By Father Candide Chalippe
The eminent perfection of St. Francis was grounded on a tender and fervent devotion to Jesus Christ crucified. This adorable object had a powerful attraction for his heart, was the source of all the graces he received, and the model of all the virtues he practiced. From the sufferings of our Saviour he made for himself, as St. Bernard had done, a nosegay of myrrh, which he always carried in his bosom; he considered attentively the sufferings of his Beloved, he suffered them himself, and they called forth his sighs and his tears; it was his wish that the fire of this love might transform him entirely into Him who had borne them.
The poverty of the Son of God, in His birth, during His life, and at His death, made such impression on the heart of Francis, that he embraced this virtue with inexpressible ardor.
Seeing that it was rejected by the world, and looking upon it as the pearl of the Gospel, to acquire it, he abandoned father, mother, and all that he had. No person ever sought after riches with so much avidity, and no one ever guarded his treasure with so much care. He never wore, until his death, anything but a worthless tunic, and he refused himself everything but what was absolutely necessary. He would yield to no one in poverty, although he considered himself the most abject of all. If he saw any one worse dressed than he was, he considered it as a reproach to himself. One day, meeting a poor man who was almost naked, he said to his companion with a sigh: "There is a poor man who shames us. We have chosen poverty for our greatest riches, and in him you see it shine far more than in us."
For his nourishment, he greatly preferred what he solicited for the love of God from door to door, to what was offered to him. He frequently considered within himself, and it brought tears into his eyes, how poor our Saviour and His Blessed Mother had been in this world, and the reflection induced him to live in greater poverty.
As to the cells, he always chose the smallest. One of his secular friends having had one built, which was only made of wood, though pretty neat, in the hermitage of Sarthiano, he found it too fine, and said he would not enter it a second time unless it was put into a state of poverty; so that, in order to induce him to return, it was necessary to cover it roughly with branches of trees, both without and within. He left it afterwards because one of his companions had said to him, "Father, I am come to look for you in your cell." "I will not occupy it any longer," he replied, "because you consider it mine in calling it my cell: another may live in it, to whom it will not be appropriated."
This is what his companions tell us on the subject:--"We have often heard him say, we, who have lived with him: 'I will not have as mine either dwelling-place, or any other thing, for our Master has said: "The foxes have lairs, and the birds of the air, nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head."'"
He was also accustomed to say: "When our Lord went to fast in the desert, where He remained forty days and forty nights, He had no cell prepared for Him, nor any other covering; it was only in some crevice of the mountain that He took repose." The same authors add, that, in order to imitate Jesus Christ perfectly, Francis desired to have neither convent nor cell which could be called his. And, moreover, if sometimes, on arriving, he pointed out to his brethren the cell which he proposed to occupy, he checked himself immediately, as having shown too much solicitude, and went into another, which had not been prepared for him. Shall, then, the children of the Patriarch of the poor be censured when they imitate this tenderness of conscience; and when, to show their aversion to the possession of property, they call even the things which are most essential for them to have the use of, by terms which show that they do not even hold them in common, and that they have nothing which is their own?
Although the servant of God possessed every virtue in a very high degree, yet it was remarked that the virtue of poverty was the one which was above all the others; and this it pleased the Almighty to make known by an admirable vision. When the saint was going to Sienna, three very poor women, who resembled each other both in size and countenance, and appeared to be of the same age, presented themselves before him, and greeted him in these words: "May the Lady Poverty be welcome!" This salutation filled him with joy, because nothing was more grateful to him in greeting him than to speak of poverty, which was so dear to him. The vision immediately vanished, and his companions, who had seen it, had no doubt that there was something mysterious in it; that God meant thereby to discover to them something which related to their father.--"In fact," says St. Bonaventure, "these three women, who were so like to each other, were not bad representations of chastity, obedience, and poverty, which constitute the beauty of Evangelical perfection, and were the very eminent characteristics of the saintly man; yet the expressions which these women made use of in greeting him, showed that he had chosen poverty as his special prerogative, and the principal object of his glory; and, indeed, he was in the habit of calling it sometimes his lady, sometimes his mother, and sometimes his spouse or his queen."
It is not possible to record in this place all the praise which the holy Founder gave to this Evangelical virtue. He called it the Queen, not only because it shone with splendor in JESUS CHRIST, the King of kings, and in His Blessed Mother, but because it is elevated above all earthly things, which it tramples under foot. "Know," he used to say to his brethren, "that poverty is the hidden treasure of the Gospel, the basis on which an order rests the special path to salvation, the support of humility, the mother of self-renunciation, the principle of obedience, the death of self-love, the destruction of vanity and cupidity, the rod of perfection, the fruits of which are abundant, though hidden. It is a virtue descended from Heaven which acts within us, and enables us to despise everything which is despicable; it subverts all the obstacles which prevent the soul from perfectly uniting itself to God by humility and charity; it causes those by whom it is beloved to become active as pure spirits, and enables them to take their flight towards Heaven, to converse with angels, though still living on earth. It is so excellent and so divine a virtue, that vile and abject vases such as we are, are not worthy of containing it."
In order to obtain the grace of poverty, he often recited the following prayer to Jesus Christ: "O Lord Jesus! point out to me the ways of poverty, which are so dear to Thee. Have pity on me, for I love it with such intensity that I can find no repose without it, and Thou knowest that it is Thou who gavest me this ardent love. It is rejected, despised, and hated by the world, although it is a dame and a queen, and Thou hast had the goodness to come down from Heaven to make poverty Thy spouse, and to have from her, by her, and in her, perfect children. My Jesus, who chosest to be extremely poor! the favor which I ask of Thee is, to give me the privilege of poverty; I ardently desire to be enriched by this treasure; I entreat of Thee that it may be mine, and of those who belong to me, and that we may never possess anything of our own under heaven for the glory of Thy name, and that we may exist, during this miserable life, on those things only which are given to us, and that we be very sparing in the use we shall make even of these. Amen."
This friend of poverty did not confine it to the repudiation of all external things: he carried its perfection to the most elevated spiritual point. "He who aspires to its attainment," he said, "must renounce not only all worldly prudence, but in some degree all learning and science, so that, being stripped of all sorts of goods, he may place himself under cover of the protection of the Most High, think only of His justice, and cast himself into the arms of the Crucified. For it is not to renounce the world entirely, if any attachment to its lights, and to one's own feelings, remains in the secret recesses of the heart." He did not assert that, in order to arrive at the perfection of poverty, it was necessary to be without learning, but he required that learning should not be considered by the possessor as an interior property, from which self-love should be fed; that there should not be that secret attachment to mental illumination, which is the primary source of error, and the basis of the obstinacy of heretics; that all of knowledge should "be referred to God, and that we should in some sense strip ourselves of it to acquire the perception of God alone, and of His holy law. St. Hilary said, speaking in the same sense, that we must always bear in mind that we are men, that we have nothing of our own, not even the use of our senses and faculties; that these come from God, and that we must only use them as things which are in a continual dependence on His will. This is an important instruction for the consideration of the learned."
The lively affection which St. Francis bore for the crucified Jesus, from the moment of his conversion, rendered him very austere towards himself. Not only could he not suffer that the tunic which he wore should have anything soft in it, but he chose that it should be rough and harsh; when he found that it had become too soft, he put knotted cords on the inside to counteract the softness.
It was usually on the bare ground that he laid his body down,--that body which was worn out by fatigue; sometimes he slept, sitting with his head resting on a stone or piece of wood. As to food, he scarcely took what was absolutely necessary for his nourishment. When in health, he seldom permitted anything to be put before him which was cooked, and then he either strewed ashes upon it, or added water to it, to take away the taste. Pure water was his only beverage, and then he drank so little that it was insufficient for quenching his thirst. Besides the Lent kept by all Christians, he kept eight others in the course of the year. The first, of forty days, from the day after the Epiphany, in memory of our Lord's fast in the desert, after He had been baptized by John, which took place on the sixth day of January, according to the old tradition of the Church. The second was from the Wednesday in Easter week, to Whit-Sunday, to prepare himself for receiving the Holy Ghost. The third, from the day after the Festival of Pentecost to the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, in honor of these blessed Apostles. The fourth, from the day after their festival to the Assumption, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. The fifth in honor of St. Michael, from the Assumption to the feast of that angel. The sixth, from that feast is the first of November, in honor of all the saints. The seventh, from All-Souls to Christmas, to prepare himself to celebrate the birth of Christ. The eighth, from the Feast of St. Stephen to the Epiphany, in honor of the three kings. Thus was his life a perpetual fast.
When he went abroad he ate whatsoever was put before him, not only to observe the direction of the Gospel, but in order to gain worldlings to Jesus Christ, by conforming to their ways; but when in the convent, he resumed his habits of abstinence, and this mode of life was very edifying to laymen. The more he advanced towards perfection, the more he mortified himself. We cannot form a more correct opinion of the Evangelical hatred he bore his body, than by noticing the terms he made use of to express it. After having finished Complin, and spent a considerable time in prayer, in a deserted church, in which he passed the night, he wished to take some rest. As the evil spirits prevented him from so doing, by suggestions which frightened him, and made him tremble, he mustered courage, rose, made the sign of the cross, and said in a loud voice: "Devils, I declare to you from Almighty God, that you may use against me all the power given to you by my Lord Jesus Christ, and do all the harm you can to my body. I am ready to suffer everything, and assuredly you will oblige me greatly, for this body is a great burden to me; it is the greatest enemy I have, the most wicked, and the most crafty; and you will revenge me by so doing."
He exhorted his religious to austerity in their food, in their clothing, and in everything else. For he was convinced, as was St. Augustine, that it is difficult to satisfy the demands of the body, without in some degree sacrificing to sensuality; and he used to say, "Our Saviour praised St. John the Baptist for his having clothed himself coarsely. According to the words 'Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings,' soft garments must not be found in the huts of the poor. I know by experience that the devils fly from those who lead an austere life; and St. Paul teaches us, that they who are Christ's have crucified their flesh with its vices and concupiscences." We remember that he knew how to temper what seemed to be excessive in the mortifications of his brethren.
Francis taught persons to flee from idleness. "I desire," he said, "that my brethren may work and be occupied. He who desires to live by the labor of others, without doing anything, deserves to be nicknamed Brother _Fly_; because, doing nothing that is worth anything, and spoiling what is good, he becomes odious and despicable to all the world." If he came upon any one wandering about, and without occupation, he applied to him these words of the Apocalypse: "Because thou art lukewarm, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth." His example was an excellent lesson for not losing time, and fostering the idleness of the flesh; he employed himself always holily, and he called his body brother ass, which required to be well worked, to be severely beaten, and to be badly fed.
Silence was not considered by him to be a small virtue; he considered it as a guard to the purity of the heart, according to the maxim of wisdom: "Life and death are in the power of the tongue;" by which he understood the intemperance of speech, as well as that of taste. But he principally wished his brethren to become exact in keeping Evangelical silence, which consists in abstaining from all idle conversation, of which an account must be rendered at the day of judgment, and he severely reprimanded those who were in the habit of saying useless things. In fine, his instruction was, that they should endeavor to destroy all vice, and to mortify the passions; and that, in order to succeed in this endeavor, every thing should be cut off which could serve as an attraction, and, therefore, that the exterior senses by which death enters into the soul, should be continually mortified.
As soon as he felt the smallest temptation, or if he only foresaw it, he took every precaution for resisting it. At the beginning of his conversion he frequently threw himself in the depth of winter, into freezing water, in order to subdue his domestic enemy, and to preserve his robe of innocence without stain, asserting that it is far less painful to a spiritual man to suffer the rigor of the severest cold, than to feel interiorly the slightest attack upon his purity.
We have seen, in his life, that he threw himself into the midst of thorns, to drive away the tempter who wanted to induce him to moderate his watchings and his prayers. One of his actions, the circumstances of which are thus related by St. Bonaventure, shows how great the purity of his heart was, and with what force he resisted the impure spirit.
