Ever since Charlemagne was enthroned as Holy Roman Emperor in AD 800 Europe gradually became a safer place in which to live. It became increasingly easier to travel and to trade as the centuries rolled by. It was a slow process, but by the time Francis was a young man his father was only one of many merchants who had made a fortune in the sort of trading that would have been impossible before, when sacking and pillaging was the most common way of becoming rich. In the Middle Ages the best sackers and pillagers tended to become the worst landowners, as they enslaved most of their minions and taxed the rest into permanent penury, offering only safety from other sackers and pillagers for their pains. Gradually in Europe the survival of the fittest dictated the arrival of a new world order with the strongest at the top and the weakest at the bottom. This new world order came to be called feudalism.
In theory, the emperor was at the top, followed by kings, dukes, counts, earls, barons, sheriffs and knights, all of whom paid homage to their kings for the lands that he allowed them to keep in exchange for their obeisance and for military service. In Italy the nobility, from the knights upward, came to be called the Majores, while the minions were called the Minores. That is why, on their return from Rome when they were residing for the second time at Rivo Torto, Francis decided to call his band of brother Minores – Fratres Minores, or in English – Friars Minor. He wanted to make this quite clear, as by the time he was born many of the merchant classes were becoming so wealthy that they were beginning to climb their way into the upper classes – the Majores. Francis had already seen this happen in his own town when most of the Majores had been thrown out and Assisi had been proclaimed a commune.
Before his conversion Francis certainly had pretensions. Fed by stories of the daring deeds of the Knights of the Round Table, he was inspired to follow them and would have certainly been knighted had he fought with honour and won glory in battle, fighting for the Pope against the Ghibellines in southern Italy under the leadership of Walter of Brienne. But once his eyes were opened he felt nothing but disgust for the dreams that had once deceived him. He felt contempt too for his own class, who were consumed with lust, not so much for the glory that had bedazzled him, but for the money that would enable them to climb into the society that laughed at them for their uncouth ways and boorish manners. At least the old order which had been banished from Assisi had practised the code of chivalry that had once inspired him, and the courtly manners that were so noticeably absent from the new pretenders. They knew how to treat the noble ladies whose favour they sought, and whose keepsakes they wore with pride whenever they fought as they spurred their horses into combat at the tournaments or on the field of battle.
Francis did not abandon the ideals that had inspired him as a young man, but he transposed and transformed them from the secular world to the spiritual. He would still be a knight, as would his followers. They would be like the knights who sat together at a round table, to show that no one was superior to the others. If one was raised up for a time, it would only be to serve the others as a guardian, a warden, or a minister, for a brief time before returning to his place at the round table where equality reigned supreme. Francis didn’t want to be just any knight, but a knight chosen to perform a particular task by his lord. He wanted to be a herald, a knight singled out for his courtesy and his courtly manners, to announce the arrival of the king at court, at the tournament or on the battlefield. He would have a lady too who he would honour and serve with all the dedication that was expected of him.
When, on an impulse, he told the friends who were mocking him that he had fallen for a lady far more beautiful than they could ever have imagined. He probably knew no more about this mysterious lady than they did at the time. They were the words of a young man who had fallen in love with love, but her true identity was soon to become clearer to him. The rise of the new moneyed classes to which he had belonged worshipped the new god of mammon, and he too had all but been seduced. Now he wanted to reject that world with all his heart, he wanted to be wed to what he came to call Lady Poverty, not just because poverty was despised by his peers, but because it had been embraced by the only person in whose footsteps he now wished to follow with all his heart.
In abandoning his home and birthright, the man he would call Brother Jesus had entered into a world of spiritual poverty as a helpless baby in a wooden crib, and had chosen to leave it as a helpless man on a wooden cross. He had done this for one reason and one reason alone, so that the inner emptiness that he chose to experience for himself, would be filled to overflowing with the love that he had experienced in heaven. Then through him it could be poured out on all who chose to receive it on earth. St Francis called this inner emptiness Lady Poverty whom he wished to wed, because it would enable him to be totally open and receptive to the same love that had progressively possessed Brother Jesus. The radical outer poverty that was to be the hallmark of his new order, was but the outer expression of this inner poverty. Without the inner poverty all the outer show would be nothing other than show, and the ‘show off’ would be nothing other than a hypocrite.
Embracing Lady Poverty who Brother Jesus had wed before him, enabled St Francis to be filled with and guided by the Holy Spirit, who he insisted was the real Minister General of his order. If he had his way, this deeply rooted conviction would have been written into his final rule. However, the rule was already ‘set in stone’ before he could do it, and the canon lawyers would have probably vetoed it. There have always been too many people who believe that they have a direct line to the Holy Spirit, whose will usually ends up being interpreted in favour of their own harebrained ideas, with disastrous consequences.
If anyone is prepared to follow the example of Francis of Assisi and embrace the unique way of life that he copied from the Gospels, then they can be sure to travel with the utmost possible speed. That is why his first followers quickly climbed the foothills to the heights of spiritual maturity, and that is why within only ten years, there were between three to five thousand brothers who had given up everything to follow in his footsteps. Next time I want to put the microscope on this unique way of life, so that we can learn how we can follow St Francis in our daily lives. Because, whatever our vocation might be, wherever we live whatever we do, we are all called like Francis, to observe the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.