Monday, July 28, 2008

The Story of St. Francis.—II.

The little church St. Francis had last restored was very wee, but it had a very long name. It was called the Portiuncola, which meant "the little portion." It was built all among the trees and long grass, and mossy, fern-covered rocks; and the birds sang around it. St. Francis loved the spot very much—it was like home to him—and he spent a lot of time there. Besides, it was not far from the leper settlement, and he had now taken on himself the rather horrible job of serving the poor lepers—a job that was very pleasing to Our Lord, specially as He saw St. Francis did it all for love of Him, and served each wretched man as if he was Jesus Christ. Then, too, the Portiuncola was not very far from the town where Francis begged his food.

Well, early one morning, while the sun shone outside on the dewy world, and the birds sang their morning hymns of praise, a priest said Mass in the little chapel, and St. Francis knelt praying with all his heart. Presently the priest read out the Gospel, and, as usual, St. Francis listened with great attention. And suddenly, as he listened, he felt that those words of Our Lord which the priest was reading out were a message from heaven for him—the very "orders" he had been waiting for! These were the words:

"Going forth, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. . . . Possess not gold, nor silver, nor money in your houses, nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff; for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town you shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till you go hence. And when you come into a house, salute it, saying: Peace be to this house. . . . Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, but simple as doves. . . . But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what to speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what to speak" (Matt. x. 7-19).

Here were clear orders. Something in St. Francis answered to that call, and this something was the Holy Spirit of God speaking in his heart, as He always does in those who really wait and listen and mean to obey should God speak.

When the Mass was finished, St. Francis got the priest to read the words over to him again. And then, feeling quite sure he had discovered God's Holy Will, he began to obey it at once. He took off his shoes; he laid aside his second garment, making himself a rough brown habit; he put down his staff, and he exchanged his belt for a bit of rope. Then, feeling full of joy, he set out along the stony road on his bare feet, towards the town—not to beg this time, but to give the greeting of "Peace," and to tell the people to make up their quarrels and forgive each other, and turn with all their hearts to the Lord Christ.

The people of the town did not laugh now, and jeer; they saw that St. Francis was speaking to them from the bottom of his pure heart—a heart on fire with the love of God—and that the grace of Jesus Christ, his Master, was upon him. And before long two men of Assisi had joined him as the first of the great company who were to follow him—for you remember how he was to be a leader, and that the palace of his dream had been promised to him and his followers.

This is the story of St. Francis's first recruit. His name was Bernard de Quintavalle, and he was a rich merchant, serious and God-fearing, and not a bit like the gay, eager St. Francis. But seeing how unselfish and hard-working a life St. Francis led, and that God's Holy Spirit was with him, he began to visit the young preacher, and to receive him in his house. St. Francis willingly gave his friendship to such a good man.

Bernard used to like St. Francis to sleep on a bed in his own room. Often at night he would lie awake, thinking; and he would notice that after a short sleep St. Francis got out of bed and knelt down, and spent the rest of the night praying to God. The only words Bernard could hear were just "My God and my All, my God and my All," which St. Francis repeated over and over again, as if his soul was really seeing God, and his heart was so full of love for Him that he could say nothing else. And Bernard understood the secret of St. Francis's holiness and purity, for to one who prays like that God pours out very much grace, so that he can begin to be all that he knows he ought to be if he is really to please the Lord Christ, his Master.

So one day Bernard told St. Francis that he wanted to give back to God all his riches and become his poor brother. So St. Francis said what they ought to do would be to go to the church and read in the Gospel, where the words of Jesus Christ would show them what to do.

Before going to the church, however, they called for another friend of theirs—a learned man called Peter Cathanii, who also wanted to serve God perfectly, and had been trying humbly to learn how from St. Francis.

But St. Francis, though holy, and Bernard, though rich, and Peter, though clever at his books, did not any of them know their way about in the big Bible that was kept open in the church for all to read (for there were no printed books in those days, and a Bible was very costly, so that few people had a copy of their own).

So St. Francis prayed that he might come on the right place, and then he opened the book. This was what he read out: "If thou wouldst be perfect, go, sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matt. xix. 21).

That seemed just right! But perhaps Our Lord had still another message. So he shut the big book, and opened it again, just anywhere, and it said: "Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money; neither have two coats" (Luke ix. 3).

Splendid! "Just one more, please, Lord," he said in his heart, as he opened the book for the third time. And Our Lord told him something very wonderful and hard to follow, which was really the explanation of all the others:

"If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matt. xvi. 24).

So the three friends left the church very happy. And Bernard sold all his rich stuffs and his house and his land; and Peter sold all his precious books; and they carried all the gold to a square in front of the old church of St. George, and St. Francis sat on the steps with his lap full of money, and gave away great glittering handfuls to all the poor people who crowded round.

