PASTOR ALLWIN JOHNSON - FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
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FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY

PASTOR ALLWIN JOHNSON

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            Francis of Assisi was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages--generally regarded as time between the A.D. 500's and the A.D. 1400's. He was the founder of the Franciscan religious order of the Catholic Church. His life of poverty, peace and love inspired many people and made an indelible impact on the people. He lived a life of simplicity in contrast to the wealth and corruption of his contemporary Catholic Church, which influenced the lives of many people towards his way. The purpose of this paper is to brief the life history of Francis and to analyze some of his peculiar Christian practices.

LIFE OF FRANCIS OF ASSISI

            Francis Assisi was born at Assisi, a central Italian hill town of Umbria, in Italy, in the year 1182[1], under the Pontificate of Lucius III.[2] He was named as Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone and baptized as Giovanni.[3] His father was Don Pietro Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant who dealt in rich silks and velvet material. His mother was Dona Pica Bernardone, originally from France.[4] He was not so interested in learning[5] and still he learned to read and write Latin at the school near the church of St. Georgio and later he acquired some knowledge of the French language and literature. His exuberant love of life and a general spirit of worldliness made him a recognized leader of the youngmen of the town.

            In 1202, Francis took part in a war between Assisi and Perugia, a rival city. He was captured by enemy soldiers in 1202 and thrown into prison, where he remained until he was released in 1203.[6] He saw much suffering during this time and when he  returned home, he became seriously ill. While he was recovering, he did a lot of thinking about his life, its meaning, and its purpose. After recovery, he attempted to join the papal forces under count Gentile against Frederick II in Apulia in late 1205 but he had a vision which forbade him to do so.[7] He began give himself to solitude and prayer so that he might know the will of God. During this period, when he was 23 years old, several things happened in his life which gradually converted him and  led him to reject his former life and his father's wealth.[8]

            One day, while in the Church of San Damiano, he asked "Lord, what do you want of me?" He heard a voice that seemed to be coming from a painted crucifix on the wall. That voice said "Francis, go and repair my house.”[9] Francis immediately took some bolts of cloth and a horse belonging to his father, sold them, and gave this additional money to the priest at San Damiano for more repairs. His father brought him before the bishop and the bishop told Francis that he must return his father's money. Francis without a word peeled off his cloths even down to his breeches and gave it to his father. Then he said, “until now I have called you my father on the earth. But henceforth I can truly say, Our Father who art in Heaven.[10] Francis had decided that money and worldly pleasures meant nothing to him and he devoted his life to solitude, prayer, helping the poor, and raising money to rebuild run-down buildings of the churches. He lived in absolute poverty, dedicating himself to God's work, and patterning his life after Jesus' life. In the Medieval world of arrogancy, riches and pleasures, Francis indeed shown a contrast. Here let us see his three most peculiar characters which make us to think more and more.

LOVE FOR POVERTY

            Francis was famous for his Poverty way of living. He is “il poverello,”[11] and his poverty is been hotly debated among the theologians. One day, in a sermon, Francis heard that “Christ's disciples were supposed to posses neither gold, nor silver nor money; were to have neither bread nor staff; were to have neither shoes nor two tunics.”[12]  Having heard this, Francis shook off every thing he had except a single tunic.[13] All of his brothers (Friers) wore ragged, gray robes with rope belts and were barefoot. They became known as the "begging brothers," going out in pairs to spread the Gospel. Whenever they needed shelter and food to eat, they begged for it because owning something is against their rules formed by Francis.[14] Certainly the love of poverty is part of his spirit, and his contemporaries mentioned poverty as his lady or as his bride.[15] He also abhorred money and considered it as the dung of ass.

