After the party when St Francis had a brief mystical experience, he began to visit churches and places of solitude where he could prayer. Firstly he went with a friend, and then on his own. He was tempted to believe that all his exertions were a waste of time. Then one day everything changed. Whenever he had met lepers in the past he would always give them whatever help he could, but, as he couldn’t face them in person, he had sent others to give them alms. That day everything changed. When he was out riding in the valley of Spoleto he came face to face with a leper who he couldn’t avoid. This time he didn’t spur his horse and gallop away, but leapt from his saddle, not just to give him alms, but to kiss him on the mouth. Then he did the same for the inmates of the local leprosarium, while begging their forgiveness for his cowardly behaviour towards them in the past. His attitude to the poor was changing too. Long before he became aware of a specifically religious calling he had always been generous to them whenever he came across them. However there was a further change in his behaviour because now he positively sought them out like never before.
He knew that his new behaviour to lepers and to the poor was not the action of Francesco Bernadone, but the action of the Holy Spirit, who despite his temptation to believe the contrary, had after all, been working within him in his solitary prayer. The process of turning Francis into the man he admired more than any other, had already begun, but ‘til then he had hardly noticed it. Prayer was not after all the waste of time that he had been tempted to believe. He needed more of it, so he returned to prayer with ever greater commitment. He began to wonder whether or not his new God-given calling to outcasts was God’s way of telling him what was wanted of him, or was it more? He simply didn’t know, so he began to pray more earnestly than ever before so that he would be ready and open to hear God when he chose to tell him what was wanted of him.
It was towards the end of 1205 that Francis was praying before an old Byzantine crucifix in the tumbledown church of San Damiano just outside the city walls that something unexpected happened. He heard words spoken to him that at last made it clear what he must do. “Francis re-build my church which, as you can see, is falling down.” So that there could be no misunderstanding the words were spoken three times. He took the words to mean that he had to put on a mason’s apron and with a trowel and mortar start rebuilding the church of San Damiano which, as he could see was indeed falling down. He might well be a cloth merchant’s son, but months spent building the walls around Assisi had taught him what to do. Later he realised that the church he had in fact been called to rebuild was the Catholic Church itself which, as Pope Innocent III himself admitted, was indeed falling down for failing to be faithful to its founder. Francis later realised that God had meant him to misinterpret his words, at least for the time being, so that several years working and praying in solitude would prepare him for the real task for which he was called.
Full of first fervour Francis rushed home, loaded the best cloth he could find onto his horse and sold the lot, including his horse, at the market town of Foligno ten or so miles up the road that led to Spoleto. However, knowing that Francis was still in his first fervour and knowing that his father wouldn’t approve, the priest in charge of San Damiano wouldn’t touch the money though he gave him shelter and allowed him to help repair his church. The inevitable happened, his father turned up enraged that his son had made a laughing stock of him and his family, not to mention pinching part of his precious stock. But Francis had scampered away and hid himself in a cave nearby where he was fed by a friend for a month or more before he came to his senses. Yet again it was in prayer that he was changed. He came to see that he had played the coward and then through that same prayer he received the strength to become a man. So, all grubby and dishevelled, he began to make his way home to confront his father only to be pelted with stones and other missiles by the same street urchins who had once idolized him from afar. Further humiliated by the son who had already shamed him, Pietro Bernadone rescued him only to lock him up as a prisoner in his own home. The moment Pietro had to go away on another of his business trips, Pica, Francis’ mother, was moved to pity and released him. When his father returned it was to confront him at San Damiano with a warrant from the civil authorities. This time Francis didn’t run away but calmly informed his father that, as he now consecrated himself to God he could only be tried by an ecclesiastical court.
The scene was set for the final confrontation between father and son before Lord Guido the Bishop of Assisi. He admitted that Francis had done wrong to take his father’s goods without permission and told him to give them back. Whereupon, in a gesture that was to fire the imaginations of hundreds of biographers and inspire the works of many an artist, Francis returned everything including all that he wore ‘til he stood naked before the court. Then he proclaimed that he disowned his own father on earth for his Father in heaven, to whom he committed himself for the future. The bishop clothed his nakedness with a gardener’s smock on which Francis painted a cross.
He set off for Gubbio, where he was given new clothes by an old friend. On his way he was thrown into a snow drift by robbers, not just because he had nothing on him worth taking, but because his claim to be ‘a herald of the great King’ made them write him off as a lunatic or a religious fanatic who needed cooling off for a while. He didn’t receive much better treatment at the Benedictine Abbey where he had to do hard labour to earn the pig food that barely kept him alive.
When he finally arrived at Gubbio the clothes that his friend gave him symbolized the life to which he now committed himself for the next two to three years. It was the long robe of a hermit tied round with a leather belt with sandals on his feet and a staff in his hands. He was still only a journeyman hermit so he journeyed all the way back to Assisi to complete the rebuilding of San Damiano, then to San Pietro and finally St Mary of the Angels hidden away in deep woods about a mile outside Assisi. It’s no longer in a deep wood today, but inside a vast Basilica that also marks the spot where Francis finally died in 1226. It was in this little church that God was to speak to him again and tell him his real calling, as we shall see next time.
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.