When none was left, the three poor brothers, smiling with delight at being really poor and true followers of Christ, went off to the dear little chapel in the woods and began the life of the Friars.

Not long after, a third recruit turned up, and I must tell you about him. He was a simple working-man called Giles. When he heard about St. Francis and his two Friars, and of this new way of learning to serve God perfectly, he laid down his tools, and left the vineyards and tramped into the town. He went to an early Mass at St. George's Church, hoping to find St. Francis there, as it was St. George's Day; but not doing so, he set out for the Portiuncola. He didn't know where that was, so when he came to the crossroads he stopped and began to ask God somehow to show him the way. And just then St. Francis came out of the wood. Giles was delighted that God answered his prayer so quickly, and, kneeling down at St. Francis's feet, "Brother Francis," he said, "I want to be with you for the love of God."

St. Francis saw at once that this was a true brother, so he said: "Knowest thou how great a favour the Lord has given thee? If, my brother, the Emperor came to Assisi and wished to choose one of the citizens to be his knight or chamberlain, many are they who would come forward to claim the honour. How much more highly, then, shouldest thou esteem it to be chosen by the Lord from out of so many, and to be called to His Court!"

Then St. Francis took him back and showed him to Bernard and Peter, and said: "See what a good brother the Lord hath sent us!"

Soon after this the four Friars set out, St. Francis and Brother Giles going together, and Bernard and Peter, to tramp the roads from place to place, and preach to the little knots of country or town people who collected round them in the market-places. So strange did they look, and so full of joy and love did they seem to be, that the people wondered at them very much, and though some believed them to be servants of God, others thought them mad.

When they returned to the Portiuncola three more men joined them. It was then that the townspeople began to get angry, and say that St. Francis was turning rich men into beggars. Even the Bishop spoke seriously to him. Now, if St. Francis had not been so sure that what he was doing was God's plan, and not his own, he might have got discouraged and given up trying to carry it out; but, relying on God's grace, he listened humbly while people spoke angrily, or scoffed, or argued, or pleaded, and then he bravely "carried on."

For the first few months the brothers lived in their little hut at the Portiuncola, and prepared themselves (by prayer and the studying of the perfect way of life and the correction of their faults) for the great work God held for them. Part of the day was spent serving the lepers and doing simple work in the fields. One more journey they went, and then, four more brethren having joined them, and St. Francis having had a wonderful vision which showed him that hundreds would soon be flocking to join his Order from France and Germany and England and all the countries, he set out for Rome, to get the Pope's approval of his work. At first the Pope would not listen to this poor, unknown beggar-man, full of eager new ideas, but in the end he received him kindly and, after hearing all he had to tell, said: "My son, go and pray to Jesus Christ that He may show us His will; and when we know His will more certainly, we shall the more safely sanction your pious purpose."

So the brethren all prayed hard.

When St. Francis went again, the Pope was even more kind, for he recognized St. Francis as the man he had seen in a dream. In his dream he saw a church nearly falling and being held up by a small man in a poor habit, and he knew it meant the Church of Christ was in trouble, and that this man was going to make it strong again through all the earth.

So the Pope gave the Friars his blessing, saying: "Go forth in the Lord, brothers." And he gave them leave to preach penance, and told them to come back to him later and he would do even more for them.

So the Friars went back to Assisi full of joy. For a time they lived in a kind of wayside shelter called Rivo Torto; but later on the monks on whose land was the Portiuncola gave the little chapel and the bit of land to St. Francis (or rather rented it to him, the payment being one basket of fish per year, caught in the river—for St. Francis did not wish the Friars to own anything).

Some more men joined the brothers, and now they lived as a very happy family in their little huts, built of branches, around their beloved chapel. St. Francis was like the loving Father of this family, always kind, patient, cheery, ready to comfort the sad or nurse the sick, or explain things to those who felt worried and did not understand how to get rid of their faults and serve Christ in perfect purity of heart. You Cubs would have loved St. Francis, for he was just like a boy himself. I wish I had time to tell you all the lovely little stories about him and the Friars at this time while his family was still small, but we must keep them for another time, and go on now to the time when the Order had grown so large that the Friars could no longer all live at the Portiuncola, and began to have their poor, simple houses all over the place, while hundreds of brothers set forth, tramping the world over, preaching the Gospel of Christ, not only to the poor, but to the heathen in barbarous countries. Some of the brothers were cruelly martyred, and all had to suffer a lot of hardships, for often people would drive them away, so that they had to go hungry and cold, with nowhere to lay their heads for the night.

We cannot follow all the brothers and hear all their adventures, so I will just tell you one or two which show what kind of men St. Francis and his Friars were. Here is one which shows you their obedience and humility. I daresay it will make you laugh!