One night, while he was at prayer in his cell, at the hermitage of Sarthiano, he heard himself called three times by his name. After he had answered, a voice said to him: "There is no sinner in the world whom God does not pardon if he be converted; but whoever kills himself by too rigorous a penance, will never find mercy." Francis was made aware by a revelation that these deceitful words emanated from the old enemy, who wished to induce him to relax in his austerities, and he soon had sensible proof of it, for, "he who by his breath sets fire to coals," as holy Job says, "tempted him strongly to sin against purity." As soon as he became aware of it, he inflicted a severe discipline on himself, saying to his body: "O brother ass! this is what suits you, this is the way in which you should be chastised. The tunic you wear is that of religion, and is a mark of its holiness. It is not permitted to one who is impure to wear it: that would be a theft." As the devil represented to him probably that he might marry and have children, and have servants to wait upon him, he responded to that by turning his own body into derision, and treating it cruelly. With admirable fervor he burst from his cell, and threw himself upon a large mound of snow; he made seven balls of it with his hands, and then said to himself: "The largest of these snowballs is thy wife, four others are thy two sons and two daughters, and the two last are thy man and thy maid-servants. I must think of clothing them, for they are perishing with cold." Then he added: "If this solicitude is overpowering, think hereafter of nothing else than of serving God fervently." At this the tempter fled, and the Saint returned victoriously to his cell. He never after had a similar temptation. One of his brethren, who was at prayer in the garden, saw by the light of the moon what was going on, and Francis, being aware of it, could not avoid explaining to him the whole temptation: "But," said he, "I forbid you strictly from saying a word on the subject during my lifetime." It was only known after his death.
Those who know how far the scrupulousness of chaste souls will carry them, will not feel surprised that, after the example of many other saints, he had put in practice such severe mortification, to shield himself from the slightest taint on his purity. His lively and agreeable turn of mind are apparent in the way in which he taunted his body when suffering from extreme cold; this also shows how much self-possession he had under the severest trials, and by what sentiment he was actuated in his penances.
St. Bonaventure says that, as a skilful architect, he laid down humility for the foundation-stone of his spiritual edifice, and that it was from Jesus Christ that he had acquired this wisdom. The foundation was so solid that humility became natural to him, as well as poverty, and thus it is justly that he is called the humble St. Francis. He was in the eyes of all a mirror of holiness, but in his own eyes he was but a sinner; on all occasions he sought to vilify himself, not only in his own mind, but in that of others.
Upon one occasion Brother Pacificus, while praying with him in a church, was raised in an ecstasy, and saw several thrones in the heavens, among which there was one more splendid than the rest, ornamented with precious stones. As he was pondering for whom this magnificent seat could be destined, a voice said to him: "This was the seat of an angel, and now it is reserved for the humble Francis." Some short time after, when conversing with the Saint, he led to the topic of the knowledge of one's self, and he asked him what idea he had of himself, upon which St. Francis answered quickly: "I consider myself the greatest of sinners." Pacificus maintained that he could not conscientiously either say so or think so. "I am convinced," replied Francis, "that, if the most criminal of men had experienced the great mercies I have received from Jesus Christ, he would be much more grateful for them than I am." This beautiful effusion confirmed Pacificus in the opinion he had entertained, that the vision he had seen was a true vision; and it is quite in accordance with the maxim of the Gospel that, "whosoever shall exalt himself, shall be humbled; and that he that shall humble himself, shall be exalted." It is humility that raises men to those places from whence pride cast down the fallen angels.
We have seen the extraordinary things which Francis did in order to humble himself; from the same motive he felt no difficulty in making public the defects he thought he discovered in himself. If he found himself attacked by any temptation to pride, vain-glory, or any other sin, he never failed communicating it to those who were present, whether they were religious or seculars. One day when he was followed by a great concourse of people, he gave his cloak to a poor woman who had asked him for an alms, and some minutes after he turned round to the crowd and told them in a loud voice that he had sinned from vainglory in so doing. We may imagine that his humility was at that moment very great, which prevented him from distinguishing between voluntary consent and the feeling over which we have no control.
He took great care not to do anything in private which he should have had any hesitation in doing in public, and which was not in conformity with the opinion people had of his sanctity. His illness rendered it necessary that he should eat meat in the Lent he kept before Christmas, but this relaxation consisted only in the use of lard; yet he, nevertheless, accused himself of it in public, as an act of gluttony. His companions have recorded what he said: "I wish to live in hermitages and in other solitary places, as if I was seen by all the world; for, if people have a great opinion of me, and I were not to live as they think I do, I should be guilty of scandalous hypocrisy." The vicar of his convent suggested that he should permit his tunic to be lined with fox-skins, to keep his chest warm, which his disorder had greatly weakened. "I consent to this," he replied, "provided you put a similar set of skins outside, that the world may know the relief which is inside also." This condition put a stop to the proposition.
Praise mortified him, and he liked that people should blame him, and he rejoiced in being despised. When he heard people express by acclamation the merits of his sanctity, he made some of the brethren say to him, "You are a vulgar man, ignorant and useless in the world, a nobody;" and when he answered, with pleasure depicted on his countenance, "May the Lord bless you, my dear child, what you say is quite true, and is exactly what the son of Peter Bernardo deserves to hear." To those who called him a saint he used to say: "Do not praise me; I have no assurance that I shall not sin; a person must never be praised whose end cannot be known." And he addressed the following words to himself: "Francis, if the Most High had bestowed so many favors on a thief as He has on you, he would be much more grateful than you are."
One day when great honors were paid him, his companion remarking that he received them without showing any reluctance, said: "Father, do you not see what they are doing in your honor? and far from refusing to receive the applause manifested in your regard, as Christian humility requires, you seem to receive them with complacency. Is there anything which a servant of the Lord should more sedulously avoid?" This is the reply which the holy man made him: "Brother, although it may appear to you that they are paying me great honors, nevertheless, know that I consider them as little or nothing in comparison to those which ought to be paid me." His companion was not only surprised, but almost scandalized, on hearing him utter such sentiments; but, not to expose his follower, Francis added: "Now be attentive to this, and understand it properly. I refer to God all the honor which is paid me, I attribute nothing to myself; on the contrary, I look upon myself as dirt by my baseness. I am as those figures of wood or stone for which respect is had. All goes back to what they represent. Now, when men know and honor God in His creatures, as they do in me, who am the vilest of all, it is no small profit to their souls."
This is the magnanimous humility of which St. Thomas speaks, by which a man honors in himself the great gifts of God, permits them to be there honored, and practises great virtues to render himself more worthy to receive new ones, while he shrinks from the contemplation of his own merits. Such was the humble Francis, in permitting, for the glory of God, and the salvation of his neighbor, that the supernatural gifts which had been imparted to him, should be honored in his person, while he himself only considered his own nothingness; and afterwards he retired into solitary places, where he passed whole nights in meditating upon this nothingness, and on the infinite mercy of God, which had loaded him with graces.
Being one day with Brother Leo in one of these solitudes, and being without the books necessary for saying the Divine Office, he invented a sort of humiliating psalmody for glorifying God during the night. "My dear brother," he said to Leo, "we must not let this time, which is consecrated to God, pass without praising His holy name, and confessing our own misery. This is the verse which I will say: 'O Brother Francis! you have committed so many sins in this world, that you have deserved to be plunged into hell.' And you, Brother Leo, your response will be, 'It is true; you deserve to be in the bottom of hell.'" Leo promised, however repugnant he felt, to answer as his father desired; but, instead of that, he said: "Brother Francis, God will do so much good through your means, that you will be called into Paradise." The Father said to him, with warmth: "You don't answer as you ought. Here is another verse: 'Brother Francis, you have offended God by so many bad deeds, that you deserve all his maledictions.' Answer to that: 'You deserve to be among the number of the cursed.'" Leo promised again; but when the Saint had said his verse, striking his breast, and shedding abundance of tears, Leo pronounced these words: "Brother Francis, God will render you such, that, among those who are blessed, you will receive a peculiar blessing." "Why don't you answer as I desire you?" said Francis, surprised. "I command you, under obedience, to repeat the words which I am going to give you. I shall say: 'O Brother Francis, miserable man, after so many crimes committed against the Father of mercies, and the God of all consolation, do you think he will have any pity on me? In truth you are undeserving of pardon.' Brother Leo, answer immediately: 'You deserve no mercy.'" Leo, however, said: "God, our Father, whose mercy infinitely surpasses our sins, will pardon you all your sins, and will load you with His favors."
Then Francis said somewhat angrily: "Why have you dared to transgress the rule of obedience, and to answer so often differently to what I desired?" Leo excused himself most respectfully, saying: "My very dear Father, God is my witness that I had each time intended to repeat the words which you had directed me, but He put into my mouth the words I uttered, and caused me to speak, notwithstanding my resolution, according to His good pleasure." The humble Servant of Jesus Christ admired this disposition of the Lord; but persisting, nevertheless, in his intention of humbling himself, he entreated Brother Leo to repeat, at least once, the following words, which he pronounced with many sighs: "Oh Brother Francis, miserable little man! do you think that God will have mercy on you, after so many crimes which you have committed?" "Yes, my Father," replied Leo, "God, your Saviour, will have mercy on you, and will grant you great favors. He will exalt you, and glorify you eternally, because he who shall humble himself shall be exalted. Nevertheless, pardon me for not having said what you desired. It is not I who speak, it is God who speaks in me." Finally Francis bowed to what Leo communicated to him, who only disobeyed him by an impulse of the Holy Ghost; and they conversed during the remainder of the night on the great mercy of God to sinners.
It has been already remarked, with St. Bonaventure, that St. Francis had given to his brethren the name of Minors, and to their superiors that of Ministers, in order that their very name should cause them to be humble. These are the maxims by which he used to impress this upon them:--"The Son of God debased Himself in coming from the bosom of His Father to us, to teach us humility by His example and by His word, as our Lord and Master." "What is exalted in the eyes of man is an abomination before God." "Man is nothing but what he is before God, and is nothing more. It is folly to feel glorified by the applause of man; it is better to be blamed than praised, for blame induces the person to correct himself, while praise leads to his fall. No man should pride himself for doing those things which a sinner may do as well as he. A sinner may fast, pray, weep, macerate his body, but what he cannot do, as long as he is a sinner, is to be faithful to his God. Now, this is what we may glory in, to render to God the glory which is due to Him, to serve Him faithfully, and to return with like fidelity all that He has given. Happy the servant who finds himself as humble amidst his brethren, inferiors like himself, as in presence of his superiors! Happy the servant who does not believe himself better when men load him with praises, than when he appears in their eyes simple, vile, abject and despicable! Happy the servant who bears reprimanding with meekness, who acknowledges his fault with humility, and voluntarily punishes it; who is sufficiently humble to receive a reprimand without offering an excuse. Happy the religious who has not been desirous of the elevation he has attained, and who always wishes to be at the feet of the others! Woe to the religious who has been raised by the rest to an honorable position, and who has not the inclination to descend from it."
The example of Jesus Christ, who "was obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross," inspired St. Francis with great love for obedience. Although he was appointed superior by order of God and of the Pope, he was always desirous of obeying rather than commanding. In his travels, he promised obedience to him who accompanied him, and he rigidly kept that promise. One day he communicated the following in confidence to his companions: "Among all the graces which I have received from the bounty of God, this is one, that, if they were to appoint a novice of an hour's standing to be my guardian, I would obey him as implicitly as if he was the oldest and the most serious of our brethren." He was not satisfied with having renounced being General of the Order, to obey the Vicar-General; he asked Brother Elias, who filled that position to give him a guardian, on whose will he should depend in all things. Brother Angelo of Rieti was given to him, and he obeyed him with entire submission.
The instructions he gave his brethren on the subject of obedience contained all the perfection which could be given them: 1st. To renounce their own will, and to look upon it as the forbidden fruit, which our first parents could not eat of without being guilty. 2d. To abandon themselves wholly to their superior, so that they should neither do nor say anything which they know he would not approve of; and that they should do what he wishes the moment he has spoken, without waiting for his speaking a second time. 3d. Not to examine whether what is ordered is difficult or impossible, for, said St. Francis: "When I order anything which is above your strength, holy obedience will enable you to effect it." 4th. To submit their lights to those of the superior, not with a view of obeying him in anything manifestly contrary to salvation, but to act upon his views, although they may think their own better and more useful. 5th. Not to consider the man, nor his qualifications, in the obedience they bow to, but the authority he has, the place he fills, and the greatness of Him for whose love they are subject to man.
