Monday, July 28, 2008

Catholic Saint: The Story of St. Francis—I.

There was once a boy called Francis, who lived in a curious old town in the mountains of Italy. The town was called Assisi. It was all funny little up-and-down streets and flights of long, crooked stone steps; and there was a wall all round (to keep enemies out), and big gates in the wall that were closed at night. The purple hills and mountains spread away as far as you could see beneath a blue, blue sky, and all round the city there were vineyards, and lovely little rocky paths winding about among the silvery olive-trees.

Francis was the son of a rich merchant called Peter Bernardone. He was a regular Cubby boy—always laughing and singing, ready for mischief, but still more ready to do anyone a good turn. He was Peter Bernardone's only son, and he had a jolly good time of it, because his father had made up his mind that young Francis should make a success of life, and end by being a great man in the town. He used to smile to himself and rub his hands together as he saw what a clever, handsome boy Francis was growing up into, and how everybody loved him, and how he was always the ringleader in all the fun. As Francis grew to be a young man his father would encourage him to give lots of feasts to his friends, not minding how much they cost, and it pleased him to see that it was always Francis who was the life of these feasts, making jokes, leading cheerful singsongs, enjoying himself no end, and making everyone else enjoy themselves. But while Peter Bernardone chuckled to see young Francis so gay and popular, Francis' mother, Pica, used to notice little things that made her happy too, only in a different way. She noticed that Francis never really gave in to himself, like his wild friends; never overate himself in a greedy way or drank enough wine to make him drunk; never thought it funny to tell nasty stories or swear; and if ever God's name was mentioned, it seemed to make him serious for a moment. "One day," she said, "he will become a son of God." But her friends thought it a silly remark to make, for Francis seemed to be living just to please himself and have a jolly time. But mothers are generally right in what they prophesy about their sons, and Pica's remark was really a very true one. This story is all about how Francis gave up being a rich merchant's son and became a poor man who found all his joy and his riches in calling God his Father. The change did not come easily, and a great many wonderful adventures befell him, which I am going to tell you now.

It all began with a war between Assisi and another city. Of course, Francis and his pals joined in the fray and thought it great sport, till they got captured and carried off prisoners. It was not sport at all being shut up in stuffy old houses with only a little food and nothing to do. Francis used to cheer them up with troubadour songs and stories. But although he always seemed so cheerful, it was doing great harm to his health, and when, after a year, the prisoners were freed and returned to Assisi, Francis became very ill indeed. So ill was he that he came near dying, and this experience of nearly passing out into the next life made him begin to think seriously. When he was well enough to go out, walking slowly with a stick because of his weakness, he felt that life could never be quite the same; he must do something, take a man's place in the world.

Well, the chance soon came, for all the young Christian men were called out to fight in a Crusade. A certain nobleman of Assisi started getting up a party, and Francis decided to join him. He soon had all his kit—armour, a bright sword, a good horse, and all complete; and with a gay heart, full of a thirst for adventure and a determination to do great things, he waited impatiently for the start. He had been rather puzzled as to what to do with himself, and now he felt he had hit on the right plan. So it was a bit of a surprise when, his very first night away, something happened which unsettled his mind altogether and made him feel it was not God's will that he should go to the Crusades.

The night before the party set out Francis had had a very curious dream, about a beautiful palace, all hung round with knightly arms, which a mysterious voice told him was for him and his followers. This made him so happy that the next day, when someone asked him what good fortune he had had, he replied that now he knew for certain he was to be a great prince and leader of men. But the next night, as he lay in the hostelry on the first halt along the road, something still more strange happened. He was not asleep, and yet, through the still darkness, he heard the mysterious voice of his dream, and it said: "Francis, whom is it better to serve, the lord or the servant?" "Surely it is better to serve the lord," replied Francis, softly, into the dark. And the voice answered: "Why, then, dost thou make a lord of the servant?" Then it all seemed to flash on Francis, and he felt sure this was a Voice from heaven, and he replied very humbly: "Lord, what dost Thou wish me to do?" And the Voice said: "Return to the land of thy birth, and there it will be told thee what thou shalt do; for it may behove thee to give another meaning to thy dream." He felt so positive that the Voice was from heaven, that he felt he simply could not disobey it. So, although it cost him a lot to do it, he turned his horse's head northwards and rode home.

There was nothing to do now but wait for God to show him His Will. He tried to settle down again to his old life of feasting and gaiety, but somehow he couldn't throw himself into it. There was something he was feeling after, but he didn't know what.

