It was in the church of St Mary of the Angels that a momentous event took place in the life of St Francis. It took place in 1208 on the feast of St Matthias that was then celebrated on the 24th February. When the priest was reading the Gospel St Francis’ heart leapt within him. He became totally convinced that at last God had spoken to him. This time he spoke through the words of the scriptures.
“As you go out, proclaim that the kingdom of God is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out devils. You received without charge, give without charge. Provide yourself with no gold or silver, not even a few coppers for your purses, no haversack for your journey no spare tunic or footwear or staff, for the workman deserves his keep. Whatever town or village you go into, ask for someone trustworthy and stay with him until you leave. As you enter his house salute it, and if the house deserves it, let your peace descend upon it; if it does not, let your peace come back to you” (Matthew 10: 7-13).
As soon as the priest had explained the reading Francis threw away the garb of a hermit and dressed himself in a single grey robe with a rope around his waist instead of a belt. He cast aside his staff and kicked off his sandals ready to set out as ordered to proclaim the Good News that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. In those early days the cheapest cloth was undyed grey wool. That is why the first Franciscans came to be called Grey Friars. And that is why so many of the streets in our major towns and cities are to this day still called Grey Friars, in memory of those early mendicants who once made their homes there. Later, when cloth came to be dyed in the production process, they chose brown, as this was the cheapest dye available.
Before he set out Francis asked the priest to explain the reading in a little more detail. He told Francis that this was precisely how Jesus had told his disciples how they ought to set out on their missionary journeys to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. It may well be close at hand, but it would only enter into the hearts and minds of those who freely chose to turn and open themselves to allow it in, or to use the biblical word – to those who chose to repent. When in his first sermon St Peter proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and was ready to fill everyone with the same Holy Spirit that had raised Jesus from the dead, the crowd asked what they were to do. They were told to repent. In future this would be the essence of the preaching of St Francis and his followers.
With these words ringing in his ears Francis set off to Assisi to do as he had been commanded. The last time he had gone into his home town it was to be ridiculed, laughed at and pelted with mud by the street urchins. Even his old cronies disowned him then as he was a beggar and no longer able to finance their ‘rave ups’ around the town. They had seen him disowned by his own father and mocked by his own brother Angelo who had offered to buy the sweat that poured off him as he struggled heaving heavy stones into place, as he strained every muscle to rebuild San Damiano. Three years on however, everything was different, nobody laughed any more. Now every body seemed to listen as he preached, not just in the market place, but by invitation in the Church of San Giorgio, where he first went to school and where he was first buried before the great Basilica of San Francesco was built as his mausoleum. In no time at all disciples flocked to follow him, important men too, who were well respected by everyone. Soon he was asked to preach in the Cathedral of San Rufino, where he inspired a certain teenage noble woman called Clare to leave home to join him, but that’s another story to be told later.
In eighteen years time Francis would be dead. Why oh why couldn’t he have started his preaching earlier to make use of every possible moment to finish the ‘rebuilding’ that would be far from finished when he died? Why did he have to spend almost three years of wasted time in solitude? Why couldn’t God have spoken to him earlier? The answer is quite simple – because he could not have heard.
Francis was no different from anyone else at the beginning of his calling. He was a beginner with the best of intentions, no doubt about it, but a beginner nonetheless. I believe in everything from instant coffee to instant resurrection – instant conversion, instant healing, instant miracles and instant phenomena of every shape and form, if there is evidence – but instant sanctity, no – there is no such thing. It takes time, precisely because people cannot hear properly until they have been purified of all the selfishness, all the prejudice and all the arrogance that at first only enables them to hear what suits them. That is why behind all the enthusiasm and all the fervour of a spiritual beginner is a person so lost in ‘them and theirs’ they could not do the right thing even if they could hear what it was. That was Francis at the beginning of his journey. Certainly he may have had the best of intentions, but he was nevertheless going through what is called first fervour, when common sense often goes out the window. This does not mean that the time he first spent in prayer was a waste of time, it certainly was not. What it does mean is that it was only the beginning of his journey that did bear fruit with immediate effect, but transformation into the man the medievals called The Second Christ would take much longer.
It was in his solitary prayer that he first received the spiritual strength, not just to help the poor when he came across them, but to seek them out. It was here that he was given the power to do what would have been impossible before, not just to give charity to lepers from afar, but face to face and to kiss them with a love that he knew was beyond the old self who had shrunk from them in the past. It was here too that he finally received the strength to confront his own father, face to face, when he had fled from his anger before. He had already prayed incessantly for God to speak to him so that he would know what to do, but first God would have to teach him how to listen, and how to silence the unruly desires and longings that drew his attention elsewhere. However, after almost three years living like a hermit and praying every day, God had been able to purify him of the selfishness that had prevented him hearing what was wanted of him before.
So, at last on the feast of St Matthias he was able to hear for the first time exactly what God wanted him to do. But it wasn’t just the gift of hearing that he received that day, but the gift of God’s grace too. It was this that enabled him to do what was asked of him, filled with the self –same Spirit who had empowered the first Apostles. Filled with this Holy Spirit he and his followers were able to do in the medieval world what those first Apostles had been able to do in the Roman world a thousand years before them.
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.