After St Francis received the Stigmata he travelled all the way back to Assisi on a donkey for he could not walk. Nor could he see or hear much, because he was filled with such sublime joy that most of the time he was lost in ecstasy. But on his return he was filled with a new lease of life that enabled him to set off on brief missionary journeys in the surrounding countryside. It was the last flare of a flame that was about to peter out. Soon the first part of his prayer was about to be answered, as serious sickness enabled him to experience something of the sufferings that Brother Jesus had to endure on the cross. Yet, it was when he was at his lowest ebb, living in a mud hut outside San Damiano and pestered by a plague of mice that he wrote his beautiful poem in praise of Brother Sun. It was the first great poetic work to be written in the Italian language.
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honour, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve him with great humility.
The problem with his eyes became much worse and so painful that Brother Elias sent him to the Papal Court, now in residence at Rieti to be treated by surgeons who applied red hot irons to his temples close by at Fonte Columbo where he and Brother Leo had worked on his rules. After blessing Brother Fire he felt no pain at all from the irons, but his eyes pained him as before, so he was sent to Siena, famous for their eye specialists at that time, but they did no good. His doctors had all pleaded with him to treat his body with more respect. He listened to their words of advice and took them to heart. He even asked pardon for the way he had treated his body throughout his life, but it was too late. It has to be said that he had always preached moderation to others, most of whom had listened, except that is for himself and Sister Clare at San Damiano. Saints are there to be admired and to inspire us, but their example should not always be followed infallibly as they were certainly not infallible. What is always infallible however, is their best of intentions. When a person sees and experiences love being lavished on them, as Francis did, they feel impelled to express their thanks and their gratitude in ways that are not for the fainthearted.
When his health worsened and he began to haemorrhage, it was thought that he was dying so he begged to be taken home to Assisi. When he arrived at the hermitage of Le Celle near Cortona he began to suffer from dropsy too and his legs and feet swelled up. Then his stomach couldn’t retain any food and he began to have severe pains in his spleen and in his liver. Fearing that the Perugians might kidnap him and bury him in their town to attract the pilgrims with their precious money, Brother Elias ordered him to be carried home by way of Gubbio and sent a detachment of soldiers to guard him. Once back in his beloved Assisi he was taken to the Bishop’s Palace, still under guard for fear of the Perugians. When he heard that, as usual, the bishop was at loggerheads with the mayor, he had an extra verse added to his Canticle to Brother Sun in praise of peace and pardon and ordered his brothers to sing it before them both. It was the last act of reconciliation that Francis performed before he died.
The moment his doctor told him that he would soon be dead he opened his arms and cried, “Welcome Sister Death.” Then he added yet another verse to his poem in praise of her. From now on he would no let Brother Leo or Brother Angelo leave him. He wanted them by his side at all times to sing about Sister Death whenever he wanted. Nor would he allow them to stop despite the protestation of Brother Elias, who feared people might doubt the sanctity of a man who made merry on his deathbed. If he was not to be revered as a saint then what was the use of the vast Basilica he was planning to build as his tomb? No saint, no money. It was whilst he was still in the Bishop’s Palace that Francis wrote his final Testament. It is a deeply moving document that reveals the real St Francis as he looks back on his life from his deathbed. Then it looks forward to try and ensure that those who come after him will remain faithful to the spirit of the Gospel that he lived by and lived by to the end.
Suddenly his illness took a turn for the worse and he was plunged into terrible agony. Although he accepted what he had in fact prayed for, he was forced to admit that the sufferings were far worse than the martyrdom that he had once sought with such simplicity. The dropsy that had bloated his lower body seemed to fade away, leaving him looking more like a skeleton than anything else. Thinking he was dying, he placed his hand on Brother Elias and blessed him and through him the countless generations of brothers who would follow him in centuries to come. It wasn’t the end but it was not far off, so he begged to be taken to the Portiuncula that he might die in the poverty to which he had been accustomed all his life, surrounded by the brothers who loved it as he did. The last act of his saintly life was about to reach its conclusion.
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.