Michael the Archangel.
Two nights they slept on the way, but on the third day, so worn was St. Francis with fatigue and illness, that his companions were fain to beg a poor peasant to lend them his ass. As they proceeded on their journey the peasant, walking behind the ass, said to St. Francis, "Tell me now, art thou Brother Francis of Assisi?" and when St. Francis said he was, the peasant rejoined, "Look to it, then, that thou strive to be as good as folk take thee to be, so that those who have faith in thee be not disappointed in what they expect to find in thee." And instantly St. Francis got down from the ass, and, kneeling on the ground, kissed the peasant's feet, and thanked him for his brotherly admonition.
So onward they journeyed up the mountain till they came to the foot of Alvernia, and there as St. Francis rested him under an oak, vast flights of birds came fluttering and blithely singing, and alighted on his shoulders and arms, and on his lap, and about his feet. "Not ill-pleased is our Lord, I think," said he, "that we have come to dwell on this mountain, seeing what glee our little brothers and sisters the Birds show at our coming."
Under a fair beech on the top of the rock the brethren built him a cell of branches, and he lived alone in prayer, apart from the others, for the foreknowledge of his death had overshadowed him. Once as he stood by the cell, scanning the shape of the mountain and musing on the clefts and chasms in the huge rocks, it was borne in upon him that the mountain had been thus torn and cloven in the Ninth Hour when our Lord cried with a loud voice, and the rocks were rent. And beside this beech-tree St. Francis was many times uplifted into the air in rapture, and many times Angels came to him, and walked with him for his consolation.
A while later, the brethren laid a tree across a chasm, and St. Francis hid himself in a more lonely place, where no one might hear him when he cried out; and a falcon, which had its nest hard by his cell, woke him for matins, and according as he was more weary or sickly at one time than another, that feathered brother, having compassion on him, woke him later or sooner, and all the long day was at hand to give him companionship.
Here in this wild place, in September, on Holy Cross Day, early in the morning, before the dawn whitened, St. Francis knelt with his face turned to the dark east; and praying long and with great fervour, he besought the Lord Christ Jesus for two graces before he died. And the first was this, that, so far as mortal flesh might bear it, he might feel in his body the torture which our Lord suffered in His Passion; and the second, that he might feel in his heart the exceeding great love for which He was willing to bear such torture.
Now even while he was praying in this wise a mighty six-winged Seraph, burning with light unspeakable, came flying towards him; and St. Francis saw that the Seraph bore within himself the figure of a cross, and thereon the image of a man crucified. Two of the six wings of the Seraph were lifted up over the head of the crucified; and two were spread for flying; and two veiled the whole of the body on the cross.
Then as the Seraph drew nigh, the eyes of Christ the crucified looked into the eyes of St. Francis, piercing and sweet and terrible; and St. Francis could scarce endure the rapture and the agony with which that look consumed him, and transfigured him, and burned into his body the similitude of Christ's Passion. For straightway his hands and his feet were pierced through and through with nails; and the heads of the nails were round and black, and the points were bent backward and riveted on the further side of hand and foot; and his right side was opened with the deep thrust of the spear; and the gash was red and blood came dropping from it. Terrible to bear was the ache of those wounds; and for the nails in his feet St. Francis scarce could stand and could not walk at all.
Such was the transfiguration of the Little Bedesman of Christ into His visible semblance on the holy rock Alvernia.
For two years he sustained the ecstasy and anguish of that likeness, but of his sayings and of the wonders he wrought in that time I will not speak.
In those days he composed the Song of the Sun, and oftentimes sang it, and in many a village and market-place was it sung by the brethren going two by two in their labour for souls. A mighty hymn of praise to the Lord God most high and omnipotent was this Song of the Sun; for in this manner it was that St. Francis sang:
"Praised be Thou, my Lord; by all Thy creatures praised; and chiefly praised by Brother Sun who gives us light of day.
"Through him Thou shinest; fair is he, brilliant with glittering fire; and he through heaven bears, Most High, symbol and sense of thee.
"Praised by Sister Moon be Thou; and praised by all the Stars. These hast Thou made, and Thou hast made them precious and beautiful and bright.
"Praised by Brother Wind be Thou; by Air, and Cloud that lives in air, and all the Weathers of the world, whereby their keep Thou dost provide for all the creatures Thou hast made.
"Praised by Sister Water, Lord, be Thou; the lowly water, precious, pure, the gracious handmaiden.
"Praised by Brother Fire, by whom Thou makest light for us in the dark; and fair is he and jocund, sturdy and strong.
"Praised by our Sister Mother-Earth, which keeps us and sustains, and gives forth plenteous fruit, and grass, and coloured flowers.
"Praised be Thou, Lord my God, by those who for Thy love forgive, and for Thy love endure; blessed in their patience they; by Thee shall they be crowned."
As he drew nigh to his end at St. Mary of the Angels, he cried out, "Welcome, Sister Death!" and when his brethren, as he had bidden them, sang once more the Song of the Sun, he added another verse:
"Praised by our Sister Death be Thou—that bodily death which no man may escape. Alas for those who die in mortal sin, but happy they conforming to Thy will; for these the second death shall nowise hurt."
In the tenth month, on the fourth day of the month, in the forty-and-fifth year of his age, having recited the Psalm, "I cried unto Thee, O Lord, and said: Thou art my hope and my portion in the land of the living," St. Francis died very joyfully. At the fall of the night he died, and while still the brethren were gazing upon his face there dropped down on the thatch of the cell in which he lay larks innumerable, and most sweetly they sang, as though they rejoiced at the release of their holy kinsman.
He was buried at the great church at Assisi; but though it is thought he lies beneath the high altar, the spot is unknown to any man, and the hill-folk say that St. Francis is not dead at all, but that he lives hidden in a secret crypt far down below the roots of wall and pillar. Standing there, pale and upright, with the blood red in the five wounds of his crucifixion, he waits in a heavenly trance for the sound of the last trumpet, when the nations of the earth shall see in the clouds Him whom they have pierced.
Long after his death it was the custom of the brethren of a certain house of his Order to go chanting in procession at midnight once in the year to his resting-place. But the way was long and dark; the weather often bleak and stormy. Little by little devotion cooled, and the friars fell away, till there remained but one old monk willing to go on this pilgrimage. As he went into the dark and the storm, the road among the woods and rocks grew luminous, and in place of the cross and torches and canticles of the former days, great flocks of birds escorted him on his way, singing and keeping him company. The little feathered brothers and sisters had not abated in their love of the Little Bedesman who had caressed and blessed them.