This last point is the greatest sacrifice of a religious life; but a necessary sacrifice, one which is just, and worthy of God, and the most certain proof that our obedience is grounded on our love for God. It is not difficult to follow the dictates of a superior of acknowledged talent and merit; the hardship is to submit with humility, without remonstrance or murmur, to one who has not these qualifications. This also it is which enhances in the eyes of God the value of religious obedience; it may then be considered as a sort of martyrdom of the mind, as well as that of the body, which will receive its crown in heaven. Nevertheless, it is requisite to be cautious, lest antipathy or some other motive, and the natural revolt of the human heart against authority, should cause a superior to appear contemptible, who really is not so. Finally, the religious are highly interested in practicing holy obedience, whoever may be the superior; it is, as St. Francis remarks, so abundant in fruits, that such as bend to the yoke pass not a moment of their lives without some spiritual profit: it increases virtue, and procures peace to the soul.
He was asked one day, who was to be considered to be truly obedient, and he instanced a dead body. "Take," said he, "a dead body, and place it where you please; you will see that it shows no repugnance at its removal, it utters no complaint at its situation, nor of dissatisfaction at being left where it is. If you put it in an honorable place, its eyes will remain closed, it will not raise them. If you clothe it in purple, it will only be paler than before. That is true obedience; it asks no reason as to why it is put in motion, it is indifferent as to where it is placed, and does not require to be removed.--If a Minor is raised to the dignity of superior, he remains equally humble; the more he is honored, the more does he think himself unworthy of it. I have often," he said, "seen a blind man led by a little dog, the man went wherever his guide took him, in good roads and in bad. This is another resemblance of one who is perfectly obedient; he should shut his eyes, and be blind to the commands of his superior, think of nothing but submitting immediately to him, without stopping to examine whether the thing be difficult or not, only keeping in view the authority of him who gives the order, and the merit of obedience."
Disobedience is insupportable; he considered it as the unfortunate offspring of pride, which is the source of all evils, and of which he had great horror. One day while praying in his cell, and meditating between God and his brethren, he saw in spirit one of them who refused to perform the penance imposed on him in chapter by the vicar-general, and excusing himself as to the fault of which he had been accused. He called his companion, and said: "I saw on the shoulders of this insubordinate brother the devil, who was wringing his neck, and leading him as by a bridle. I prayed for him, and the devil, abashed, loosed his hold immediately. Go to him, and tell him to bend immediately to the yoke of obedience," In fact, the brother did submit as soon as he was told this, and threw himself humbly at the feet of his superior.
Another, who had erred in some way against obedience, was brought to Francis, that he might correct him; but he appeared so penitent, that the Saint, who liked the humility of repentance, felt himself inclined to pardon the fault. Nevertheless, lest the facility of pardon should be abused, and to show what chastisement disobedience deserves, he ordered his cowl to be taken from him, and thrown into the fire. Some minutes after, he desired it to be taken out of the fire, and to be returned to him, when it was found that the fire had not injured it in the least; "God having shown by his miracle," St. Bonaventure observes, "the power He gave to His Servant, and how agreeable to Him humble repentance is."
The conduct of the holy Founder was more severe to one of his brethren, who was obstinately disobedient. He desired the others to put him into a pit, and to fill it up with earth, in order to bury him alive; when they had filled it up to his chin he said:--"Brother, are you dead?" The religious, absorbed in grief, replied: "Yes, Father, and I ought to die in reality for my sin." Francis, moved by compassion, had him dug out, saying: "Come forth from thence, if you are truly dead, as a good religious ought to be, to the world and its concupiscences. Obey the smallest sign of the will of your superiors, and make no more resistance to their orders than a dead body could do. I wish for followers, not living, but those who are dead."
He once called Brother Juniper to employ him a little while, and this brother not having immediately obeyed, because he was busy in planting a juniper tree, he cursed the tree that it should never grow, and it remained always in a dwarf state. The Fathers of the Desert were similarly exact in their attention to obedience, insomuch as to leave a letter unfinished when they had to attend to the orders of a superior.
The virtues of St. Francis, which we have recorded, and those which we have yet to narrate, were cultivated by the exercise of prayer. He had the gift as soon as he was called to the service of God; and he followed it up so faithfully, that he consecrated to it his heart, his body, all his actions, and all his time. In-doors, or out of doors, walking or seated, working or resting, his mind was always raised to heaven; he seemed to live with the angels. As he was always diffident of himself, he had recourse to prayer, and consulted the Almighty, with perfect confidence in His goodness, in all that He had to do. Although he could pray in any place he might happen to be in, nevertheless, he found solitary spots best adapted for recollection; he sought them out, and often retired to them. This shows us why he made so many houses of his Order, where there had previously been hermitages only.
Careful in attending to the interior calls of the Holy Spirit, if he perceived one coming on, he let his companions go forward, and stopped, not to receive it in vain, and to enjoy it to its full extent. When he prayed in community, he avoided all exterior signs, which might discover the secret dispositions of his mind, because he loved secrecy. He did not find the precaution difficult, because he was wholly absorbed in his interior, and united himself so intimately to God, that he was almost without exterior motion. If it happened that he was surprised by a visit from heaven in the presence of his brethren, he had always something ready to propose to them, to take off their attention. When he returned from prayer, in which he had been marvellously transformed, he strove to conform himself to his brethren, lest what they might perceive might draw from them applause, which would deprive him of his reward by inspiring him with vanity.
But in the solitudes he was under no restraint, and gave his heart entire liberty. The woods resounded with his sacred sighs and laments, the earth was moistened with his tears, and he struck his breast with violence. Sometimes he addressed himself to God as to his Sovereign Lord; sometimes he spoke to Him as to his Judge; sometimes he prayed to Him as to his Father; and at other times, he conversed with Him as a friend converses with his Friend. He solicited the pardon of sinners with loud and energetic exclamations; and he expressed his horror at the Passion of Jesus Christ in loud laments, as if he had been present at it. All this was seen and heard by some one or other of his companions, who had the pardonable curiosity to watch his proceedings. The devils tormented him severely during his prayers, and that in a very sensible manner, as St. Bonaventure informs us; but, protected by celestial aid, he continued his prayers with additional fervor, in proportion to the efforts they made to distract him.
God favored him with the gift of contemplation in a sublime degree. His companions bear witness that they have often seen him in a state of ecstasy, in which he had lost all the use of his senses, and in which all the powers of his soul were suspended. Once they saw him, during the night, raised from the ground, and his arms extended in the shape of a cross, surrounded by a luminous cloud, as if to betoken the Divine light which filled his mind. St. Bonaventure says that they had efficient proof that God at such times revealed to him some of the great secrets of His wisdom; but His faithful Servant only made such parts of them known as were for the glory of his Master, or the utility of his neighbor.
One of his brethren, not finding him one evening in his cell, went to look for him in the wood. Having penetrated a short distance into it, he heard him praying, with loud cries, for the salvation of men, and addressing the Blessed Virgin with moving sighs, humbly imploring her to show him her Son. He then saw the Blessed Mother of God descend from Heaven, with great splendor, and place her Son into the arms of Francis, who received Him as Simeon had received Him in the temple of Jerusalem, with the profoundest respect; he caressed the Infant most tenderly, entreating Him for the conversion of sinners, and the salvation of the world. At this sight the religious fell on the ground, half dead, and remained on the spot where he fell. Here the Saint found him, as he was returning to the convent for Matins; he brought him to himself from this fainting, but strictly forbade him from telling any one what had occurred; but he, thinking it for the glory of God not to be obliged to obey in this instance, communicated the marvel to all the others.
A novice whom the holy Patriarch had received, and whom he was taking to the convent of the novitiate, wished to know what he did during the night. In order to succeed, he tied his cord to that of the Father, whom he saw asleep in the fields, in which they had been obliged to remain, and laid himself down near him, in order that he might be roused as soon as he should stir. A few hours afterwards, Francis wished to get up, but finding himself fastened by the cord, he untied the knot, and went to pray under some neighboring trees. The novice, not finding him when he awoke, went to seek him under the trees. A celestial light caused him to draw near a spot, where he stopped, and from whence he saw Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, His Blessed Mother, and John the Baptist, who were in conversation with him. His astonishment made him fall on the ground, where he remained till Francis, to whom God had imparted the circumstances, came and raised him up, and restored him to his senses, forbidding him to speak of the vision. The young man, who continued to live very holily, kept the secret; but, after Francis's death, he published what he had seen.
God chose that his Servant should be respected in the secret retirements to which he went to pray, and that he should not be disturbed at those times. The Bishop of Assisi knew this by his own experience. One day, when he had come to the Convent of Portiuncula, as he frequently did, he wished to go at once into the cell where the Saint was at prayer; but scarcely had he seen him in that attitude, when he was pushed back by an invisible hand, his body became stiff, and he was unable to speak. Much astonished at this accident, he made his way back, as well as he could, to the other brethren; God restored his voice, and he made use of it, to acknowledge that he had committed a fault. The Celestial Spouse, in the Canticles, conjures the daughters of Jerusalem, "not to awaken her whom he loves, and not to disturb her repose until she awakes of her own accord." St. Bernard, on this, says that such as are given to prayer should not be troubled about useless affairs, and that those who disturb them when they are conversing with God, become enemies of heaven.
In consequence of the knowledge which Francis had of the sweets and fruits of mental prayer, he constantly urged his brethren to practise it, and they profited so fully by his instructions, that most of them became spiritual and contemplative men. "A religious," he said, "must principally desire to acquire the spirit of prayer. I believe that, without this, peculiar favors cannot be obtained from God, nor any great progress made in His service. When one is sorrowful and uneasy, he should have immediate recourse to prayer, and remain before his Heavenly Father, until such time as the joy of salvation is restored to him. If one remains in this state of depression and disturbance, this disposition, which comes from Babylon, will increase, and produce rust, unless it be purified by tears."
He taught them to shun the tumult of the world, and to seek for solitary places in which to pray, because he knew that the Holy Ghost communicates Himself more intimately to souls in such places; but he recommended them to be perfectly secret as to the favors they might receive; his maxim being, that a slender human communication often causes the loss of that which is of inestimable value, and has the effect of preventing the Lord from again communicating what He had previously given; that when one is visited by God, he should say: "It is Thou, O Lord! who hast sent me this consolation from Heaven,--to me who am a sinner, wholly unworthy of thy bounty. I commit it back to Thy keeping; for I feel myself capable of stealing Thy treasure from Thee;" and when he returns from prayer, he should show as much humility and self-contempt as if he had received no peculiar favor.
All the masters of spiritual life have had similar opinions of the value of mental prayer as this contemplative Saint, and they have pointed out the necessity of it for advancing in the ways of virtue. St. Teresa wrote so sublimely on this practice, that the Church prays to God that "her Heavenly doctrine may be our nourishment." She declares that she was near being lost, from having given it up, but that our Lord had done her the signal favor to urge her to resume it; she exhorts all to apply themselves to it, even should they make but small progress in it, because it is always useful, and, if persevered in, will be attended with great benefit. This is what directors might represent to those who seriously wish to attend to their salvation, and to say to them, with the same saint, that "mental prayer is nothing else but holding friendly intercourse with God, often remaining alone in conversation with Him, who, we know, loves us."