One day something happened which was the beginning of great things.

Francis had been out for a ride beyond the city. As he turned his horse's head homewards and rode slowly back towards the golden sunset, he suddenly saw, a little way ahead, something that made him shudder and almost turn aside on to another path. It was a poor leper, his filthy rags only half covering his wretched body, with its horrible running sores. His face was swollen and disfigured, and his eyes full of the frightened misery of a hunted animal. Now, seeing lepers always made Francis feel quite sick. He hated horrible sights. But somehow, to-night, a new feeling woke up in him—a sudden feeling of brotherhood with this poor man, almost of love for him. It was such terribly bad luck that he had caught leprosy and become a ghastly sight, so that he could not earn any money nor come near the town. Francis felt in his wallet for a silver piece to give him, and then he thought how sad it must be to have money flung at you by strangers, who passed by with head turned away because they loathed the very sight of you. How the lepers must long for just a friendly look, a smile! A great idea suddenly leapt up in Francis's mind, and it took all his courage not to give in to himself. As he came up with the leper, he jumped off his horse, took a silver piece from his pocket, and held it out to the man. The leper, full of surprise, held out his poor swollen stump of a hand, with several fingers already rotted away, to take the coin. But meeting the man's eyes, and seeing in them the look of hunger for friendship, Francis took the poor hand in his, as he would the hand of his friend, pressed the coin into it, and then, stooping, pressed his lips upon it in a kiss. Then, with his heart full of joy, he remounted his horse and rode home.

With that kiss a wonderful new idea had sprung up in Francis's heart—a sense of love for the poor, of longing not only to help them, but to share their very lives, to be one of them. At first he tried to satisfy his longing to help them by making great feasts and serving his poor guests with his own hands. One day he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and as he saw the crowd of beggars clustering round a certain shrine in hope that the pilgrims would give them money, he longed to become just one of them. So, taking one of them aside, he exchanged his fine clothes with the beggar for his dirty rags, and spent the whole day with his poor brothers in the dust and the scorching sun, enjoying the sense of being a mere outcast to whom rich men threw ha'pence.

Still, when he returned to his home he was as puzzled as ever as to what he should do. He took to spending long hours at prayer in a certain cave begging God to make known His Will; and at last God answered his prayer, and I will tell you how.

Francis had been for a long walk outside the city, and as he returned along the stony little mountain paths, the evening sunlight dazzling his eyes, and the olive-trees whispering to each other in the soft evening air, he noticed a tumble-down little wayside church. Something made him stop and turn in.

It was very dim and cool and quiet. There was no one there—except God. A lamp burned with a feeble flicker in the sanctuary. Francis knelt down and began to pray. Then, out of the stillness a strange, wonderful Voice spoke his name—"Francis." He knew directly Whose Voice it was—Our Blessed Lord's. "Yes, Lord," he answered, his heart beating rather fast, though he felt very happy. "Francis, go and repair My church, which thou seest falling," said the Voice. Then all was still.

The tones of that Voice seemed to vibrate through and through Francis. He was filled with a great desire to obey—to do anything, anything Our Lord wanted. "Repair My church," He had said. He must mean this poor little tumble-down house of His, that was certainly on the point of falling. So Francis jumped up from his knees and went out into the sunlight very happy. He found the old priest, who lived in a poor little house near by, and, telling him the wonderful thing that had happened, gave him all the money he had, and promised to return soon with enough to rebuild the church. Then he hurried home.

His father was away on a journey. So Francis went down to the warehouse and picked out the most costly bale of rich stuff he could find. Then he took a good horse, and, putting the bale of stuff on his back, set out for the town of Foligno. Here he sold both the stuff and the horse, and returned with a good sum of money. Full of joy, he hurried along the little mountain path to the old priest's house, and held out the heavy purse of gold to him. But the priest was afraid to accept it, for he was not at all sure that Francis's father would be pleased about it. Francis was disappointed. He had got the money for the church, and certainly wasn't going to carry it home again; so he threw it into the deep recess of one of the windows of the little church, and left it there. Then he told the priest he meant to stay, for here Our Lord had spoken to him, and he must stay and see to the building of the church.

The old priest was very kind, and let Francis share his little house and his poor fare, and Francis began to feel like a kind of hermit, living a life of prayer.

