Gateway to the Classics: God's Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi by Sophie Jewett
God's Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi by  Sophie Jewett

"The Other Life Is as my Life"

"Who gives himself with his alms, feeds three,

Himself, his hungering neighbour, and Me."—Lowell.

About this time, Francis made a journey to Rome. Perhaps his mother hoped that a change would bring back his strength; perhaps Piero hoped that, seeing many people and hearing news of the war, his son might again be fired with soldierly ambition. Francis himself longed to see the city where so many saints and martyrs had lived and died, and where, he thought, he should find wise and holy men to tell how he might carry out his wish to help and heal all the misery in the world.

It was strange to him to travel again over the road to Spoleto, yet he was far happier in spirit than on that earlier journey. South of Spoleto, the way was new to him, though he came to know every foot of it, a few years later.

In the thirteenth century, as in the twentieth, all travellers to Rome were eager to visit the Church of St. Peter, but, in the thirteenth century, the church itself was not the one whose vast dome we see to-day. It was an older church that Francis Bernardone sought out, but it stood on the same spot, and it must have been exceedingly beautiful. To Francis it seemed the most sacred place in the world, as he walked up the great nave, between the long rows of columns, and as he knelt to pray before the altar. But when he stood again in the church porch, he noticed the crowd of wretched, dirty human beings who clamoured for alms, pulling at the garments and crying in the ears of all who entered the door. As he looked at them and listened to them his eyes filled with tears, and all the sunshine seemed to fade out of the bright Roman sky. "What does it mean?" he asked himself. "Here, in Rome, where there are so many men rich, and wise, and holy, is there no one to take care of all these miserable creatures?" In the shade of a column, a little apart from the others, a beggar was crouching who neither cried to the passers-by, nor clutched at their cloaks. He only stretched out a thin hand, and looked wistfully up into their faces. Francis stood long watching this man. No one gave to him, no one seemed even to see him. The beggar's face looked weary and hopeless, and from time to time the thin hand dropped to his knee. Still Francis watched. He forgot all about the crowds of people. He forgot everything. He was wondering what it must be like to sit from morning till night, ragged and weary, begging for one's daily bread. Suddenly, acting as he always did on the moment's impulse, Francis spoke to the silent beggar and led him away to a deserted corner at the further end of the portico. He gave the man a piece of money and, with no explanation, proposed to exchange clothes with him. The beggar stood stupefied as Francis began to pull off his own rich cloak. It may be that he thought the boy a criminal trying to disguise himself; it may be that he thought him mad. Whatever he thought, he was glad enough to trade his tattered beggar's dress for clothing such as he had sometimes fingered, wonderingly, but had never even hoped to wear. What became of the man we do not know, but Francis, wrapped in a tattered, dirty cloak, went back, to sit all day long, begging at the door of St. Peter's church.

Perhaps it was a foolish thing to do, but, at any rate, the hunger and weariness of that strange day made Francis understand better than ever before the suffering of the poor, and because he understood, he was the better able to help.

After this one day of a beggar's life, Francis was sure that no service in the world could be too low for him to do gladly, and no human being too revolting for him to touch. The most hideous cripple by the roadside seemed to him friend and brother, and his only grief was that he could not make them all understand his love and sympathy.

This joy and confidence lasted all through his journey home. Spoleto was not gloomy this time, and the birds in its oak woods sang to him merrily. As he came up the familiar Umbrian valley, until he met the little river Tescio on its bright, zigzag way, Monte Subasio stood above Assisi rose-red in the sunset, and the walls of the city shone like transparent glass, looking to the eyes of Francis like the walls of the New Jerusalem.

In the weeks that followed, it seemed to Francis that simply loving his fellow-men made all life joyous and easy; but one day he discovered that there were still battles to fight.

He was riding across the valley toward Assisi, and neared a little hospital for lepers, where he had often stopped with gifts of money. His heart was full of sorrow for these sufferers from the most terrible of all diseases, and he thought: "I will go in, to-day, and leave something for them." Outside the gate of the hospital, crouched against the wall in the sunshine, one of the lepers sat to ask alms of passing travellers. The poor man was covered with sores, and revolting to look upon. At sight of him, Francis felt a sickening sense of disgust and horror. He drew his purse hastily from his belt and, tossing it to the leper, rode on as fast as his horse could carry him, trying to forget the face that had been raised to his. Suddenly, like an arrow, the thought struck him: "That man, also, is my brother, and I have despised him!" The rider dropped his rein, and the horse went slowly along the rough road between the olive orchards. Francis was both ashamed and disappointed. He said to himself: "My purse was an insult, for I gave it without love, and with more scorn than pity."

The spring sun was high and hot; the sky was cloudless; not a shadow lay on the vast, bare height of Monte Subasio. At a fountain beside the road some women were washing. They sang as they worked and, at the end of the long fountain basin, a group of children shouted with laughter, dipping their little hands into the cold water, and splashing one another merrily. All the world seemed happy in the sunshine, and, by contrast, the misery of the poor leper seemed the greater. At the sound of hoofs, the songs and laughter ceased and all turned to look at the new-comer; but, to the surprise of everyone, the horseman wheeled swiftly about, and clattered back in the direction from which he had come. "Who is he?" one woman asked of another. "Only that young Bernardone, the merchant's son," was the answer; "people say that he has gone mad." Then an old, bent woman spoke: "Mad or not, he has a kind heart. It was his gold that kept my poor Giovanni alive last winter. I wish that more of the rich folk were mad like him."

Francis heard nothing. He rode fast across the valley toward the little hospital. He had not been gone ten minutes, and the leper, scarcely recovered from his surprise at the generous gift he had received, was creeping to the gate with his treasure. He moved slowly, as if in pain. Francis sprang from his horse, and, kneeling in the dusty road, he lifted the leper's hand to his lips and kissed it, as he had been taught to kiss the hand of a bishop or a prince. It is likely that the leper was as greatly puzzled as the beggar in the porch of St. Peter's had been, but Francis Bernardone was not mad. Instead, he had learned, through his own failure and shame, a lesson that some men never learn; for, "though I give all my gifts to feed the poor, and have not love, it is nothing." From that spring morning, at the gate of the leper hospital, until the day of his death, Francis of Assisi never met the man who was too filthy, or too loathsome, or even too wicked, for him to love.

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