            Can we accept this kind of Poverty on biblical grounds? Francis says, “the holy poverty stands high above all the virtues that prepares in us a dwelling place for God”[16] and “the son of God loved this virtue especially; he went in search for it and found it, when he effected our salvation upon earth.”[17] Will it be applicable to every Christian? Conrad Harkins[18] says that Francis never said that the world at large should live in poverty and he also forbade his Friers to condemn those who did not live in voluntary poverty.[19] Although there is a truth in Francis's teaching, the “content with poverty” and “love for poverty” are different. Bible teaches to be content, even in the situation of poverty and it does not teach to love poverty. I conclude that, being frustrated by the corruption of Catholic church, Francis took an extreme stance in the issue of simplicity and went for a love for poverty.

LOVE FOR NATURE

            Francis called all creatures "Brothers" and "Sisters" and loved the nature. He considered all nature as the mirror of God and as so many steps to God.[20] "He even refused to put out a fire for fear he would injure Sister Fire."[21] In one of his writings, he referred to Sister Moon and Brother Sun, even he called death as Sister Bodily death. He said, “If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men."[22] He used to speak to birds and animals, he even preach to them. He spoke to Swallows, Hare, Fish and even to Wolf.[23] He loved all the creatures and kept them as his brothers and sisters.[24] His care for nature is appreciable but as usual he had taken an extreme stance on it and began to talk to it. His way of dealing with irrational living beings and nature is apparently foolishness but we can not simply leave out some historical writings which says that he commanded the Swallows and Wolf and they obeyed. So this is one of his mysterious practices to that only he can answer.

MORTIFICATION OF FLESH

            Francis severely disciplined himself against temptations of the flesh. In winter, he would sometimes throw himself striped naked in the coldest ice and remain there until every vestige of sinful temptation had departed. Sometimes inundate his body with a flow of blood by piercing himself all over with thorns or abstain from food for many days. To avoid lust, he avoided talking with women and if requires, he would speak by gazing at the ground or sky.[25] He sought where he could suffer bodily persecution rather than where, their sanctity being known and praised.[26] To avoid sleep in Prayer, he would hold himself by suspended ropes or encase himself in wooden griddles. He often mentions his body as Sister Ass.

            The culmination of all these is the Stigmata,[27] five Christ like wounds in hands, feet and side. He longed for a long time to feel the pain that Christ felt in crucifixion. Through a vision of a crucified six winged seraph, Francis  received a Stigmata on his body and it is said that it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his blood.[28] This is very hard to believe for any rational man and it is also not possible at biblical grounds. These unfathomable experiences might have happened or might not have happened but one thing is sure that since these are not recommended by the Scripture, we don't need it. Even the mortification of flesh is unbiblical because our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

            During this period of Stigmata, Francis's health began to get deteriorated very badly. “He suffered from frequent illness because for many years he had castigated his body perfectly, reducing it to servitude.”[29] Thomas of Celeno says that for last eighteen years, Francis had scarcely or never found rest, but traveled constantly by foot.[30] Finally, two years after receiving the stigmata, forty four years old and completely exhausted, he met his “Sister Death” on October 3, 1226.[31]

CONCLUSION

            Though Francis's practices seem to be funny for this postmodern society, there is a definite truth lies behind all his practices which cannot be answered in human rationale. Since he had shown an extreme attitude in all he did, we cannot simply follow the footsteps of Francis but his motives are indeed the perfect examples to be followed by every Christian. Inspite of his craziness in certain events, God used him mightily to bring a kind of holiness revival in early 13th century's corrupted society. He succeeded in his life long attempt to reflect Christ in this world and gained thousands of followers in his religious order. Like Harkins says, “he lived Christ's teachings more purely than did anyone else in his age, and in any age since”[32]



[1]Some biographers refer to the year 1182

[2]The Life and Legends of Saint Francis of Assisi: Book I, Article on line, available at http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/stf010091.htm, accessed on 16/08/2005

[3]Francis of Assisi, Saint, Electronic Article in Britannica Encylopedia. (His mother named him Giovanni, John the Baptist, but later when his father returned to home from his business trip, he named him Francesco after the name of France.