The practice of mental prayer no way diminished the zeal of St. Francis for vocal prayer, which every Christian ought to resort to as he did. Vocal prayer was practised and taught by Jesus Christ; the Church employs it in her public worship. "We require it," says St. Austin, "to assist our memory and understanding, and to animate our fervor; finally, God desires that we should offer to Him "a sacrifice of praise," and that it shall be "the fruits of our lips and hearts, giving glory to His name," because our body and soul belong to Him. Piety had inspired the holy man to compose vocal prayers on various subjects, which he often repeated, and some of which he recited daily. He said the Lord's Prayer, with particular devotion, weighing all the words, and meditating on the sense they contain, as is seen by the paraphrase of it he composed, and which we think it useful to insert at length:
"'Our Father,' most happy and most holy, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Consoler. 'Who art in Heaven;' in the angels, in the saints, in the illuminated, in order that they may know Thee, who inflamest them by Thy love; for, O Lord! Thou are the Light and the Love who dwellest in them, and Thou art their Beatitude by satiating them: Thou art the Sovereign and Eternal Good, from whom all good proceeds, and without Thee there is no other good. 'Hallowed be Thy name:' in order thus to make Thyself known to us by vivid lights, so that we may see the full extent of Thy bounty, the duration of Thy promises, the sublimity of Thy majesty, and the depth of Thy judgment. 'Thy Kingdom come:' in order that Thou mayest reign in us by grace, and that Thou mayest bring us to Thy Kingdom, where Thou art clearly and perfectly loved, where we become happy in Thy society, and where Thou art eternally enjoyed. 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven:' in order that we may love Thee 'with our whole hearts,' thinking always of Thee 'with our whole soul,' ever longing for Thee, 'with all our mind,' referring to Thee all our views, seeking Thy glory in all things; 'with all our strength,' employing in Thy service, for Thy love, all the strength,' of our bodies and souls, without making any other use of them; that we may love our neighbor as ourselves, using all our efforts to draw them to Thy love; rejoicing in all the good that happens to them, as if it was our own; being grieved at any ills which may befall them, and giving offence to none. 'Give us this day our daily bread:' it is Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ; we ask Thee for Him, in order to remind us of the love He has shown us, and of what He has said, done and endured for us; we ask Thee to make us fully comprehend these things, and cause us to revere them. 'Forgive us our trespasses,' by Thy infinite mercy, by the passion of Thy beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the merits and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the elect. 'As we forgive them that trespass against us:' what may be not altogether remitted on our part, grant us the favor, O Lord! to remit entirely, in order that, for love of Thee, we may sincerely love our enemies, and may intercede for them fervently at Thy throne; that we may not render to any one evil for evil, and that in Thee we may endeavor to do good to all. 'And lead us not into temptation,' hidden, manifest, sudden, grievous. 'But deliver us from evil:', past, present, and to come. Amen: willingly and gratuitously" These two words show that he ardently desired what he prayed for; and that it was purely for the glory of God, without any temporal interest.
He recited the Divine Offices with a devotion full of respect, and with great fervor. St. Bonaventure says that, although he suffered greatly from pains in his head, from his stomach, and from his liver, he never leant while reciting it; that he stood during the whole time, with his head uncovered, his eyes looking down. In travelling, he always stopped to say it; however much it might rain, he never omitted this pious practice, and he gave this reason for it: "If the body rests, in order to take its food, which will, as well as himself, soon become the food of worms, with how much tranquillity ought the soul to take its spiritual nourishment, which is to cause it to live eternally!"
The verse, Gloria Patri, etc., made a lively impression on his heart; once he repeated it in thankfulness to God for His bounty after each verse of the Magnificat, which Brother Leo was reciting, and he exhorts all to say it frequently. A lay brother, who was strongly tempted to apply himself to study, having come to ask his permission, was told: "My dear Brother, learn the Gloria Patri, and you will know the whole of the Holy Scriptures."--The brother obeyed, and had no further temptation on that head.
The distractions which his lively imagination caused him during the holy exercises, appeared to him to be great faults, and he never failed to confess them, and to expiate them by penance, asserting that we ought to be ashamed of being distracted by trifles when speaking to the great King. Once during Tierce, the thought of a little vase which he had made came into his head, and called off his attention; he immediately went and took it, and threw it into the fire, saying: "I will sacrifice it to the Lord, whose sacrifice it has hindered." But he acquired the habit of reciting the Office so attentively, that this sort of distractions seldom importuned him.
His application was equally strong and respectful in reciting the psalms, as if God had been present in a sensible manner; and he found so much sweetness in the name of God, that he seemed to have the taste of sweetness on his lips, after having pronounced it. Thus the Prophet said to the Lord: "How sweet are thy words to my palate! more than honey to my mouth." Francis had also an interior joy in pronouncing the holy name of Jesus, which communicated itself to his exterior, and produced on his senses a similar effect as if he had tasted something agreeable to his palate, or heard some harmonious sounds.
He desired that all the holy names should be peculiarly reverenced, not only when people thought of them, or pronounced them, but whenever they saw them written. This is the reason why, in his last will, he recommends his brethren to pick them up should they find them scattered about in unseemly places, and put them in a better locality, lest they should be disrespectfully trampled upon. This must be considered not as a mere nicety of feeling, but as a sentiment inspired by faith, which teaches us to venerate the word of God. If a great bishop has thought it proper to compare the abuse of the sacred word, when it is announced, to the profanation of the Body itself of Jesus Christ, may we not, in the same spirit, say that he who permits that word to be trampled upon when it is written, becomes in some measure as guilty as if he had allowed the Sacred Body of our Saviour to be treated with similar indignity?
It was the love of God which gave St. Francis so much zeal for mental prayer, as well as for that which is vocal. He sought his Beloved, from whom he was only separated by the wall of his flesh. To be present to Him in spirit, and to contemplate Him, were his sole consolations, and his anxiety to gain these was intense. But then the frequent exercise of prayer increased his love, and inflamed it to that degree, that St. Bonaventure does not think it possible to find words to express it. This Divine charity penetrated his whole interior, as fire penetrates a burning coal. Only by hearing the term of the love of God pronounced, he was moved and inflamed, and this movement made the affections of his soul thrill, as the strings of a musical instrument sound on being touched.
To incite himself more and more to the love of God, he made use of all creatures, as of so many mirrors, in which he viewed the Supreme Reason, the Sovereign Beauty, and the Principle of being and of life. They were for him as so many steps by which he raised and united himself to the object of his love, as so many streamlets in which he tasted, with inconceivable unction, the Infinite Purity of the source from whence all that is good is derived; so many delightful strains whose harmony resounded on his ears, and which, as David in his psalms, he invited to praise and glorify Him who had given them their being. Wholly inflamed with love, he prayed to be enabled to love still more, and he addressed the following prayer to God, which is found among his works: "Grant, O Lord! that the mild vehemence of Thy ardent love may separate me from everything which is under Heaven, and may consume me entirely, in order that I may die for the love of Thy love, since it was for the love of my love that Thou didst deign to die. I solicit this through Thyself, O Son of God! who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen."
And here is another, which he used to say every day: "My God and my All, who art Thou, O sweet Lord! and who am I, Thy servant, a miserable worm? I wish to love Thee, most holy Lord, I wish to love Thee. O God! I have consecrated to Thee my heart and my body. If I had the means of doing more for Thee, I would do it, and I ardently wish I had the means."
This poor Evangelical could not give more to God than his body and soul. He continually offered the sacrifice of his body, by the rigor of his fasts, and that of his soul, by the vehemence of his desires; "by which," says St. Bonaventure, "he conformed in a spiritual manner to the practice of the Old Law, which was to offer holocausts out of the tabernacle, and to burn incense within it."
The sacrifice of his desires went to a great extent. For the love of God he had renounced all the things of this earth; he had stripped himself of everything; he had embraced the severest poverty, and practised the most austere penitential life; he had devoted himself to the ministry of preaching, and to the establishment of his Order; his life was but a course of labors and fatigue, but he reckoned all that as nothing; he wished to do much more, to mortify himself more rigorously, to forward thereby the glory of God, because, according to the words of our Saviour, this is the greatest mark of love which a friend can give to his friend. This was the motive of the ardent desire he had to endure martyrdom, and of the three voyages he undertook in search of it; seeing that he could not succeed, he lowered his views to wishing for and soliciting grace to know what he could do, to testify his love for God. The Lord granted his desire, favoring him with the impression of His five wounds, which rendered him a living and, at the same time, an expiring martyr; but it inflamed his heart to such a degree, that then he wished to die for love, and to be absorbed in the love of Him whom he loved.
Inflamed with divine love, he endeavored to spread the fire on all sides. He often made it the subject of his discourses, and it was usually the motive he employed to animate his brethren to the practice of virtue. When he proposed anything that was difficult to them, such as to go about soliciting alms, "Go," he would say, "and ask it for the love of God." He found a noble prodigality in asking it for that motive, and he thought those demented who preferred money to the love of God, the price of which is incalculable, and sufficient to purchase the Kingdom of Heaven, and which the love of Him who has so loved us must make infinitely dear to us. They were surprised one day to find that he could bear the severity of winter in so miserable a habit as that which he wore, and, full of fervor, he gave this reason, which contains a very useful lesson; "If we were inwardly inflamed with a longing for our celestial country, we should easily bear exterior cold." It was his wish that a Friar Minor should love God with an effective, liberal, and generous love, which should enable him to suffer calmly and joyfully pain and opprobrium for the object of his love. This is what he said one day to Brother Leo, on the subject, in a conversation which Leo himself has recorded at full length: "If a Friar Minor had a clear and distinct knowledge of the course of the stars, and of all other things in the universe; if he possessed all the sciences, all the languages, and a perfect knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; and if he spoke with the tongues of angels, cast out devils, performed all sorts of miracles, even that of raising one from the dead who had been four days in the tomb; if he had the gift of prophecy, and that of discerning the affections of the heart; if he preached to the infidels with such success as to convert them all, and if he should edify the world by his sanctity, all that would not be to him the subject of perfect and true joy."
Afterwards, to show in what this true joy consisted, he proposed a supposition, similar to one he had made on another subject, and very like to the hypothesis of St. Paul: "Who shall separate us from the love of Jesus Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or persecution, or the sword?" From which he concluded, that all that there is in Heaven or on earth could not separate him from the love of God, which is grounded on Jesus Christ, our Lord.
"Suppose," said St. Francis, "that we were to arrive at the Convent of St. Mary of the Angels very wet, covered with mud, perishing with cold, dying of hunger, and that the porter, instead of letting us in, were to leave us at the gate in this pitiable state, saying angrily, 'You are a couple of idle vagabonds, who stroll about the world, and receive the alms which the real poor ought to get.' If we bear this treatment with patience, without being discomposed, and without murmuring; if even we think humbly and charitably that the porter knows us well for what we are, and that it is by God's leave that he behaves thus to us, mark this down as perfect joy."
"Suppose, moreover, that we continue to knock at the door, and that the porter, considering us importunate, should come out and give us some severe boxes on the ears, and say, 'Get along, scoundrels, go to the hospital, there is nothing for you to eat here.' If we bear all these things patiently, and we pardon him from our hearts, and with charity, note, this would be a subject for perfect joy."
"Let us, in fine, suppose, that in this extremity the cold, hunger, and the night, compel us to entreat, with tears and cries to be allowed to enter the convent, and that the porter, in great irritation, darts out with a stick full of knobs, takes us by the cowl, throws us down in the snow, and beats us till we are quite covered with bruises:--if we bear all this ill usage with joy, with the thought that we ought to participate in the sufferings of our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, note this, and note it carefully, that this is, for a Friar Minor, the subject of a true and perfect joy."
"Now hear the conclusion of all this. Amongst all the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which Jesus Christ has granted and will grant to His servants, the most considerable is, that of conquering one's self, and of suffering pain and opprobrium for the love of God, in order to respond to the love He has for us. In all the miraculous gifts which I have noticed, there is not one from which we may derive so much glory; we have no share in it, it is all from God; we only receive what He gives us, and, as St. Paul says, 'If thou hast received, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?' But we have our share in the tribulations which we suffer for the love of God, and we may make it a subject of glory, as the same Apostle has said: 'God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.'"
St. Francis was far from thinking that we may glory in our sufferings, as of a favor which we have not received, since he acknowledges that it is the greatest gift of the Holy Ghost, conformably to what St. Paul said to the Philippians: "To you is given not only to believe in Jesus Christ, but also to suffer for His sake;" and to what is written of the Apostles: "And they, indeed, went from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus." He only proposed to say that our sole cause of glory is, that God permits us to be associated to the Cross of Jesus Christ, in which alone we are glorified. Thus it is to God that he refers all the glory of our sufferings, which indeed is His, since, without the aid of His grace, we should not suffer as we ought, and without the Cross of Jesus Christ we should have no merit. But he correctly says, and he speaks the true orthodox faith, when he adds, that we have a share in the merit of what we suffer, and when he draws the distinction between that and miraculous gifts. St. Chrysostom has spoken in the same manner, and says that our virtues are in so far the gifts of God, that they are also merits of our will, for which God has been pleased to render Himself indebted to us, by the promise He has made to reward them.
