St Bonaventure described God’s love as ‘a shaft of light that flashes out from the divine darkness’, that suddenly enables believers to see the truth they have never seen before. For the first time they begin to see the truth about themselves that they did not want to see before. Then it enables them to see the truth about God who they had once created in their own image and likeness and then fallen in love with. This mystical shaft of light fills them with wisdom and understanding that enables them to interpret the truth and then fills them with the strength to do the truth, that they could never have done before. This is why Francis was able to hear and understand the Gospel reading on the feast of St Matthias when he was told to go out speaking the Good News and calling people to repentance. He was given something else too that he didn’t have before, and that was the inner spiritual strength to do it, as Jesus had done before him.
It was only now that the same people who had mocked him before listened to him as never before. They could see that the charismatic hippie was no more. Instead it was a new man who stood before them, a more balanced and mature man who in some way embodied the goodness of the man in whose name he spoke. In no time at all people flocked to hear him speak and soon many young men asked to join him. The first two to join him were highly respected citizens of Assisi. One was Bernard of Quintavalle an extremely wealthy man, the other was Peter Cattani a secular lawyer who had been made a Canon at the Cathedral of San Rufino. When they asked St Francis what they were to do, he took them both to the church of San Nicolo where all three prayed before opening the Gospels three times in honour of the Holy Trinity to read: –
“If you will be perfect go sell all you have and give it to the poor and you shall have treasures in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).
“If any man will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 26:24).
“And he commanded that they should take nothing for the way” (Mark 6:8).
Francis was filled with joy and said, “Brothers, this is our life and our rule and not only ours but for all who wish to follow us.” After they had given away all their possessions to the poor they took up residence in a little hut near St Mary of the Angels where they were joined by Giles, who had begun life as a farmer and who would end it as a famous hermit to whom many would turn for spiritual help and guidance long after St Francis had died. In order to obey the word of God they set off two by two to proclaim the Gospel. When asked who they were they replied that they were penitents from Assisi and they preached repentance to all who would hear them. Francis and Giles went to the Marches of Ancona and Bernard and Peter to Florence. When on their return their numbers increased they moved to a few small buildings at a place called Rivo Torto, so called because they lay alongside a brook that twisted and turned like a snake. Then, when their numbers had increased to twelve, St Francis wrote his first rule based entirely on the teachings of the Gospel and, with Bernard of Quintavalle elected as their leader, they set off for Rome to seek approval for their way of life from Pope Innocent III.
Innocent had no illusions about the state of the Church and the need for fundamental reform, but he had so far been unimpressed by the myriad firebrands who had set themselves up to reform it with their apocalyptic followers. Even though he had encouraged some of them to begin with, he usually ended in suppressing or condemning them. Most of them had their own off-beat interpretation of the Gospels and their uncanny habit of antagonising the clergy who they loved to damn to hell in their fiery sermons. Francis was different from these self-appointed prophets of doom for three reasons. Firstly, his simple honest-to-God goodness was quite transparent, unlike most of the self-styled reformers who preceded him. Secondly, he never at any time pointed the finger at anyone else for failing to live up to the ideals he sought to live for himself. Nor would he even think of preaching in the diocese or the parish of any bishop or priest against their will. By instinct rather than by calculation Francis knew that only the humble can speak to the proud and hope to be heard. And thirdly his rule of life was the teaching of the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel, without the bizarre misinterpretations of these prophets of doom.
However, despite all this, when Innocent III read his rule it made him think twice, because he feared that nobody could possibly live by it. If it wasn’t for the words of Cardinal John of St Paul who had already befriended St Francis, and Pope Innocent’s famous dream, things might well have turned out quite differently. The words of the Cardinal were simply these. “If you say that his rule of life is too difficult to live by it is tantamount to saying that the Gospel is too difficult to live by too.” That would of course not only be a criticism of the Poverello from Assisi, but of the man whose teaching he, like the rest of the Church, was trying to follow. If these words made Innocent III pause for further thought then the dream that he had the following night decided the matter.
The dream was of the rather grubby little man, who had presented his rule to him the day before, preventing the walls of the Lateran Palace from falling down. In those days the Lateran Palace was what the Vatican is today, so despite appearances he came to see that the man he had initially mistaken for a swineherd was in fact sent by God to do for the Church what all the prophets of doom put together had failed to do.
To this day there is nothing left in writing of that first rule of St Francis which he and his brothers followed for more than a dozen years. Nor did Pope Innocent III give St Francis anything other than his word to ratify this rule. But that meant nothing to St Francis. If a gentleman’s word is his bond, what of a Pope’s? “Go with my blessing and try to live by it,” he had said to St Francis. He was using the well-proven wisdom of Gamaliel – “If it is of God it will surely succeed, but if it is of man it will surely fail.” If all went well Francis was told to return, for Innocent had work for him to do.
All did go well and St Francis was to return many times to be entrusted by Christ’s Vicar on earth with the work Christ himself had asked him to perform only five years before in the Church of San Damiano.
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.