Amy Steedman

Saint Francis of Assisi

Part 1 of 2

[128] IN the sunny land of Italy, high upon hills covered with olive-trees, nestles the little town of Assisi. Such a strange little town it is, with its tall city walls and great gateways, its narrow, steep streets, and houses with wide, overhanging eaves. The road that leads up from the plain below is so steep, as it winds upwards among the silver olive-trees, that even the big white oxen find it a toil to drag the carts up to the city gates, and the people think it quite a journey to go down to the level land below.

Now, it was in this same little hill-town, many years ago, that Saint Francis was born.

They did not know that he was going to be a great saint—this little, dark-eyed Italian baby, who came to gladden his mother's heart one autumn day in the long ago year of 1182, when his father, Pietro Bernardone, was away in France. He seemed just like any other baby, and only his mother, perhaps, thought him the most wonderful baby that ever was born. (But mothers always think that, even if their babies do not grow up to be real saints.) She called him Giovanni at first, but when his father came home he named the little son Francesco, which means "the Frenchman," because he was so pleased with all the money he had made in France. So [129] the child from that day was always called Francesco, which is his real Italian name, although we in England call him Francis.

Soon he grew into a happy, daring boy, the leader in all the games and every kind of fun. He was the pride of his father and mother, and the favourite of the whole town; for although he was never out of mischief, he never did a cruel or unkind thing, and was ever ready to give away all he had to those who needed help.

And when he grew older he was still the gayest of all the young men of Assisi, and wore the costliest and most beautiful clothes, for his father had a great deal of money and grudged him nothing.

Then came a sad day when Francis fell sick, and for a while they feared that he must die. But, although he grew slowly better, he was never quite the same Francis again. He did not care about his gay companions, or the old happy life. There was real work to be done in the world, he was sure. Perhaps some special work was waiting for his hand, and with wistful eyes he was ever looking for a sign that would show him what that work was to be.

Walking one day along the winding road, dreaming dreams as he gazed far across the misty plains, catching glimpses of far-away blue mountains through the silver screen of the olive-trees, he was stopped by a poor old beggar, who asked him for the love of God to help him.

Francis started from his day-dreams, and recognised the man as an old soldier who had fought for his country with courage and honour.

[130] Without stopping to think for a moment, Francis took off his gay cloak and tenderly wrapped it round the shoulders of the shivering old man.

He never thought that any reward would be given him for his kind action, but that very night Christ came to him in a glorious vision, and, leading him by the hand, showed him a great palace full of shining weapons and flags of victory, each one marked with the sign of the cross. Then, as Francis stood gazing at these wonderful things, he heard the voice of Christ telling him that these were the rewards laid up for those who should be Christ's faithful soldiers, fighting manfully under His banner.

With a great joy in his heart Francis awoke, and hurriedly left home to join the army, thinking only of earthly service, and longing to win the heavenly reward.

But in the quiet night he heard again the voice of Christ telling him that the service he was seeking was not what Christ required of his soldiers.

Troubled and sad, Francis went back to Assisi and, when he was once more inside the city walls, turned aside to pray in the little ruined church of Saint Damiano. And as he prayed once more he heard the voice speaking to him, and saying, "Francis, repair my church."

Now, Francis thought this meant that he was to build up the ruined walls of the little church in which he prayed. He did not understand that the command was that he should teach the people, who make up Christ's Church on earth, to be pure and good and strong.

[131] Francis was only too glad to find that here at last was some real work to be done, and never stopping to think if he was doing right, he went joyfully home and took some of the richest stuffs which his father had for sale. These he carried off to the market, and sold them for quite a large sum of money. Then, returning to the little church, he gave the money to the old priest, telling him to rebuild the walls and to make the whole place beautiful.

But the priest refused to accept the money, for he was afraid that Francis had done wrong in taking the stuffs, and that his father would be angry.