The mystery of the Incarnate Word, "that great mystery of piety, which has been manifested in the flesh," produced in the heart of St. Francis sentiments so pious and so tender, that they were observable exteriorly, by actions of extraordinary fervor, as we saw in the grand solemnity which he celebrated at Grecio on Christmas night. "Consider," he says, in his letters, "that the most high Father has sent from Heaven His archangel, St. Gabriel, to announce that His most worthy, holy, and glorious Word should descend into the womb of the most Blessed Virgin Mary. And, in truth, He did so descend, and took from her true human flesh, passible and mortal, such as ours is: 'Being rich, He became of His own accord poor.' He chose, by preference, poverty in this world for Himself and for His Blessed Mother. He gave Himself thus to us, in conformity to the will of His Father, to wipe away our sins on the cross, by the sacrifice of His Blood, and to leave an example for us to follow in His traces, for it is His wish that we should all be saved through Him; but there are few who desire the salvation He proffers them, although His yoke is sweet, and His burden light."
When he spoke of the incarnation and birth of the Son of God, it was with affectionate devotion; he could not hear the words, "the Word made flesh," without manifesting great joy. The religious of a monastery where he was one day, remarked this emotion, and took occasion to ask him if it was right to eat meat on Christmas-day, when it fell on a Friday, or if it was not better to abstain from it. "Not only do I think," he replied, "that men may eat meat on this day, on which the Word was made flesh, but I wish that princes and rich persons would throw meat and corn in the highways, in order that the birds and beasts of the field should rejoice, in their way, in the joys of so great a festival; I wish, even, that some was placed on the walls, if they could derive sweetness from it."
We see plainly that these are hyperbolical expressions, flowing from his heart, by the emotions of his spiritual joy, by which he was actuated; but, in saying that men might eat meat on Christmas-day, although it fall on a Friday, he speaks in conformity with the usage of the Church, which, however, is a permission, and not a law. Pope Honorius III. pointed it out clearly to the Bishop of Prague, in Bohemia, in the following rescript of the year 1222: "We answer that, when the Feast of the Nativity of our Blessed Lord falls on a Friday, those who are not under the obligation of abstinence by a vow, or by a regular observance, may eat meat on that day, because of the excellence of the festival, according to the custom of the universal Church. Those, however, who abstain on that day, from devotion, are not to be censured."
St. Francis was, moreover, much affected by the goodness of our Saviour, who, after His baptism, went into the desert, and there fasted forty days and forty nights, without eating anything during that time, for the expiation of our sensuality, and to set us an example of fasting. He honored this holy retreat by a fast of forty days, which he commenced on the seventh day of January, and which he passed in some solitary place, confined to his cell, keeping strict abstinence in fasting and drinking, and employing himself solely in praising God and in prayer. It was also during this Lent that he received the most signal favors from Jesus Christ.
His soul was penetrated with ardor for the mystery of the Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord. The work of so tender a love, and of such condescending goodness, threw him into an excess of admiration, and put him quite beside himself. He communicated frequently, and with so much devotion, that it inspired others with similar feelings; they saw him almost always, after having communicated, as if in a spiritual intoxication, and raised into ecstasy by the sweetness he tasted in partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lamb without spot. At Mass, when at the Elevation, he said this prayer: "Celestial Father, my Lord and my God, cast Thine eyes on the glorious countenance of Thy Christ, and have pity on me and on other sinners, for whom Thy beloved Son, our Lord, has condescended to die, and who has chosen to remain with us in the Sacrament of the Altar, for our salvation and consolation: who with Thee, eternal Father, and the Holy Ghost, sole God, liveth and reigneth to everlasting ages. Amen."
The profound veneration which is due to the august mystery of the Eucharist, the solicitude which we ought to have to hear Mass, to approach to the sacred altar, and to prepare ourselves, in order worthily to communicate, were points on which he used to dilate in his conversations, in his instructions, and in his letters.
The life of the holy man has furnished many examples of the ardent and respectful zeal which animated him in all that regarded churches or altars, or all the things which were used for the Sacrifice of the Mass, and for the divine service. As he could not bear anything dirty or slovenly, in the country churches, he took the trouble of cleaning everything himself; and lest they should want altar breads for Masses, he made them himself in iron forms, which were made in a very workmanlike manner; he took them into the poor parishes: some of these moulds are carefully preserved in the convent of Grecio.
The great love which he had for Jesus Christ, and for the sacrament which contains His Body, His Blood, His Soul, and His Divinity, inspired him with a zeal and a tenderness of devotion to His Blessed Mother, which cannot be expressed, as St. Bonaventure remarks. He placed himself and his Order under the protection of this Blessed Mother of God, whom he chose for his advocate; and in her, after Jesus Christ, his chief confidence rested: "for," said he, "it is she who made this God of Majesty our brother; through her we have obtained mercy." He used, as we have noticed, to keep a Lent of six weeks, in honor of her glorious Assumption; and he observed it with great sentiments of piety. These are the prayers and eulogiums he was in the habit of addressing to her:--
"Hail, Mary! Mother of God, ever a Virgin, most holy Lady and Queen, in whom is all the plenitude of grace and every sort of good. Amongst women there are none born like unto thee; thou art the daughter and the handmaid of our celestial Father, the great King; and he has chosen thee for the Mother of His beloved Son. Thou art the Spouse of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. Hail to thee, who art the palace, the temple, and the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ! I honor all the virtues with which thou art filled. Thou who art as mild as thou art beautiful, implore thy very dear Son, conjure Him by His great clemency, by the virtue of His most sacred incarnation and that of His most painful death, to pardon our faults. Amen."
The indissoluble ties of spiritual love, says the holy doctor whom we have quoted, united Francis to the hierarchy of the angels, caused in him marvellous fire which absorbs man in God, and influences the elect with noble aims. The ardent zeal he had for the salvation of souls, attached him intimately to the Archangel St. Michael, because his employment is to present man to the throne of the Divine Majesty. It was to honor these blessed spirits, that he kept every year a Lent of forty days, before the Feast of St. Michael, adding to it a continual exercise of prayer. He had prescribed to himself another Lent, to prepare for the Festival of All Saints, who seemed to him to be, according to the expression of Ezekiel, precious stones, glittering as fire, the memory alone of which excited him to a more fervent love of God. The great love which all the Apostles had for Jesus Christ, led him to revere them with peculiar devotion, particularly Saints Peter and Paul, in honor of whom he fasted from Whit-Sunday to their feast.
It is useful to remark here that this great Saint, who was raised to a sublime degree of prayer, did not neglect, nevertheless, the usual practices of piety with the rest of the faithful. This may serve as a preservative against an illusion which might lead to the belief that they are useless to the spiritual, and that those who are mystical, may dispense with them, to devote themselves to contemplation. His heart was so full and so penetrated with that true and sincere piety, of which charity is the soul, that it seemed to have entire possession of him. It united him incessantly to God, to the friends of God, and to everything which was holy; but, as the Apostle says, "prayer is profitable to all things"; it gave him a fund of all that was good, a spirit of meekness, of condescension, and of zeal, to communicate with his neighbor.
All men were dear to him, because he saw in them the same nature, the same grace, the image of the Creator, and the Blood of the Redeemer. If he had not taken care of the salvation of souls, which Jesus Christ had redeemed, he would not have considered himself among the number of His friends. "Nothing," he said, "is preferable to the salvation of souls;" and he gave several reasons for this, and principally this one: that, for them, the Only Son of God had condescended to be nailed to the cross. It was also for them that he labored and lived; for them, in some measure, he called in question the justice of God in prayer, and powerfully solicited His mercy; for them he frequently forewent the sweets of a contemplative life; he undertook journeys, he preached everywhere, he exposed Himself to martyrdom, and their edification was one of his motives in the practice of virtue. Although his innocent flesh, already perfectly under the control of the spirit, did not require to be chastised for any faults, he, nevertheless, mortified it in various ways for the edification of his neighbor. When he was censured for his too great austerities, he replied:--"I am sent to give this example; if I had not the charity to give it, I should be of little use to others, and of none to myself, although I spoke all the languages known to men and angels."
Seeing that a multitude of persons, stimulated by his example, fervently embraced the Cross of Christ, he became animated with fresh courage to put himself at the head of these pious troops, as a valiant captain, in order to gain with them a victory over the devil, by the practice of perfect and invincible virtue.
The sanctity of his life gave him great freedom in his manner of preaching. He spoke fearlessly, without any apprehension of what critics might say, because he had acted before teaching, and he felt and had experienced all he said. The zealous preacher knew not how to flatter. Far from sparing sinners by complacence, he reproached their vices in forcible language, and attacked their disorderly conduct with great vehemence. The presence of the great of the world did not intimidate him; he spoke to them as plainly and forcibly as he had done to the common people; and, as all souls were equally dear to him, he preached as willingly, and with as much zest, to a few people, as to a crowded auditory.
The tender love which St. Francis bore for souls redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ, rendered him very sensible to their misfortunes. When he knew of any one stained by the filth of sin, he lamented over it with deep grief. His charity, fertile in expedients, inspired him sometimes to give to wicked persons temporal assistance, with a view of getting them to return to the ways of salvation. One day, when he was at the Convent of Mount Casal, Brother Angelo, who was the guardian of it, told him that there were in the neighborhood three notorious robbers, who injured considerably the farmers of the vicinity, and daily came and extorted from them the bread which was destined for the convent, without their being able to prevent it. "Brother," he replied, "if you will do what I will point out to you, my confidence in God tells me that you will reform these men, and gain their souls. Go and seek them out: although they are robbers, they are still our brothers. Take them the best bread you have, and some wine, spread a cloth on the ground, and invite them to eat with you; while they are eating, speak to them of holy things, in an insinuating manner, both yourself and your companion; humbly entreat them to injure no one any more. If they promise you this, return to them the next day, and take them something to eat, with bread and wine as before, and tell them that you bring that, as to brethren and friends, who have granted you what you asked of them. If you do this a third time, do not doubt but God will enlighten them, and touch their hearts, and bring them into the right way."
Brother Angelo followed this advice, and gained over the robbers so completely, that they gave up their lives of plunderers, and began to render service to the convent, supplying them with fire-wood, which they carried to them on their shoulders. Their conversion was complete: one of them entered the Order, and the other two went elsewhere to embrace a penitential life. The guardian used similar means for converting three other robbers, who retired into the recesses of the mountain, after having induced the Saint to pray for them. All three afterwards entered the Order of Friars Minor and lived holy lives.
The affection which our Saint had always shown for the poor from his infancy, during the first years of his youth, and at the beginning of his conversion, became stronger and stronger, and was manifested on all occasions. St. Bonaventure says that he spared nothing to come to their assistance. Cloaks, tunics, books, the ornaments of the Church, all that he had he gave to them. Many times he has been seen taking the burdens from the poor he met on the road, and bear them on his own weak shoulders. When he returned from begging, he shared what he had received with any that solicited alms at his hands; and as long as anything remained, he never refused any one.
At Sienna, a small cloak had been given to him, which was very necessary for his infirmities; but, in leaving the town, he met a poor person, whose wretched state excited his pity, and he said to his companion: "Let us restore this cloak to him, for it belongs to him; we have only borrowed it, until such time as we should see some one poorer than ourselves." The companion, knowing that Francis really required it, endeavored to prevent his parting with it, but the father made him this answer: "If I did not give this cloak to a poor man, who had more need of it than I have, I should think I had committed a theft, which I should be convicted of by our Sovereign Lord, who is the universal almoner." It was for this reason that, when anything was given him, he asked leave to give it away, if he should meet with any one poorer than himself.
On the same principle, notwithstanding his infirmities, when he was at the convent at Celles, he gave another cloak, which he had received in charity, to a poor woman. One of the brothers having taken it back, promising to give the woman something else instead, the Saint said immediately:--"My brother, kneel down and acknowledge your fault; give the cloak back to the woman: she is poorer than I am." His companions got him another, and he gave it again to a man of Cortona, who came to solicit alms for the love of God, at the same convent at Celles. He told Francis that his wife was dead, that he had several little children, and that he had no food for them: "I give you this cloak," said the Saint, "on this condition, that, if you are asked to give it back, you do no such thing, unless you receive its full value." The brethren, indeed, did all they could to induce him to give it back: they told him there was no one poorer than the person who had given it to him, or who wanted it more on account of his bad health and the rigor of the season. But the man, referring to what his benefactor had said, answered that the cloak was his, and that he would not part with it, unless he received its full value. In order, therefore, to have it returned, they were under the necessity of taking him to a friend who gave him in money what the cloak was considered to be worth.
