|Francis of Assisi
Italy (1181 - 1226) Timeline
Christian : Catholic
Poems by Francis of Assisi
Books - Links
St. Francis of Assisi himself was a great lover of French Troubadour songs and traditions. Though he lived and taught within the Catholic Church, elements of Cathar and Troubadour spirituality can be seen in his own radiant ministry: his love of nature (particularly the sun and the moon), his vision of a divine woman, and his relationship with St. Clare (which was very much in the tradition of the chaste Lover-Beloved relationship espoused by the Troubadour ideal of courtly love.)
Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 to a prosperous merchant family in Assisi, Italy. His father, Pietro Bernadone, was on a business trip in France when the child was born and he was upset on his return to find out that the child was initially baptized with the name Giovanni after the ascetic John the Baptist. Pietro Bernadone wanted a worldly son, someone who would one day take over his business of trading in fine cloths, so he renamed his son Francesco, "the Frenchman," for Pietro was enamored with all things French.
As Francis grew up, his natural charisma and joy attracted people to him, becoming the leader of a raucous group of young men. He led an easy life, taking full advantage of his family's wealth and the permissiveness of the times.
Francis shared his father's love of France. He was particularly drawn to the songs of mystical romance brought to Italy by the Provencal Troubadours.
There were many key events in Francis's early life that led, ultimately, to a profound spiritual change in the young man:
Francis's father dreamed of more than wealth for the young man, he wanted his son to be elevated to nobility. Showing valor in war was the most likely way to accomplish this; and soon the opportunity presented itself when Assisi declared war against its neighboring town Perugia.
The war went badly for Assisi and most of its young men were killed, except for the wealthy who were captured and held for ransom. Francis spent a year in a dungeon before he was released.
On his return to Assisi, Francis resumed his life of revelry.
Next, a call went out for soldiers in the Fourth Crusade. Francis, his mind filled with romantic stories and spirations for glory, bought a fine horse and had an elaborate suit of armor made -- and he left for war.
But he didn't get more than a day's ride away. He had a powerful dream in which God told him that he must return home, which he did. This was a stunning action that was interpreted by the townspeople as cowardice. His father was outraged at the family's humiliation and the money wasted on his armor.
Francis began to turn inward, devoting increasing time to prayer and quietly wandering through the countryside.
During this time, Francis forced himself to overcome his lifelong revulsion of leprosy by kissing the hand of a man afflicted with leprosy.
While praying at the dilapidated church of San Damiano, Francis heard Christ speak to him, telling him to "repair my church." Francis took this literally, assuming it applied to the small church he was praying in, and began immediately to rebuild its crumbling walls. (Only later would this command be understood as a call to rebuild the spiritual foundations of the Church, with a capital "C".) To pay for his new endeavors, he sold his father's cloth and used the money he gained.
This was the final straw for Francis's father. Before the bishop and the town, Pietro Bernadone demanded that his son return the stolen money and renounce his rights as heir. Francis surprised everyone by going so far as to strip himself naked in the town square and declaring that would live by God's grace alone from that point forward -- this from the wild young man who had led gangs of carousing boys through the streets!
Francis's natural charisma didn't leave him, even as he adopted a life of prayer, radical poverty, and service to the sick and the poor. Followers quickly gathered about him. Many were his former friends, the sons of wealthy and noble families.
Soon, the numbers of his followers had grown to such an extent that things grew political with the Church. His mystical nature, his popularity with the poor, and his insistence on Christ's poverty was not well liked by many within the Church, for it seemed to ally him with other mendicant esoteric groups that had been declared heretical because they criticized the Church's wealth abandonment of the poor.
In order to keep his followers from suffering a similar fate of suppression, he had to make it clear that he was well within the Church orthodoxy. He had to navigate a careful path of maintaining his essential message while never criticizing Church excesses. He also had to seek formal recognition of his order by the Pope, which he finally got.
Contrary to many movements within the West, Francis didn't attempt to abolish poverty, he embraced it, seeking to ennoble it, show it as a pathway to the spiritual life.
As Francis's brotherhood continued to grow, increasing pressure was applied by the Church to control it further, and a new, more formalized rule had to be developed. In order to maintain his spiritual simplicity and surrender to God, Francis finally had to give up control of his order and leave its governance to others who were more willing to play the political games that must follow.
Francis's health was never good, and it worsened as he returned to a simple life of prayer and retreat. He began to go blind, as well. It was also during this time that he received the stigmata while praying among some caves in the countryside.
It was also during this time that Francis composed his masterpiece, the Canticle of the Sun, praising the beauty and holiness of nature as a reflection of the Divine. At the time, Latin was the language of both the Church and of learning. Yet, as part of Francis's humility and affinity with the common people, he composed his masterpiece, The Canticle of Brother Sun, in simple Italian, considered one of the first great poems in the language.
Francis died in 1226 at the age of 45 and was immediately acclaimed to be a saint by the general population.
Note: The popular "Prayer of St. Francis" is not included here because, although beautiful, it was not actually written by St. Francis. This is not debated even by Franciscan scholars. The "Prayer" first appeared several centuries after the death of Francis and was initially attributed to other individuals until it was finally attributed to Francis. The "Prayer" should still be cherished for the love and utter surrender to the Divine it inspires, but not as a work of St. Francis.
Poems by Francis of Assisi
- How Virtue Drives Out Vice
- Let the whole of mankind tremble
- Let us desire nothing else
- Prayer from 'A Letter to the Entire Order'
- Prayer Inspired by the Our Father
- The Prayer Before the Crucifix
- The Salutation of the Virtues
- The Praises of God
- Exhortation to St. Clare and Her Sisters
- The Canticle of Brother Sun
- The Canticle of Brother Sun
Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi - Patron Saint of Animals and the Environment
Several articles on St. Francis, including some on his love for animals and the natural world.
Patron Saint Index: St. Francis of Assisi
Brief bio, several of his prayers on-line, some links.
Catholic Online: St. Francis of Assisi
An extended biography.
The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
The Little Flowers of St. Francis, one of the early biographies of St. Francis, available on-line.
St. Francis of Assisi: Introduction
A highly recommended site. Includes biography, articles on Assisi and Franciscan life, the complete text of the Little Flowers biography, as well as many of St. Francis's writings on-line.