The Friars had by now become quite noted for their preaching, and would often go up into the pulpits of the churches, where large crowds gathered to hear them, the Bishop even inviting St. Francis to preach in the cathedral. Now, among the brethren there was one called Ruffino, who was very shy and nervous and felt he simply couldn't preach and face a great crowd of people, all staring at him and waiting for his words. Now, St. Francis hated that any of his Friars should give in to themselves about anything. He also loved them to obey quickly, and do everything they were told at once, without a murmur. So one day he told Brother Ruffino to go to a big church in the city and preach. But Brother Ruffino, instead of obeying at once, begged St. Francis not to command him this, as he had not the gift of preaching. St. Francis was not pleased at this, and he said that, as Brother Ruffino had not obeyed quickly, he must now take off his habit and go to the city and preach, clad only in his breeches, and otherwise naked! So Brother Ruffino stripped, and went off humble and obedient. But, of course, when he went into the church and up into the pulpit dressed like that the men and children of Assisi began to laugh and say the Friars had gone mad. Meanwhile St. Francis presently began to be sorry he had sent off poor Brother Ruffino clad only in breeches, especially considering he had once been one of the noblest men in Assisi. He began to call himself names for having been so hard on him; and, saying he would do himself what he had told his poor brother to do, he stripped himself of his habit and also set out, half naked, for the town! When he got to the church, of course everyone laughed all the more to see another Friar in his breeches. Poor Brother Ruffino was in the pulpit struggling bravely to preach in simple words. Then St. Francis mounted the pulpit, and, standing by Brother Ruffino, preached a most wonderful sermon, so that all the people of Assisi were touched to the heart, and many wept to think of their sins and of the Passion of Christ. Then St. Francis gave Brother Ruffino his habit and put on his own (for Brother Leo had brought them to the church), and they returned home rejoicing.

Once when St. Francis was walking along the road he saw a great crowd of birds in a field, and saying he must go and preach to his "little sisters, the birds," he went among them and preached a wonderful sermon to them, telling them how they ought to praise God for all he had given them. And the birds didn't fly away, but all crowded round to listen. At the end St. Francis gave them his blessing and told them to fly away, and they rose up in the air and flew away in the form of a great cross, to north, south, east, and west. St. Francis loved all animals, even earthworms, which he would pick up tenderly from the path and put into safety. And he would never allow people to cut trees quite down, but made them leave the roots, so that they might grow up all green and beautiful once more. Little children he loved, too. Some day I will tell you the story of a little boy who joined his Order and became a little Friar, and had the great joy of seeing St. Francis at prayer one night out on the mountain-side, with a wonderful gold light all round him, and heavenly visions comforting him. But the little boy had to promise St. Francis he would never tell anyone what he had seen as long as St. Francis was living.

I must leave, too, the story of how St. Francis tamed a huge, fierce wolf; and of how he went right into the Saracen camp during a Crusade and preached to the Sultan of Turkey, and told him to be a Christian; and how he called a great gathering of the Friars at the Portiuncola, to which five thousand brothers came, and how the people of the cities round came with carts full of food and fed the Friars for more than a week's time, freely. All these stories and many more I must leave, and go on now to tell you of the wonderful, beautiful, and holy end of St. Francis's life, and of the mysterious thing that happened to him. I want you to remember that this mysterious thing is perfectly true, and really did happen to St. Francis, and is a sign of how very closely his soul had become united to Jesus Christ and His Passion on the Cross—for he had never forgotten the heavenly message he had found in the book of the Gospels: "He that will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me."

St. Francis's Order was now established, and his Friars were renewing the life of the Church by their wonderful preaching, their holy example, and their pure lives. St. Francis himself, though not really old at all, was almost worn out. His life of hardships; his great worries (for his enormous family gave him much trouble as well as joy); his burning zeal and passionate love of God and his fellow-men—all this had nearly used up his strength, and now he was in constant pain, and very nearly blind. He was always patient and happy—even merry, as of old. But at last came a day when he felt he must go away and be alone a little with God. So, taking a few chosen brothers with him, he retired to the top of a beautiful mountain, called Mount Alverna, which belonged to a nobleman who was a friend of St. Francis.

On this mountain, with only the sky and the rocks and the trees for company, with the lovely peaks of other mountains stretching away as far as eye could see, the six Friars made themselves a little camp of huts; but St. Francis had his hut right away from the other Friars, and across a little rocky ravine which was crossed by a plank. Here he could feel quite alone with God. Looking up, there was just the blue, blue sky and the steady clouds; and looking down, there was a steep rock falling away below him to a great depth, with little ferns and flowers clinging to it. In this rocky solitude lived a falcon who became a very dear friend of St. Francis, and for whom he had a great love. It knew the time he liked to rise and pray in the night, and it would come and flap against his hut and wake him at the right time, and then stay near him while he prayed.

