When St Francis of Assisi had rebuilt a tumbledown little church given to him by the Benedictines he called it St Mary of the Angels. It was here, over 800 years ago that he heard God speaking to him through the Gospels whilst attending Mass. The message was simple – now your time living as a Hermit is over, you and your disciples must go out preaching the Gospel to all, as Jesus had done with his disciples. He so loved this little church, the Portziuncula, that he said it would always be the hub and the home of his Franciscan Family forever. When the first friars landed in America they immediately built a church and called it after that little church that St Francis had built with his own hands. Naturally they called it after their spiritual home, St Mary of the Angels or in the Spanish language that they spoke: – Santa Maria de los Ángeles. The town that grew up around it took the same name, until it came to be known simply as Los Angeles as it is still known today.
Whilst living the life of a hermit, the Holy Spirit purified Francis of sin and selfishness. He began to experience Jesus, as he was being brought to birth again within him. This profound spiritual birth was brought about by the same Holy Spirit, who had first brought Jesus to birth in Mary’s womb. He was aware of it too, not just through a new conviction that had been implanted into his head, but through a deeply felt experience that enveloped and suffused every fibre of his being. The man he now came to call Brother Jesus was as close to him as he was to himself, and in him and through him, he came to experience the vortex of life and love that endlessly flows between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit.
It was now through this mystical experience, rather than through intellectual reasoning, that Francis came to see and understand the sublime mystical vision that is at the heart of authentic Franciscan Spirituality. The one St Francis called Brother Jesus who had humbled and emptied himself of his supernatural birthright to enter into him, was nonetheless, the very Word of God who had reigned from eternity, in whom everyone and everything had been created from the beginning. This led St Francis to realise that if everyone and everything had been created in Brother Jesus, then the entire world must be a friary and everyone and everything within it were therefore brothers and sisters to one another. It is not just Brother Francis and Sister Clare then, but Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wolf and Sister Lamb, Brother Fire and Sister Water, for the whole of creation is a brotherhood and sisterhood with a common Father in whose embrace all were created from the beginning.
Francis now loved all things and all people, not for what he got out of them, not even for the pleasure they gave him, but for themselves. When a person is loved for themselves and for the good that is seen in them, no matter how deeply it may be hidden from view, then they are made to feel accepted, made to feel at home and loved, no matter how unworthy they may be. And when the person who loves them is a Francis of Assisi who speaks of the sort of life for which they have long since yearned, they just want to throw away every vestige of their old life to follow him and the new life that he promises. That is why, as his faithful confrère Brother Masseo said, “The whole world is now running after you.” They came in their thousands, men and women and children too.
How could you resist such a man? The future St Clare was spellbound listening to his sermons in the Cathedral of San Rufino during the Lent of 1212. Francis was well prepared for this, his first major series of sermons in his home town, for he had spent the previous Lent fasting and praying on a little Island on Lake Trasimene, and the following winter in a remote hermitage at Sarteano near Chiusi. St Clare was the daughter of Favorino de Scifi who came from the most prominent family in Assisi and bore the title of Count of Sasso-Rosso, the name of the peak that rises above the town. Her two cousins, Sylvester and Rufino had only recently joined the new band of brothers. Sylvester was a priest who finally spent most of his time living as a hermit at Le Carceri. Rufino was one of ‘the three Companions’ with Leo and Angelo, who strove to remain faithful to the primitive way of life after the death of Francis. When they died, their particular closeness to St Francis was recognized by receiving the honour of being buried close to him in the Basilica of San Francesco.
Despite her noble and aristocratic birth, Clare left home the day after she heard Francis preach on Palm Sunday of 1212. Her hair was cut off by Francis in St Mary of the Angels, and her fashionable clothes were exchanged for sackcloth and her shoes for bare feet. After spending a little time with the Benedictine Sisters of Isola Romanesco nearby, she and her sisters moved to San Damiano which had been given to them by the Camaldoli monks of Monte Subasio. Many other women were inspired to join Clare, including her own sister Anne and after her father died, she was joined by her mother Ortolana and her other sister Beatrice.
From now on everywhere St Francis went people rushed out to meet him, because in meeting him they met the man who had been brought to birth within him. The more his fame spread, the more people worshipped the very ground he walked on. His first biographer Thomas of Celano who knew him personally, put it this way: –
“If he entered any city the clergy would be joyful, the bells would be rung and the men and women would be exalted and they would rejoice together, and children would clap their hands and often took branches off trees and went in procession to meet him singing psalms.”
It is thanks to Thomas that we have the only detailed description of Francis: –
“He was of middle height, inclining to shortness; his head was of moderate size and round, his face somewhat long and prominent, his forehead smooth and small: his eyes were black of moderate size and with a candid look. His hair was dark, his eyebrows straight, his nose symmetrical thin and straight, his ears upright but small, his temples smooth. His words were kindly but fiery and penetrating. His voice was powerful, sweet toned, clear and sonorous. His teeth were set close together white and even. His lips were thin and fine, his beard black and rather scanty. His neck was slender, his shoulders straight, his arms short, his hands attenuated with long fingers and nails. His legs were slight, his feet small, his skin fine and his flesh very spare.”
The description is not particularly flattering, but it was not the outside of the cup that mattered but the inside, that was so open and empty that he received the love of God until it overflowed onto all who met him. None of his sermons survive but Thomas assures us that they were delivered with passion and with, what he described as ‘ardent gestures and movements’ that often had dramatic effects on his audience. There is a contemporary account of his preaching that has survived thanks to Thomas of Spalato, who heard him preach at Bologna in 1212 :-
“His tunic was dirty, his person unprepossessing and his face was far from handsome. But God gave such power to his words that many factions amongst the nobility, amongst whom the fierce anger of ancient feuds had been raging with much bloodshed, were brought to reconciliation. The reverence and devotion of his listeners was such that men and women rushed upon him anxious to touch the hem of his garment and to carry away bits of his clothing.”