A very old woman, the mother of two of the Friars Minor, having come to the Convent of St. Mary of the Angels to ask for charity, Francis told the guardian to give her something; and he having said that there was not anything then in the convent which could be given, unless it was a book of the Gospel which the brethren read out of, when they were in the choir the Father said:--"Give it that the poor woman may sell it to provide for her necessities. I believe that this will be more agreeable to God, than reading out of it. What is it that a mother has not a right to require from us, who has given two of her sons to the religious?"
Another time, a poor man came to ask for an old habit. Francis desired them to look about well for one that was not used. As such an one was not to be found, he stole aside and began to unpick some breadths of his own, in order to give them to the man; the guardian, being informed of this, came down hastily and forbade his taking them out: "I will obey you, because you are my superior, but give this poor man something to cover himself with; otherwise I shall have a scruple, and shall be grieved to be obliged to wear an entire habit which is lined, to keep me warm, while this poor man is shivering with cold at the gate." He went to the poor man to console him, and did not leave him until the guardian had given him something wherewith to clothe himself; and this alms was no less comforting to his charitable feelings, than the clothing was to the misery of the poor man. By a similar impulse of charity, and in order to prevent curses against God, he gave his cloak to a servant who complained of the great injury his master had done him, cursing him and blaspheming Providence for allowing the poor to be so ill used. He gave him his cloak on the condition that he would leave off cursing and blaspheming.
The physician who saw the saint in his illness, near Rieti, having one day mentioned the extreme poverty of an old woman who was begging, he sent for the guardian and said: "Here is a cloak which I have worn until such time as some one should be found who has a greater right to it than I have; I beg you to send it, with some of the bread which has been received on the quest, by one of the brethren, to our sister, who is very poor, and let him say that we only give her what belongs to her. I conceive that what is given to us can only be ours until such time as some one shall come forward, who is more in want of it than we are." Not to vex the holy man, the commission was faithfully executed.
The blessed Patriarch wished that such of his children who had not studied, and had no talent for preaching, should be employed in serving their brethren, and should frequent the hospitals, there to render the meanest offices to the lepers, with humility and charity.
Brother James the Simple, who came from Perugia, was greatly distinguished by his zeal in this charitable exercise, insomuch that they gave him the name of the steward and physician of the lepers. Francis recommended one to him, whose body was a mass of sores, from his head to his feet. James took such care of him, that, by degrees, he regained his strength; and, thinking fresh air would contribute to his restoration, he took him with him, although still full of ulcers, to the Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels. This appeared to the Saint, who met him, to have been very indiscreet, and he said to Brother James: "You should not lead about, in this manner, the Christian Brothers; it is neither proper in you, nor good for them. I wish you to serve them in their hospital, but I do not wish you to take them out of it, for there are many persons who cannot bear the sight of them." The leper was distressed at hearing his benefactor thus reprimanded, and he blushed for shame. Francis, perceiving him to have been mortified, threw himself immediately at his feet, and begged his pardon, and, in order to console him, he ate at the door of the convent, out of the same plate with the leper, after which he embraced and kissed him, and dismissed him satisfied.
There was in the hospital a leper who was so impatient and so violent, that he abused and struck the Friars Minor who served him, and even went so far as to blaspheme God. They reported this to their Father, who offered himself to the sick man, to wait upon him: "What can you do for me more than your companions have done?" replied the invalid. "Ever since I have had this insupportable disorder, God has forgotten me. I am in despair, I can live no longer; no one can mitigate my sufferings; neither you nor any one else." Francis, seeing that he was agitated by the evil spirit, left him for a while, prayed for him, and returned to exhort him by the most urgent motives, to be patient. As he saw that the man became calmer, he asked him what might seem most agreeable to him; what he should do for him. He said that he should now wash his whole body, that he could no longer endure the stench of the infection. The saint quickly got some water warmed, into which he put aromatic herbs, and began to wash him himself, while his companion poured out the water. As he washed, his cure advanced, and, at the same time, the grace of God made such impression on the mind of the patient, that, as the water flowed from his body, the tears flowed from his eyes. The washing having terminated, the leper being perfectly cleansed and converted, publicly confessed his sins, asked for mercy, and went through a rigorous course of penance. He died a few months afterwards, and appeared to the Saint, thanking him that, by his means, after a light punishment in purgatory, he was about to enjoy eternal glory.
God performed a different miracle on another occasion, to justify the charity of His Servant to the poor. At Alexandria de la Paille, a town of the Milanese, where he was received as a Saint, he was invited to dinner by a wealthy and pious man. While he was at table, a man of bad character, who was, however, jealous of Francis's reputation, watched all his actions, in order to decry and criticise them: this man counterfeited a beggar at the door, and solicited an alms for the love of God. As soon as Francis heard the appeal for the love of God, he sent him the wing of a fowl, to which he had been just helped. The sham beggar, to whom it was taken, kept it. The next day he produced it, in a large concourse of people, where the Saint was preaching, and, interrupting the discourse, he said in a loud voice: "This is the food on which the preacher feeds: should such a man be honored as a saint?" His malice received a signal check; the wing of the fowl which he exhibited, appeared to the bystanders to be fish, and he was thought to have lost his wits. He himself perceiving that what he held up was nothing but fish, was ashamed of what he had said, was touched with remorse, and published himself what had happened. After which, one miracle succeeded another; it was found that what had appeared to be fish, was in reality flesh. Thus did the Lord vindicate the virtue of His Servant, punish envy, and convert the envious. The malignity of envy often finds its punishment in the artifices it employs to injure persons of virtue, but it is very unusual for the envious to be so converted.
St. Bonaventure says that St. Francis felt a most tender compassion for all who suffered from temporal ills; that, indeed, he had naturally a feeling heart, but that the goodness of the heart of Jesus Christ, communicating itself to his, rendered it still more compassionate. He was the more sensible of the afflictions of others, as in all the poor, and in all those who suffered, he represented to himself his Divine Master, poor and suffering; in which, continues the holy doctor, he who was himself poor, showed that he was so as a perfect Christian.
When he had it not in his power to alleviate the sufferings of those in indigence or sickness, he endeavored, at least by soothing words, to assuage their feelings. One day, when he was about to preach, he was entreated by a poor and infirm man to recommend him to the auditors. His compassion was excited, and, with tears in his eyes, he said to his companion that he felt the man's ills as if they were his own. His companion answered the man rather drily, who was importunate in asking for alms, and in order to moderate the feelings of the Saint, he said: "If we judged by exteriors, this man is apparently in great misery; but, if we could penetrate his interior, we should, perhaps, find that in the whole province there is not an individual richer in wishes, or more eaten up with pride: such characters are frequently found among beggars." Francis censured him severely for having repulsed the poor man, and for judging him with so much asperity, and pointed out to him that in this he offended God. The religious acknowledged his error, and asked pardon on his knees. "I shall not pardon you," said Francis, "unless you take off your habit, prostrate yourself before the poor man, acknowledge your fault, entreat him to pardon you, and to pray for you." The humble penitent did immediately all that he had been desired to do, after which Francis embraced him, and said, with great mildness: "My son, it is not so much against the poor man that you have sinned, as against Jesus Christ, for He is in all the poor: they are so many mirrors, in which He represents to us His own poverty, and that of His Blessed Mother. Therefore, as often as you see the poor and the sick, respect them, and humble yourself in their presence; consider, with sentiments of piety, that the Son of God made Himself poor for our sakes, and condescended to take upon Himself our infirmities."
If we cherish these Christianlike views, we should not judge so harshly of the poor, of whom it is no less faulty to judge, than of the rich; and in their poverty we should find as powerful motives for loving Jesus Christ, as for affording the succor they require.
The heart of St. Francis was naturally so kind and so tender, that he felt an affection for creatures, but it was from a profound sentiment of piety that he called them his brothers and his sisters. Going back to the origin of things, St. Bonaventure says that he considered all that had being as having emanated from the bosom of the Divinity, and he acknowledged that they had the same principle as himself. In fact, the creation established amongst them a sort of fraternity: God being the parent of all nature, it is not to be denied that, in this sense, everything which composes it is brotherly. And who can censure a man who is wholly religious, for expressing himself in a manner which is grounded on the first principles of religion? This trait shows both the elevation of his mind, and the piety of his heart; heretics alone can blame it.
Among animals, those he preferred were such as reminded him of the mildness of Jesus Christ, or were the symbol of some particular virtue, or which gave rise to some edifying reflections; and God has sometimes shown by miracles, how much the motive of these feelings was pleasing to Him. Lambs were peculiarly agreeable to the holy man, in memory of the meek Lamb who permitted Himself to be led to the slaughter, for the redemption of sinners; he frequently had them purchased, to prevent their being killed.
While he was staying at the Monastery of St. Vereconda, which is in the Diocese of Gubbio, he found that on the previous night a sow had killed with its teeth a lamb, which had just been born. The Lamb without spot, whom sinners put to death, flashed immediately upon his recollection, and the pity this excited in him, caused him to lament sorely the death of the little animal, which was a symbol of meekness; to curse the cruel beast which had killed it, and to wish that neither man nor beast might eat of its flesh. The sow was at that moment struck with a disease, of which it died in three days. It was thrown into a ravine, not far distant from the monastery, and no animal ventured to touch it: it became dry and hard as a piece of wood. St. Bonaventure remarks, on this occasion, that if God was pleased to punish with death the cruelty of a beast, how infinitely more severe must not the punishment of cruel and pitiless men be in the other world.
A lad went to Sienna to sell some turtle-doves, which he had taken alive. Francis met him on his way, and said: "These are innocent birds, which are compared in Scripture to chaste and faithful souls I beg you earnestly not to put them into the hands of persons who would kill them, but to confide them to me." They were given to him, and he put them immediately into his bosom; he spoke to them as if they were capable of reasoning, not only by that natural impulse which induces us constantly to speak to animals, when we caress them, but also by an impression of the spirit of God. He told them of a great miracle, promising to prepare a nest for them, where they might increase and multiply, according to the intention of their Creator. Having taken them to his Convent of Ravacciano, near the walls of Sienna, he forced his stick into the ground before the gate, and the stick became, by the following day, a large evergreen oak. He let the turtle-doves fly into it, desiring them to make their nests there, which they did for many succeeding years; and they were so familiar with the religious, that they came to feed from their hands. Wading says that the tree was still there at his time and that many saw it.
Nor did the young man go unrewarded. Francis told him that he would become a religious of his Order, and that he would acquire eternal glory: he did, in fact, enter the Order, and lived so holily as to earn Heaven. The miracle was the cause of his vocation, and at the same time sanctioned the affection the Saint showed these birds: he only loved God through the affection he showed to His creatures. So also, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, according to the testimony of St. Gregory of Nyssa, having planted his stick in a spot where a river was breaking down the dyke and doing damage through the country, the Lord changed it suddenly into a large tree, which checked the flood entirely, and served to honor the faith of his Servant, and incite the infidels to believe in Jesus Christ.
The Divine love which inflamed the heart of St. Francis, made everything appear amiable to him which could tend to the love and service of God. For this reason he was fond of birds, whose carol seemed to invite mankind to publish the glory of their Creator, for, according to the words of Jesus Christ, "neither do they sow nor reap, nor gather into barns: yet their Heavenly Father feeds them." It was gratifying to him to remark the gray and ash color of larks, the color he had chosen for his Order, so that the minors might often think on death. He also loved to admire the disposition of the plumage of such as were crested, which seemed to him to have some relation to the simplicity of his habit. On the lark rising into the air, and singing as soon as it has taken some grains of corn for its nourishment, he remarked with sensible pleasure that this example ought to teach us to give thanks to our common Father, who gives us wherewithal for our sustenance, only to eat for His glory, to despise the earth, and to raise ourselves up to Heaven, where our conversation ought to be. He was more fond of these small birds than of any others, because they induced holy thoughts, and he took as much care of them as he could.