The Friars were not allowed to come near the spot; only Brother Leo came with a little bread and water each day, and to join at midnight with St. Francis in the Divine Office.

At times St. Francis was very happy, and the joy that fills the Blessed in heaven seemed to glow in his heart, so that he understood the secrets of God; and wonderful visions he had too. But sometimes he was filled with sorrow and pain and temptation, for the Devil would torment him and try in every way he could to separate the heart of St. Francis from God.

One day, after he had had a very wonderful vision, he went with Brother Leo to the little chapel the Friars had made, and, casting himself on the ground before the Altar, he prayed to God to make known to him the mystery which He would teach him—for he felt there was some mysterious reason why God had made him come up this mountain and dwell apart. Then he told Leo to open the book of the Gospels three times, and see what it said. And each place Leo opened on was about Christ's Passion.

Then St. Francis felt quite sure that it was God's will that somehow he should share his Lord's pain, and reach the kingdom of God through suffering. And he longed very much for this, and also to have in his heart the love which made Christ so willing to suffer for men.

It was a few days after this that the strange and wonderful thing happened. St. Francis was kneeling, absorbed in prayer, when suddenly a wonderful Form came towards him, and stood on a stone a little above him. Bright and shining was the Form, with the most beautiful, beautiful face; and His arms were stretched out upon a cross, and feet joined together. And He had two great wings with which He flew, and two stretched up above His head, and two covered His body. And as St. Francis gazed upon this crucified Seraph with the beautiful face full of pain, a great throb of intense agony shot through his soul and his body, so that he had never felt such pain or sorrow before. And then the Seraph spoke to him as to a friend and revealed many mysteries. When He had gone St. Francis rose from his knees and wondered what it could mean; and then he saw what it meant. For in his own hands and feet had come the marks of the crucified Christ: his hands and his feet were pierced right through with red wounds, and in the palms of the hands and on the instep of his feet were the round black heads of the nails, and their points came out the other side, bent back. And in his side was a big wound, as if made by a spear. And the pain of them all was very great. And St. Francis understood that he had been allowed by God to share in Our Lord's Passion.

At first he said nothing to the Friars; but after a while he told them, but he did not show them the wounds, but kept his hands hidden in his big sleeves. Only to Leo did he show them, so that he might wash and bandage them because of the pain and the bleeding.

Then, leaving the Friars on the holy mountain, St. Francis went down with Leo; but he rode on a donkey, because of the nails in his feet.

He scarcely noticed the places he passed through or the people he saw, though he did several wonderful miracles. And at last he came home to his beloved Portiuncola.

St. Francis's body was almost worn out, and greatly weakened, too, by the bleeding from his wounds, but his soul seemed full of new life and joy and energy. So, riding upon a donkey, he set out for a last journey through the country he had loved so much, and along the familiar roads he had so often tramped. I cannot now tell you of all that happened on this journey and of the miracles that St. Francis performed; but it was a wonderful last journey, and already the people had begun to speak of him as "the Saint."

But towards the end of his journey St. Francis became so ill that he had to be carried in a litter; and so it was that at last he came back to the little Portiuncola chapel to die. As you can imagine, he was not only brave in the face of death, but gay and cheerful. Many Friars had gathered round their beloved Father, and he spoke comforting words to them and blessed them; but he gave a very special blessing to Bernard, who had been the first man to come and join him in those early days when he was still alone. And he made the brothers sing, joyful and loud, the song he had himself made up on his last journey, called "The Canticle of Brother Sun"—a beautiful song all about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the stars, and flowers, and birds, and grass, and Brother Wind, and how they must all praise God Who made them. And when he knew he must very soon die, he cried, "Welcome, Sister Death!" And he made them lay him on the ground, without even his habit, and spread sackcloth over him and sprinkle ashes upon him, and read to him the story of Our Blessed Lord's Passion and Death from the Gospel of St. John.

All was still, and outside in the twilight the larks had gathered, and were soaring up into the evening sky, singing with all their hearts, as if rejoicing that in a few minutes the soul of their brother Francis would be free to soar up with them, and away beyond even the reach of their swift wings, to the beautiful garden of God.

And in the house all was of a sudden marvelously still. And the brothers, bending down over the form on the floor, saw, through their tears, that their friend and father had gone. Only for themselves they wept, for they knew that St. Francis, beautiful and young and strong and gay once more, was already with his Friend and Master, the Lord Christ, Who with smile and outstretched hand would welcome him to his glorious reward. And the Divine Hand outstretched, and the hand of St. Francis, would bear the same print of nails, and St. Francis would understand the great and wonderful thing that God had granted him.

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