No wonder they called him ‘The Second Christ’ for that is what he was for all who came to meet to him.
What is known in the mystic way as the ‘Transforming Union’ takes place the very moment purification comes to an end. It is instantaneous. The very moment a person is sufficiently purified of the selfishness that keeps the pure unadulterated love of God out, then that love comes flooding in instantly, not just into the mind, where it had already been partially experienced before, but into every part of the personality. The receiver swoons with the sheer delight of experiencing what Jesus Christ had experienced throughout his life on earth. Before, mystical experiences had come and gone, but now in the ‘Transforming Union’ the experience of being possessed by the love of God is all but permanent. That is why it is often called the ‘Mystical Marriage’. Now marriage is not the end, but the beginning of a love that grows deeper and deeper, as with years of mutual self-giving, lovers are irrevocably bonded together. It would be all but impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when this happened to St Francis. However the sources enable us to see quite clearly the immediate effects of this profound transformation within him. Whenever a person experiences the delight of being totally possessed by the Holy Spirit, they just want to revel in that experience. Understandably they are tempted to do nothing else but relish what they have received to the exclusion of all else.
This is precisely what happened to St Francis. Only a few years before, God had spoken to him in the little church of St Mary of the Angels, commanding him to become an itinerant preacher, but now he experienced a desire to stay at home to bathe in the glory of what he had received. Did this mean that he should forsake that calling? He didn’t trust himself to decide, so he sent Brother Masseo to Sister Clare at San Damiano and to her cousin Brother Sylvester at Le Carceri to pray to God for enlightenment. The reply from both of them was in complete accord. “God did not call you for yourself but for others.” The moment he heard their reply he took to the road again, taking Masseo with him and Brother Angelo, a young knight he had recruited into the brotherhood at Rieti. But now it was a different Francis who took the road to Rome by way of Montefalco.
The Desert Fathers had their own way of describing the pinnacle of the mystic way on earth. It was seen as a return to ‘Paradise Lost’. What was lost by Adam could be regained by those who had been purified of the sin and the selfishness that had expelled him from Paradise. That is why the great father founder of Egyptian Monasticism, St Antony, was finally at one, not just with himself but with the whole of creation symbolised by his familiarity with the wild animals with whom he lived in complete harmony and without any fear. St Francis had now arrived at that very place himself and his arrival was symbolised by what is perhaps the most iconic picture that we have of him, preaching to the birds on the roadside between the villages of Cannara and Bevagna on his way to Rome. The many paintings of this idyllic scene depict the time when a new departure had just begun in the spiritual life of Francis and the beginnings of his unique vision.
In the first book of the Old Testament, the author of Genesis presented the world that God created as a Temple. The firmament comprises the vast dome in which the whole of creation resided. Each day that God spoke, his Word had been embodied in as many animals, plants and inanimate wonders as he chose, to give him praise and glory just by being and doing what he created them for. In the first chapter of St John’s Gospel we are given the world-shaking news that God’s Word in whom and through whom all things were created in the beginning was now, ‘in the fullness of time’, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is now not only the new temple in which all creation resides, but the supreme King of that Creation who has come to rule over it and, as its supreme priest, lead it in an unending offering of love, praise and thanksgiving to the Father who sent him.
Now everything seemed so simple to the man who had just been suffused by the ‘Wisdom of God.’ If all things were created in Brother Jesus then all things are brothers and sisters to each other. Indeed the whole world must then be a friary and the highways and the byways of that world must be the cloisters of this friary. So from now on, whenever Francis walks through these cloisters with his brothers, he orchestrates the whole of creation around him to give praise and thanks with him to their common Father through Jesus their eldest brother, beginning with the birds of Cannara and Bevagna.
As the story of Francis further unfolds, it is full of his love for his brothers and sisters, the birds, the animals, the trees and the plants and even inanimate things that listened to him and obeyed him without question when some of his own brethren did not. When he tells the swallows to remain silent at Alviano so that his listeners can hear what he is saying, they obey him. When he asks the falcon to wake him in the night for prayer it does so, and when he orders the man-eating wolf to stop attacking the villagers of Gubbio, it obeys. But most of all this story is full of Francis’ love for Brother Jesus who emptied himself of everything to enter into the world that was created through him, and in him, just so that he could enter into us. For St Francis this was the ultimate expression of the poverty that Brother Jesus chose to embrace. It was not just that he abandoned a home of absolute bliss to make his home amongst us, but that he finally humbled himself to enter into our common food and drink, bread and wine, to make his home within us as he had promised at the Last Supper, to lead us into ultimate mystical union. That is why he wrote in the very first of his admonitions:-
“Every day He humbles himself as he did when he came down from His heavenly throne into the Virgin’s womb; every day He comes to us and lets us see his abjection when He descends from the bosom of the Father into the hands of the priest at the altar. In this way our Lord remains continually with His followers, as he promised- ‘Behold I am with you all days even unto the consummation of the world’”(Admonition 1).
The vortex of supernatural life and love that endlessly revolves between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, who Francis wanted to be the inner dynamism that animated and ruled the brotherhood that he founded. From now on these are the predominant themes that begin to characterise the preaching and teaching of Francis, and the letters and the writings that he completed towards the end of his life.
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.