As he had noble and spiritual motives for his simplest and most common actions, God made use of this for the instruction of men by the example of a bird. Near the Convent of Mount Ranier, or Mount Colombo, there was a nest of crested larks, the mother of which came every day to feed out of the hand of the Servant of God and took sufficient for herself and her brood: when they began to be strong, she brought the little ones to him. He perceived that the strongest of the brood pecked the others, and prevented them from taking up the grain. This displeased him, and addressing himself to the little bird as if it could understand him, "Cruel and insatiable little animal," he said, "you will die miserably, and the greediest animals will not be willing to eat your flesh," In fact, some days afterwards, it was drowned in a basin, which was placed for them to drink out of. It was given to the cats and dogs, to see if they would eat it; but neither would touch it. It may be thought that so trifling an anecdote was not worth recording, but there is nothing trifling in the moral it contains. It is a natural representation of those greedy and insatiable men who devour the substance of their brethren, and envy them all that they cannot despoil them of; enemies of mankind, unworthy of the name of men, thieves, ruffians, ravaging wolves, as they are designated in Scripture, whose voracity, say the Holy Fathers, surpasses that of wild beasts; whose life is a public calamity; hated and detested by all, during their lives, they die as they have lived, and their memory is held in execration.
The tender-heartedness which Francis evinced for animals has been ridiculed by heretics. Nevertheless, the Holy Ghost tells us, by the mouth of Wisdom, that "the just man regardeth the lives of his beasts." The Patriarch Jacob excused himself from following his brother Esau, because his ewes and cows were heavy, and he was fearful he should kill them if he hurried them. When St. Paul said, "Doth God take care of oxen?" he only wished to insinuate that God is far more interested in what regards men.
In this view St. Chrysostom, commenting on the words of Wisdom, which we have just quoted, says that the saints are tender-hearted; that they love all men, strangers as well as their own countrymen and their own families, and that their good feelings are extended to senseless animals.
Sulpicius Severus relates of St. Martin, that, seeing some hounds pursuing a hare, which they were on the point of catching, he ordered them to stop; he had no sooner spoken, than the hounds became immovable on the spot where they were, and they did not stir till the hare was placed in safety.
An author of the life of St. Bernard, who had been his secretary, says that not only men, but irrational animals, even birds, and other beasts, felt the effects of his tenderness. He adds that the Saint, in one of his journeys, coming close to a hare, which the dogs were about to catch, and where a bird was nearly seized in the talons of a hawk, delivered them both miraculously by the sign of the cross, and then told the sportsmen that all their efforts would be useless for taking this prey.
If it had been thought proper not to omit in his life, and in that of St. Martin also, these anecdotes of the goodness of their hearts, which were enhanced by supernatural evidence, and of which God approved by His wisdom and His power, what right can critics have to censure precisely similar circumstances in the life of St. Francis?
The glorious Patriarch, who praised God in the minutest things, procured his glory in the greatest. His principal care was to lead his brethren to perfection; to render them worthy imitators of Jesus crucified, capable of exciting His love in all hearts. It would be difficult to point out the founder of an order who had spoken more, taught more, or exhorted more, than St. Francis; and it may have been noticed that he instructed his disciples in the most solid and eminent virtues. He recommended them to put the Gospel in practice, as they had promised to do in making profession of the rule; to adore profoundly and with great devotion the Body of Jesus Christ; to hear Mass most devoutly; to celebrate the Divine Office with attention; carefully to keep all the ordinances of the Church; to have the greatest veneration for all priests, humbly to bow in their presence, and to kiss their hands. He even said that, if it could be done, they ought to kiss the feet of the horses on which they rode, to honor the power which they have of consecrating and administering the Divine mysteries.
When abroad, it was his desire that his religious should appear with so much modesty, reserve, and circumspection, that every one might be edified thereby, and glorify God therein. "Do not despise the men of the world," he said, "and judge not ill of them. You are not to judge other persons' servants, who are not yours; whether they stand or fall, it is not your affair, but that of their masters. Have peace in your own mind, make it known to others, inspire it to all; labor for the conversion of sinners, for that is your vocation."
Attentive to the regulation of the interior, he incessantly exhorted them to correct the smallest defects; to exercise themselves in the practice of holy prayer, to meditate on the Passion of our Blessed Saviour, and to use all their efforts to preserve union and fraternal love. "Happy," said he, "is the man who loves his brother when absent, as well as when they are together, and who would not say in his absence what charity would prevent his saying in his presence."
In the view of rendering his brethren more perfect, he frequently counteracted the bent of their devotion. Brother Masse was a very spiritual man, who was much attached to prayer. Francis, in order to try him, said to him one day, in presence of the others: "Brother, these have received from God a greater gift of contemplation than you have. For which reason, in order to give them more time to give themselves very freely to it, it seems proper that you, who seem more calculated for exterior duties, should have the care of the door and of the kitchen, and, if there is any time over, you will employ it in questing. Take great care that the strangers who may call, do not interrupt your brethren in their meditations. As soon as they may knock at the door, be there ready to receive them, satisfy them with fair words, and do everything which the others would have done, so that it shall not be necessary for any of them to make their appearance. Go in peace, and fail not in doing all these things, in order to have the merit of obedience."
Masse, bowing his head, submitted to the order of his superior, without hesitation or murmur, and, during several days, he acquitted himself faithfully of what had been directed. His companions, who knew his virtue, and the love he had for prayer, had scruples at seeing him in these employments, and begged their father to permit them to share these duties with him. He assented, and, sending for Masse, said to him: "Brother, your companions wish to relieve and assist you, and I also wish that they may have a share in the labors." To which Mass replied, "Father, I consider as coming from God whatever duties you direct, whether it be my work or prayer." St. Francis, seeing the charity on the one part, and the humility on the other, gave them an exhortation on these two virtues, and distributed the duties among them, with his blessing.
What he had ardently desired for himself, and what he was rejoiced to see some of his brethren look forward to most anxiously, was the perfection which consists in suffering martyrdom: in shedding one's blood for the faith. As he could not obtain this favor, and as it was only granted to a few of his brethren during his lifetime, he endeavored to make up for it by another species of martyrdom, which, as St. Bernard says, is indeed less cruel than the first, but is rendered more bitter by its duration. It is the martyrdom of mortification, and principally that of voluntary poverty. In fact, this poverty, as he compelled its observance, not only placed him and his brethren in the most humiliating situation in the eyes of the world, but deprived them, moreover, of all the comforts and conveniences of life; exposed them to hunger, thirst, want of clothing, and various other annoying discomforts. All this, however, was not, in his view, the consummation of this description of martyrdom. It was still further requisite to suffer patiently, in time of pain and sickness, the want of assistance, which poverty cannot command, to see the disease increase, and death about to follow, from want of necessary succor.
His charity had taken all possible precaution for procuring assistance to the sick of his Order. He had directed that, if any of the brethren fell sick, the others should attend upon them, as they would wish to be themselves waited upon in like circumstances, and with more affection than a mother has for a beloved son. Notwithstanding the great aversion he had to money, he required that the superiors should make application to their spiritual friends, to induce them to give coins, in order to assist the brethren in their sickness. But, as he foresaw that this measure might not always be successful, and that poverty in such a case would put it out of the power of the superiors to procure what was absolutely necessary for the sick, he pointed out to the brethren what perfection called upon them to do:
"If one of the brethren, in health or in sickness, finds himself unable, through poverty, to procure what his absolute necessities require, provided he has humbly applied to his superior for them for the love of God, let him bear with the privation, for the love of Jesus Christ, who sought for consolation, but found none. It is a suffering which, will be in His sight a substitute for martyrdom; if this should even increase his disease, he must not fear being guilty of suicide, for he has done all he ought to have done, by applying humbly to his superiors." The maxim is well grounded. St. Chrysostom maintains, that to suffer generously the loss of all goods, as did holy Job, is a species of martyrdom. St. Bernard says the same thing of voluntary poverty, and remarks that, in the Beatitudes, a similar reward is promised to the poor and to martyrs. On those principles, is not a Friar Minor to be looked upon as a martyr, who, having embraced the strictest poverty, for the love of Jesus Christ, would, rather than contravene it, endure with patience every evil, and even death, and would generously make to God the sacrifice of his health and of his life, in order to practise this virtue to his last breath? St. Augustine affirms that a Christian suffers martyrdom in his bed, when he declines procuring his cure by forbidden means: thus, a sick Friar Minor, who has not the necessary assistance, brought about by his having embraced poverty, according to the Evangelical counsel, is a martyr to poverty. Even supposing that it was less owing to poverty, than to the neglect or harshness of his superior, that he was without assistance, he would equally have gained the crown promised to this description of martyrdom, since it would be as an Evangelical pauper that he would suffer and die. But woe to that superior who should procure him such a crown! He would be like to those who have made so many martyrs in the persecution of the Church.
When St. Francis learnt that his brethren, by the sanctity of their lives, and by the efficacy of their preaching, brought back numbers of sinners into the paths of truth, and enkindled in their breasts the love of God, he said that such intelligence was to him as most pleasing odors and precious perfumes, by which he was wholly embalmed; and, in his spiritual joy, he loaded these holy and edifying religious with the most ample benedictions. On the other hand, he fulminated dreadful maledictions against such as dishonored religion by their conduct. "Most holy Lord," he would say, "may those who overthrow and destroy by their bad example what Thou incessantly raisest up by the saintly brethren of the Order, be accursed by Thee and by the whole celestial choir, and also by me, Thy little servant."
Any scandal given to little ones gave him so much affliction and heartsore, that he often might have died of it, if God had not supported him by interior consolations. One day, when he was suffering extreme grief on a subject of this nature, and was praying the Father of Mercies for his children, St. Bonaventure informs us that he received the following answer: "Poor little man, why do you disquiet yourself? Because I have appointed you the pastor of this religion which I have established, are you unmindful that I am its principal protector? I gave you the direction of it, to you who are a simple man, in order that what I should do through you might be attributed, not to human industry, but to my favor. It is I who called those who have entered it; I will preserve them, and provide for their wants; I will substitute others for those who will die off; I will cause some to be born, in order to come into it; and whatever may occur to shake this religion, which is founded on strict poverty. I will assist by My grace, that it shall be always upheld." Up to this day, the world has seen the verification of this prophecy. The Order of Friars Minor has been powerfully attacked, and has still many enemies; nevertheless, it still subsists.
To animate his brethren to perfection, he employed example, rather than precept. When he imposed punishments, if they appeared to him to be very severe, he took them also on himself. Having sent Brother Ruffinus to preach at Assisi without his hood, because he had sought to be excused from preaching, he reflected on the severity of this order, and went himself to the church where Ruffinus was preaching. The latter having left the pulpit to give it up to Francis, he began his discourse, and instilled into his audience so much compunction, that it was evident that God had blessed the obedience of the disciple and the example of the master.
This admirable preceptor taught no virtues which he did not himself practise in an eminent degree; and as those which are exterior make the greatest impression, he practised extreme austerity, in order that the others should imitate him. Having noticed, on a certain occasion, that some of his brethren had relaxed from the extreme poverty of their nourishment, he thus slyly reprimanded them: "My brethren may well believe that, with so infirm a body as mine is, I require better nourishment than what I get, but I am obliged to be their model in everything; for which reason I propose to give up every alleviation, and to cast aside, with disgust, everything resembling delicacy; to be satisfied with little in everything; to make use of those things only which are the commonest, vilest, and most conformable to strict poverty."
Being in a hermitage in some mountains, in mid-winter, when the weather was rigorously cold and severe, his companions prepared a habit for him, in which they lined the breast, to make it somewhat warmer for him, but he made them take this out, saying: "I am placed here to give example to others; my life must be their rule. I know that there is no harm in wearing a warmer habit in the state I am in, but I see many of our brethren who require it as much as I do, and who could not get it. I must therefore bear this poverty with them, and not differ from them in anything, lest it should be thought that I take greater care of myself than of the others. They will more willingly bear the privation of these wants, when they shall see that I voluntarily go without aid." His three companions, the writers of his life, observed that he refused his body the most lawful indulgence, in order that his children should be ashamed of taking those which were less so; and that his maxim was, always to give instruction more by example than by discourse.
