In 1209 St Francis of Assisi who the medievals called The Second Christ presented his first rule, totally based on the Gospel, to the great Pope Innocent III in Rome. No saint has ever had such an impact on the history of Christian Spirituality.
He was born towards the end of 1181 or at the beginning of 1182. The date might mean little, so let me put it in the context of English History. Henry II was on the throne of England with his equally famous or infamous wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. He is remembered by most of us from our school days for three things. Firstly, he was the first of the Plantagenets. Secondly he was the first to set up law courts or assizes for all. Thirdly he was the first to have a blazing row with the church that culminated in the famous murder, when Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury, was savagely cut to pieces by three knights in his own cathedral.
I’m sure St Francis knew nothing of all this, but he would most certainly have known about Henry II’s son Richard I, known throughout Christendom as Coeur de Lion – The Lion Heart – the greatest warrior king of his day and ‘his day’ was from 1188 when Francis was about seven, to 1199 when he was seventeen going on eighteen. When Francis was growing up we know for certain that, like his contemporaries, his head was full of the legends of the great knightly warriors of the past like King Arthur, Lancelot, and Roland and most especially of the great Crusaders of the present, who were fighting Saladin in the East to win back the Holy Land under the flamboyant leadership of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Most of us who were brought up on films about the fabled Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, both ‘contemporaries’ of St Francis, cast Richard I as Mr ‘Goody’ and his brother John I as Mr ‘Baddy’. Mr ‘Baddy’ died in 1216 in the year after he had signed Magna Carta in 1215. This was the year when St Francis met St Dominic at the Fourth Lateran Counsel in Rome in 1215. In 1221 the Dominican Friars arrived in England followed three years later by the sons of St Francis, who made their first home in Canterbury. You can still see the kitchen of the old friary in Canterbury built over the river, with a trapdoor through which Brother Cook could fish for the friar’s supper. St Francis had spent his whole life trying to do with peace and kindness what Robin Hood had tried to do with violence and the sword. He really does deserve a better film to remember him by than Brother Sun and Sister Moon by Franco Zeffirelli. The fact that such a brilliant man whose other works I can hardly fault, can so misunderstand the patron saint of his homeland is so very disappointing. I hope that what I have to write will help to put the records straight.
Like Zeffirelli all too many biographers of Francis have tried to re-make him in their own image and likeness. Incorrigible romantics are beguiled by his love of nature, the man who walked amongst and talked to the birds, spoke to Brother Lamb and tamed Brother Wolf, and they see little else. For others he is the first great hippy, the drop out, the new age hero, the toast of every alternative spirituality under the sun. For others he is the archetypal humanist, the social worker or, as he was for Lenin, the one who inaugurated the first classless society that his communism dreamt about but never re-produced. Stoics like to revel in his fearsome fasting, the stigmata that lacerated his body and the extreme asceticism that they think made him the man that he became. But it was the real St Francis and the profound spirituality that made him such a unique saint. I want to try to introduce him to you, as he really was and to trace for you the mystical influences that lead him from being just another typical young man of his time, with more money than he knew what to do with, to one of the greatest mystics who has ever lived.
St Francis was in fact baptised John, after John the Baptist. Apparently his father was away trading in France at the time and when he returned he wanted to celebrate a particularly successful trip by calling his first born son after the country where he had just made his money. Francis was not only aware of the saint after whom he had been christened, but he celebrated his feast day each year. His baptismal name perfectly embodied the man he was about to become. As he was to discover for himself it was his particular calling to become a second John the Baptist calling people to repentance in preparation for the second coming of Christ. Christ did come again at the beginning of the thirteenth century, mystically embodied in the flesh and blood of St Francis, and that’s why the medievals called him The Second Christ. However only the first Christ was sanctified from birth, all those who later come to embody him in some way, were forged out of a profound interrelationship of human endeavour and divine grace. It was St Francis, who first said ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ and he meant it far more than most, because he experienced this truth for himself by the early events that determined and then shaped the rest of his life.
Current fashions have always determined the way the lives of the saints were viewed and then written down. When it was fashionable to show how saints invariably came from blue blood then pious genealogists suddenly discovered that his father Pietro Bernadone had noble origins and his mother Pica came from similar stock. When it was fashionable to emphasise the power of God’s grace then the would-be saint had first to be presented as a wicked sinner. When it was considered disrespectful to suggest that a saint could be anything other than the paragon of virtue that they finally became, then they had to be shown imbibing righteousness with their mother’s milk and even refraining from it during Lent! When Francis came to be called The Second Christ it had to be shown that he was born in a stable by the artists of the day and a spurious stable had to be built that can still be seen in Assisi to this day.
He was in fact born into a family with no pretensions about their past, but with the usual pretensions about the future that always colour the dreams of the nouveau riche and incite them to become what they never were through the success of their children. These dreams seem to have been invested in their first born, who was spoilt with the proceeds of the money that Pietro Bernadone undoubtedly made as a merchant importing the finest fabrics, woven by the legendary weavers in the Low Countries and sold in the leading markets, like those of Provence, where Pietro had been trading when Francis was born. This didn’t make Francis into the ‘enfant terrible’ that some would like to make of him but, as the son of one of the richest men in Assisi, it did make him profligate with the money he helped to make in his father’s drapers shop. In my next blog we will see how this poor little rich man becomes a rich little poor man to the dismay of his parents and his friends alike. No one could blame him for falling in love, but falling in love with poverty, that was quite another matter.
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.