This was a great disappointment to Francis, and made him think that perhaps he had been too hasty. He was afraid to go home and tell what he had done, so he hid himself for some days. But at last, tired and hungry, with his gay clothes stained with dust, he slowly walked back to his father's house.

And very angry, indeed, was Pietro Bernardone when he found out what his son had done. He did not mind giving Francis money for fine clothes or pleasures of any kind, and he had allowed him to be as extravagant as he liked. But to want money to build up an old church, or to spend in doing good, that was not to be thought of for a moment.

Out he came in a furious rage and drove Francis indoors, and there shut him up in a dark cellar, bound hand and foot, so that he could not escape.

But though his father was so angry, his mother could not bear to see her son suffer, whether he deserved it or not. So she stole down when no one was there, and, unlocking the cellar door, she spoke [132] gently to poor Francis, and listened to all his story. Then she took off his chains and set him free, telling him to go quickly before any one should see him.

Francis had no place to shelter in but the little ruined church, and no friend who would receive him but the poor old priest, so back he went to Saint Damiano, leaving parents and home and comforts behind him.

His father, of course, was terribly angry when he found that Francis had escaped, and he went at once to complain to the bishop, and demand that Francis should be punished and made to give back the money he had taken.

The bishop spoke kindly to Francis, who promised gladly to give back the money which had brought him so much trouble. And there, in the market-place, with all the people looking on, he took off his costly clothes, now all stained and worn, and standing pale and thin, wearing only a hair shirt, he gave clothes and money back to his angry father, saying—

"Listen, all of you. Until this time I have called Pietro Bernardone father, but from this moment I will say no more 'my father Pietro Bernardone,' but only 'my Father which art in Heaven.' "

Then the good bishop came quickly up and wrapped his mantle round the poor shivering lad, and gave him his blessing, bidding him henceforth be a true servant of God. A poor labourer gave Francis his rough brown tunic, and the people were moved with pity and would have helped him, for they thought he had been treated very harshly.

But Francis wandered away alone into the world, seeking to do all the things he had most disliked [133] doing, even at one time nursing the poor lepers, and begging his bread from door to door.

Soon, however, he made his way back to Assisi, and to the little ruined church; and began building up the walls with his own hands, carrying the stones on his shoulders, happy and contented to be doing work for God.

And the more he thought of his past life and the wasteful splendour in which he had lived, the more he came to see that to be poor for Christ's sake was best of all.

"If Christ chose to become poor for our sakes," thought he, "surely it is but right that we should choose to become poor for His dear sake."

It seemed to Francis that no one had really loved poverty since the days when our blessed Lord had lived amongst the poor on earth. And he began to think of poverty as a beautiful lady who had been despised and ill-treated all these long years, with no one to take her part or see any charm in her fair face.

For himself he made up his mind to love her with all his heart, to be as poor as his Master had been, and to possess nothing here on earth.

Even his coarse brown habit had been given to him in charity, and instead of a belt he tied round his waist a piece of rope which he found by the way-side. He wore no shoes nor stockings, but went barefoot, and had no covering for his head. And being so truly poor was the greatest joy to him. He thought the Lady Poverty was a fairer bride than any on earth, though her clothes were ragged and her pathway lined with thorns. For along that [134] thorny path she led him closer to his Master, and taught him to tread more nearly in His footsteps than most of His servants have ever trod.

One day when Francis was reading the gospel, Christ's call seemed to sound in his ears just as it did to Saint Matthew of old. He had often read the words before, but that day they had a new message for him: "As ye go, preach, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves."

Then he knew that Christ did not want him only to be good, but to teach others how to be good, and to look after Christ's poor and sick, always remaining poor and lowly himself. And as soon as he heard the call he rose up, left all, and followed his Master to his life's end.

Very soon other men joined Francis, eager to serve Christ as he did. They all dressed just as Francis dressed, and became quite as poor as he was. Their home was in the plain below Assisi, by the little chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels, which had been given to the brothers. But it was not often that they were there all together, for Francis sent them out to preach to all the world just as the gospel commanded.