[4]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, Article online, available at www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-lives.html, accessed on 17/8/2005.  Francis seems to have been a winsome, lively and handsome young man who involved himself into the social life of his city as he joined in its military projects.

[5]Francis being both a day dreamer and a lively lad with buoyant spirits found it difficult to concentrate on studies. Constant complaints about his lack of perseverance annoyed his father to such an extent that he resolved to remove his son from the school. Mariana F. Pinto, Francis of Assisi, (Bombay: St. Paul Publications, 1982), 8

[6]Saint Francis of Assisi, Article online, available at workersforjesus.com/fran.htm, accessed on 16/08/2005

[7]Francis of Assisi, Saint, Electronic Article in Britannica Encylopedia

[8]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, article online. The several things include a vision of Christ while he was praying in a grotto near Assisi, an experience of poverty during his pilgrimage to Rome with beggars near St. Peter's Basilica and an incident in which he gave alms to a leper and kissed him. Francis of Assisi, Saint, Electronic Article in Britannica Encylopedia

[9]Arnaldo Fortini, translated by Helen Moak, Francis of Assisi, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1981), 216

[10]Francis of Assisi, Saint, Electronic Article in Britannica Encylopedia

[11]Murry Bodo, O.F.M., The Way of St. Francis, A Spirituality of Reconciliation, (New York: Doubleda & Company Incorporation, 1984), 11

[12]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, Article online. The sermon is from Gospel according to Matthew 10:9-11

[13]He exchanged his leather belt for a cord and made himself a tunic that looked like the cross so that he could beatoff the temptations of the devil. It was rough in order to crucify the vices and sinsof the flesh. It was poor and mean so that the world would not covet it. Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis.

[14]Arnaldo Fortini, translated by Helen Moak, Francis of Assisi, 470

[15]Francis of Assisi, Saint, Electronic Article in Britannica Encylopedia

[16]In Sacrum Commercium, the earliest biography of St. Francis. Quoted in Murry Bodo, O.F.M., The Way of St. Francis, A Spirituality of Reconciliation, 11

[17]Ibid.

[18]Conrad Harkins, O.S.F., is a scholor at the Franciscan Institute at saint Bonaventure University in New York. He is one of America's leading scholors of Francis and editor of Francican studies.

[19]The Christian History Interview—Modern Medieval Man, Electronic Article, Christian History Compact Disc, Logos Library system.

[20]Francis of Assisi, Saint, Electronic Article in Britannica Encylopedia

[21]Saint Francis of Assisi, Article online, workersforjesus.com/fran.htm, accessed on 16/08/2005

[22]St. Francis of Assisi, Article online, available at http://conservation.catholic.org/st_francis_ assisi.htm, accessed on 16/08/2005

[23]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, Article online.

[24]He had pets, a lamb, a pheasant, a rabbit, a cicada, a dog, a wolf, but upon honest and unsentimental terms. For he was as polite and considerate to an earthworm, a slug, a bird, a beetle, or a mole, as amusedly tolerant and withal, understanding and warmly loving as one would be to one’s brother and sister.

[25]Mark Galli, Did You Know?, Little-known or remarkable facts about Francis of Assisi, Electronic Article, Christian History Compact Disc, Logos Library system.

[26]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, Article online. Many times he and his brothers were insulted, ridiculed, stripped naked, beaten, bound or imprisoned. In all these they always praised God.

[27]The Greek word stigma means brand mark or scar. The word occurs in Paul's letter to the Galatians: I carry the brand marks (ta stigmata) of Jesus on my body (6:17).

[28]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, Article online.

[29]Thomas of Celeno, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis, Article online.

[30]Ibid.

[31]Murry Bodo, O.F.M., The Way of St. Francis, A Spirituality of Reconciliation, 10

[32]The Christian History Interview—Modern Medieval Man, Electronic Article, Christian History Compact Disc, Logos Library system.

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