Almost the first we know of Francis of Assisi is the story of the sweet-voiced lad who liked to sing gay songs of love and war. Almost the last that we know of him is the more beautiful story of the song which he made and sang only a little while before he died. He had been terribly ill, he was weak, and sad, and in great pain, but, one morning, his friends heard the wonderful voice, strong and clear as of old, singing words that they had never known. He had often sung the sweet old Latin hymns, but these words were Italian, and so simple that it seemed as if the singer made them as he sang. And so he did. The weary, suffering man was still at heart the Troubadour. He was still, as he used to call himself, the Lark, and, like the lark, he sang for sheer happiness and praise. It is not easy to put the quaint old Italian into English; the beauty and the music seem to disappear. The last song of God's Troubadour, the song that cheered his hours of pain and comforted the friends who loved him, was a "Song of the Sun."
"O Lord, we praise Thee for our Brother Sun,
Who brings us day, who brings us golden light.
He tells us of Thy Beauty, Holy One.
We praise Thee, too, when falls the quiet night,
For Sister Moon, and every silver star
That Thou hast set in Heaven, clear and far.
"For our brave Brother Wind we give Thee praise;
For clouds and stormy skies, for gentle air;
And for our Sister Water, cool and fair,
Who does service in sweet, humble ways;
But, when the winter darkens, bitter cold,
We praise Thee every night and all day long
"For our good friend, so merry and so bold,
Dear Brother Fire, beautiful and strong.
For our good Mother Earth, we praise Thee, Lord;
For the bright flowers she scatters everywhere;
For all the fruit and grain her fields afford;
For her great beauty, and her tireless care."
It was through this "Song of the Sun" that the last great joy of his life came to Francis. He was the guest of the Bishop of Assisi in the same palace where, so long before, he had gone with the story of his father's anger and his mother's grief. Bishop Guido must have been an old man now, but he was, as always, impulsive and hot-tempered. He had kept a certain love for Francis all these years, but with most of his neighbours he was often at odds. Just now a sharp feud was going on between the Bishop and the Governor of the city, and all Assisi was in tumult. Francis loved his native town, and he loved peace with all his heart, and this quarrel meant to him the deepest sorrow. His days were full of suffering, but he forgot himself, and only prayed that he might make peace before he died.
One day he called a Brother to him and said: "Go to the Governor, and beg him to come with all the chief men of the city to the porch before the Bishop's palace." The Governor came at this request from the dying Francis, and when the Bishop stepped out at his palace door he found himself in a gathering of the very men with whom he was at strife.
Just at that moment two Grey Brothers came forward before the two proud enemies, and one said: "My Lords, Brother Francis has made a song for the praise of God, and he begs you will all listen to it," and they began to sing "The Song of the Sun." They sang the praise of Sun and Moon, of Wind and Fire, of Sister Water and Mother Earth; and then their voices rose higher and sweeter in a new stanza that Francis, in his longing for peace, had added:
"We praise Thee, Lord, for gentle souls who live
In love and peace, who bear with no complaint
All wounds and wrongs; who pity and forgive;
Each one of these, Most High, shall be Thy saint."
The old story tells that the Governor listened, standing humbly "weeping hot tears, for he greatly loved the blessed Francis. When the song was finished: 'Know in truth,' he said, 'that I pardon the Lord Bishop, whom I wish and ought to regard as my lord, for even if some one had murdered my brother, I should be ready to forgive the murderer.' After these words he threw himself at the feet of the Bishop and said to him: 'Behold me, ready to do all that you wish, for love of our Lord Jesus Christ and for His servant Francis.'
"Then the Bishop, taking him by the hand, lifted him and said: 'In my calling, I ought to be humble, but since I am by nature too quickly angry, you must pardon me.' "
A few days later Brother Francis was carried out from the Bishop's palace, and borne tenderly down the familiar road toward the Portiuncula. At the Leper Hospital he asked his bearers to halt, and he looked back, with dim eyes, lovingly, and, lifting his feeble hand, he blessed Assisi. Then the grey procession entered the forest, and passed softly through the fallen leaves to the poor huts and the bright garden which had been the dearest home of the Brotherhood.
And here the Troubadour, the Little Poor Man, died, happy and high-hearted, singing praise, at the last, for the welcome coming of "Our Sister Death."
Under a roof of twisted boughs
And silver leaves and noon-day sky,
Among gaunt trunks, where lizards house,
On the hot sun-burnt grass I lie;
I hear soft notes of birds that drowse,
And steps that echo by
Unseen, along the sunken way
That drops below the city-wall.
Not of to-day, nor yesterday,
The hidden, holy feet that fall.
O whispering leaves, beseech them stay!
O birds, awake and call!
Say that a pilgrim, journeying long,
From that loud land that lies to west,
Where tongues debate of right and wrong,
Would be "The Little Poor Man's" guest;
Would learn "The Lark's" divine "Sun-Song,"
And how glad hearts are blest.
Say: "Master, we of over-seas
Confess that oft our hearts are set
On gold and gain; and if, with these,
For lore of books we strive and fret,
Perchance some lore of bended knees
And saint-hood we forget;
"Still, in one thought our lips are bold—
That, in our world of haste and care,
Through days whose hours are bought and sold,
Days full of deeds and scant of prayer,
Of thy life's gospel this we hold:
The hands that toil are fair.
"Therefore, forgive; assoil each stain
Of trade and hate, of war and wrath;
Teach us thy tenderness for pain;
Thy music that no other hath;
Thy fellowship with sun and rain,
And flowers along thy path."
Thou dost not answer. Down the track
Where now I thought thy feet must pass,
With patient step and burdened back
Go "Brother Ox" and "Brother Ass."
A mountain cloud looms swift and black,
O'ershadowing stone and grass.
The silver leaves are turned to grey;
There comes no sound from hedge nor tree;
Only a voice from far away,
Borne o'er the silent hills to me,
Entreats: "Be light of heart to-day;
To-morrow joy shall be.
"The glad of heart no hope betrays,
Since 'Mother Earth' and 'Sister Death'
Are good to know, and sweet to praise."
I hear not all the far voice saith
Of Love, that trod green Umbrian ways,
And streets of Nazareth.