Meanwhile Peter Bernardone returned from his journey. When he heard what Francis had done, and his new, mad idea of living like a hermit on the mountain-side, he was furiously angry. Taking a stick in his hand, he set out, saying he would teach the young fool a good lesson and bring him home. But one of the servants ran ahead by a short cut and warned Francis. Francis had no wish to meet his angry father armed with a stout stick, so he fled and hid himself in a cave, and Peter Bernardone had to go home again, even angrier than he set out. For about ten days Francis stayed in hiding, the servant bringing him food. He spent this time in prayer. This made him braver, and he began to think that he had been a "funk" to run away and hide and not face the music, so he decided to make up for it by being braver.

His time of hiding in the dark, dirty cave, with little food, had made him look thin, untidy, and a bit of a scarecrow. The people of Assisi had heard what he had done, and they decided he must have gone mad. So when he appeared in the city the boys began throwing stones and rubbish at him, and calling after him. Francis bore it all patiently, and felt rather a hero. But presently Peter Bernardone discovered that his son was being insulted in the streets. It filled him with rage, and he rushed out, dragged Francis indoors, gave him a good flogging and shut him up in a little cell. Here he had to stay for some time, until his father went on another journey and his mother let him out. Of course, he went straight back to the little church on the hill-side, and here, when his father came back, he found him. Peter Bernardone stormed at him and demanded the money back, but Francis would not give it, saying he had given it to God. So Peter Bernardone went to the Bishop about it. The matter came up at the Bishop's Court, and the Bishop had to tell Francis to give back the money. Bernardone was so angry with his son that he then and there disinherited him, and said he would not own him as his son any more. So Francis took off his very clothes and gave them back to his father, saying, "Now will I say no more Peter Bernardone is my father, but only 'Our Father Who art in heaven.'" So, taking the bundle of clothes, old Bernardone stalked out of the Court.

Someone fetched Francis a rough habit, such as was worn by the farm-hands. On this Francis chalked a big cross, and, putting it on, stepped out joyfully, feeling that at last he was free to serve God, in whatever way He wanted him to, and share the life of the poor.

He felt somehow that he must get right away, alone; so he started walking up over the mountains, not caring where he went. Soon he was right up among the pines, and as night fell he found it was pretty cold, for the winter's snow still lay in the deep shade of the trees. But he was so happy that he did not care for anything, and as he went he sang aloud for joy.

Then, suddenly, out of the dark wood a band of robbers pounced on him. "Who are you?" they cried. "I am the herald of the great King!" answered Francis. So they stripped him of his habit, and threw him in a ditch full of snow.

Luckily, the next day he found a friend in a town the other side of the mountains, who gave him a pilgrim's cloak, a pair of shoes, and a staff. Then, after a bit more wandering, St. Francis returned to the little church and settled down with the old priest, meaning now in good earnest to build up the church.

Since he had no money to buy what was needed, the only thing was to beg. So he went out in the streets begging for stones to build up the little church. The poor people were very kind, and gave him stones, and some of them came and helped, and soon they and Francis together had begun rebuilding the walls. Every day Francis went begging, and sometimes it was very hard not to give in to himself and go skulking down a side-street when he saw a group of his old friends ahead. But he went bravely on, and faced their stares and laughter.

One day it struck Francis that he ought not to be eating the old priest's scanty store of food, which he noticed his kind old friend used to cook and try and prepare as nicely as possible for him. This was not what a true lover of poverty should do. "Rise up, thou lazy one," he said to himself, "and go begging from door to door the leavings of the table." So, taking a big dish, he went round the houses of the townspeople asking for scraps. They gave him broken bits of messy old food, and he returned with his dish full. But when he sat down to supper he didn't feel at all like eating from that pile of scraps—the very thought made him feel quite sick. But he was learning to conquer himself, and by the time the meal was done he felt he had really accomplished something, and was at last really a poor man and ready to live on what God's mercy would give him from day to day.

All this time he had been praying a great deal, and learning to know God very much better. More and more he felt that God meant to use him for something special—what he did not know.

At last the little grey church was all built up new and strong, and Francis felt the job Our Lord had given him was done. But as God had not shown him anything else to do, he set out and found another tumble-down little church to build up, and started on that. When that, too, was finished, he started on a third one. The third one had been restored, and a service was being held in it for the first time since its restoration, and Francis was assisting at this service, when something happened which sent him on a new adventure, and which proved to be the beginning of the great adventure which filled all the rest of his life.

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