He recommended his brethren, also, to preach by example, and, farther on, we shall see some beautiful sentiments in his maxims, relative to preaching. Rodriguez, of the Society of Jesus, an excellent master of spiritual life, mentions, on this subject, a lesson which our saint gave to one of his religious, which we give here, in the very words of the talented academician, who translated the Practice of Christian Perfection, of the pious author. St. Francis, taking one day one of his religious with him, said:--"Let us go and preach"; and thereupon he went out, and after having made a tour round the town, he returned to the convent. "But, Father," said his companion, "are we not going to preach?" "We have done so already," replied the Saint. It was the religious reserve which they had used in walking through the streets, which he considered to be an excellent sermon for the whole town. And, in fact, a mortified and humble exterior leads the people to piety and contempt of the world, it excites to compunction for sin, and raises the heart and desires to heavenly objects. It is a mute exhortation, which has often more effect than the most eloquent and sublime sermons.
To example and precept, the holy Patriarch added frequent and fervent prayers for the spiritual advancement of his children; well knowing that neither he who plants, nor he who waters, contributes to the fruit which the tree bears, but that the interior virtue which fructifies, comes from God. In fine, in order not to be wanting in anything which might be in his power, when his infirmities absolutely prevented his watching over the conduct of his children, he unceasingly exhorted the superiors to fulfil this duty with exactness, and he enforced it by the following powerful motive: that, if one of the brethren should be lost by their fault, they would be accountable for him to Jesus Christ on the day of judgment.
St. Francis, being ill at Assisi, cured a spiritual wound of a more serious nature than that of a scruple. One of his children, named Ricer, of Bologna, Provincial in the Marches of Ancona, a man of a very saintly life, had taken it into his head, at the suggestion of the devil, that the patriarch hated him, because he knew that he was to be damned, and he came to Assisi, in the hopes that this thought would be dissipated, if the saint should receive him kindly. The Saint, who had a revelation as to the state of his mind, and of his arrival at Assisi, said to Brothers Masse and Leo: "Go and meet Brother Ricer, embrace him, and kiss him from me, and tell him that, among all my brethren in the world, I love him the most tenderly." They executed the commission given them, and Ricer found himself strengthened in his faith, and filled with joy, and thanked God for the happy success of his journey. As soon as he appeared, Francis, weak as he was, ran to him, and, embracing him, said, with paternal affection: "Ricer, my dear son, you are, among all our brethren, he whom I love from the bottom of my heart;" and, after having made the sign of the cross upon his forehead, he gave him several kisses, and then added: "Ricer, my dear child, this temptation was visited upon you for your greater good. But if you do not choose to be a gainer at this price, you will henceforward suffer no more from this temptation, nor from any other;" and from that time, he never had another.
The holy Patriarch had so tender a love for his brethren, that he could not bear that a shade of sorrowfulness should pass over their minds, lest they should lose their spiritual joy. "My dear brethren," he said to them, "entertain interiorly and exteriorly the holy joy which God gives. When His servants seek to obtain and preserve His spiritual joy, which has its source in purity of heart, in the fervor of prayer, and in other virtuous practices, the devils can do them no injury; and they say: 'We can do no injury to these servants of God; we have no entry to them; they are always joyful, whether in tribulation or prosperity.' But they are highly gratified when they can deprive them of this happy temper of mind, or, at least, lessen its intensity; because, if they can succeed in instilling any of their own venom into them, they will soon turn what has only the breadth of a hair into a beam, by adding something by little and little, unless we endeavor to destroy their work by the virtue of prayer, of contrition, of confession, and satisfaction. For this reason, my brethren, since spiritual joy comes from purity of conscience and the frequent exercise of fervent prayer, labor principally to acquire these two blessings, in order that you always possess it; I am very anxious to see it in you, and to feel it in myself. It is for the devil and his satellites to be sorrowful; but as to us, we can always rejoice in the Lord."
Although the holy man had occasionally reason to be sorrowful, in consequence of the temptations to which he was exposed, or from the fear of the pains of hell, arising from the remembrance of his sins, yet he was ever gay. He was one day asked the reason of this, and he gave this answer: "My sins sometimes, indeed, make me very sorrowful, and Satan would wish to imprint this sadness on me, in order to make me fall into slothfulness and weariness; but when that occurs, I look on my companion: the spiritual joy I see in him, renews mine, and the temptation passes off. My joy is a torment to the devils, for they envy me the favors I receive from God. I know and see that, when they cannot injure me by making me sorrowful, they endeavor to strip this spiritual joy from my companions, and, if they cannot succeed either with them or with me, they retire in confusion."
We must notice, in this answer of the holy Father, two sorts of sorrow: the one arising from the anguish caused by sin, of which St. Paul says, that "it is according to God, and works penance unto salvation." This does not do away with spiritual joy; on the contrary, it produces it: nothing is sweeter, or more consoling, than the tears shed from the impulse of sincere contrition. The other sorrow is a depression of spirits, brought about by the devil, who endeavors to render us tepid and sluggish, to give us a disgust for pious exercises, and to induce us to give them up. A good conscience causes spiritual joy. No one has truly cause to rejoice, but he who is well with God, faithful to His law, and submissive to His will. A tranquil mind, free and disengaged from the tyranny of the passions, is, in the opinion of Wisdom, a continual feast. It is true happiness: "For a happy life is nothing more," says St. Augustine, "than the joy which is found in truth; that is, in God, who is truth, the sweet light of our souls, our salvation and our repose." Therefore David excites the just of Israel to manifest their joy, and St. Paul said to the Christians: "Rejoice always in the Lord; I say again, rejoice." What constitutes the Kingdom of God is the justice, peace, and joy, which come from the Holy Spirit.
This disposition of the heart enables it to resist the evil spirit, according to the words of Esdras to the Jewish people: "The joy of the Lord is our strength." What can the evil spirit do against a soul whose sole pleasure is to serve God, who has no other solace than to love and praise Him? There is, moreover, nothing which makes so great an impression on the people of the world, as witnessing the interior contentment of a truly good man, which is seen in the serenity of his countenance. This is, according to St. Augustine, what compels them to admit that they themselves have not true joy, for that is reserved to God's servants.
It was not alone by the ardor of his zeal, and the tenderness of his affection, that the holy Founder led on his brethren, but by a wonderful discretion and prudence in the government of his Order. Although he used every endeavor to induce his religious to live austerely, he, nevertheless, recommended them to be guided by moderation; he did not countenance indiscreet penances.
Brother Sylvester, the first priest in his Order, having fallen into an illness of languor, brought on by excess in his mortifications, had a wish to eat some grapes: Francis, having been informed of it, hastened to procure him this relief. He took him, as well as he could, into the vineyard of one of his friends, which was near the convent, and, having made him sit down near a plant of vine, he blessed it, and ordered him to eat the grapes, and ate some with him. As soon as the sick man had eaten of them, he found himself perfectly cured, and he frequently afterwards related the circumstance to his brethren, with tears in his eyes, as a proof of the love the holy father bore to his children; it was, also, an effect of his discretion, for, disapproving of Sylvester's excessive austerities, he chose that he should take this sort of remedy, which nature seemed to call for, and it pleased God to render this the subject of a miracle.
This prudent and charitable Father came to know, one night, that one of his children who had fasted too rigidly, could not take repose, in consequence of the hunger which oppressed him. Not to leave him in so deplorable a state, he sent for him, offered him some bread, and pressed him to eat of it, eating some himself first, to give him confidence. The religious got over the shyness he at first felt, and took the nourishment he so greatly required, being well pleased to have been relieved from the peril his life was in, by the prudence and kindness of the Saint, and to see so edifying an example. In the morning, Francis assembled his brethren, and having told them what had occurred in the night, said:--"Brethren, take a precedent from this, not as to what I ate, but that I had recourse to, what was charitable." Then he pointed out to them that virtue should always have discretion for its rule and for its guide; not that discretion which the flesh inspires, but that which has been taught by Jesus Christ, whose most holy life is the finished model of all perfection.
"Let each man," he continued, "have regard to his constitution. If some of you are strong enough to support life well, while eating very little, I do not wish, on that account, that one who requires more nourishment, shall imitate them in this respect: such a one might give his body what is necessary for it; for, as in eating, we are obliged to avoid whatever is superfluous, which is hurtful to the body and soul, so also we must guard against excessive abstinence, and the more so because the Lord requires mercy rather than sacrifice. This is what God says by the Prophet Osee, which means that He prefers the practice of works of mercy to our neighbor, to the exterior exercise of religion; and that this worship which must be rendered Him, is not pleading to Him without mercy. Now, as we are commanded to love our neighbor with a love of charity, St. Thomas teaches us, as does St. Augustine, that the same love obliges us to have a similar regard for our own body; from whence it follows that, this charity not being found in immoderate abstinence, God does not approve of the sacrifice. To this we may add, that it is sometimes the devil who instigates a person to undertake immoderate fasting, in order to render that person incapable of spiritual exercises, and for other evil intentions."
The holy Founder cautioned his brethren to avoid excess in fasting, even more than excess in eating, because he knew that they were all animated by the spirit of mortification. Their fervor was so great that, in fasting very rigorously, they at the same time wore iron girdles, coats of mail, coarse hair-shirts, and took severe disciplines, which brought on frequent illnesses. For this reason he often recommended discretion to them. "My brethren," he said, "if a servant of God gives his body what is reasonable for its nourishment and for its repose, and if the body is nevertheless sluggish, lazy, sleepy at prayer, in watchings, and other good works, it must, then, be chastised, and treated as a horse that refuses to work, or an ass that won't go on, although they are well fed. But, if the body is deprived of its real wants, it is disabled from bearing the yoke of penance, and performing the functions required by the soul; it has, then, every right to complain."
We shall, perhaps, be surprised that St. Francis, who preaches discretion so admirably to his brethren, should have carried his own austerities to excess; but we must bear in mind that he was a man, guided in all things by the Holy Spirit, in whom God was pleased to show the abundant riches of His grace, and whose prodigious penitential exercises were to draw down an abundance of mercy on sinners. Thus, what appeared excesses in his mortifications, arose from his perfect fidelity to the extraordinary impulse he received from above; and this is true prudence.
Fervent persons are occasionally found who would wish to imitate the fastings and other austerities of the saints, but this is presumption, unless they are called thereto by God, and unless the vocation has been well sounded and approved by legitimate authority. The general and safe maxim, in cases of austerities, is not to undertake anything extraordinary, without the consent of superiors and confessors. Before granting any permission of this nature, the constitution and character of the person must be carefully examined, and inquiry minutely made whether the applicant practises regularly the ordinary mortifications, and if he is as zealous in controlling his passions and acquiring the virtues requisite in his station, as for the maceration of his body; for it is often found that those who solicit extraordinary penances, neglect those which are ordinary and common, and who, in mortifying their bodies, do not take sufficient pains to purify their hearts, to become humble, obedient, mild, and charitable.
It may not, perhaps, be believed that the holy Patriarch carried his discretion and condescension even to the buildings and the habits,--he who advocated extreme poverty on these two articles. He had carefully recommended to his brethren to build only small, low houses, surrounded only by hedges, in remote and solitary situations; but, as his own companions tell us, he admitted that in towns, and near towns, it was proper to act otherwise; that, in consequence of the number of religious who were there for the service of the faithful, it was necessary to have the convent surrounded by walls.
His companions also say that he allowed those who required it, to wear a softer and warmer tunic; on this sole condition, however, that the outward garment should be very poor, to keep up the spirit of humility by the contempt the world entertains for such as are poorly clothed. Finally, the same authors testify that, although he was very austere from the moment of his conversion, to his death, with a constitution very delicate and weak, yet he prudently moderated the austerities of his brethren; and that many things which he rigidly refused himself, he allowed to the others, from discretion and from charity. This, indeed, is characteristic in the saints; severe and inflexible to themselves, they spared their neighbors, and were indulgent in their regard; while hypocrites, such as the Pharisees, and certain heretics who resemble them, put heavy burdens on the shoulders of others, which they are unable to carry; overwhelm with austerities those whom they direct, often for the most trifling faults, while they themselves live in comfort and at their ease.
The discretion of St. Francis was apparent in every part of his conduct. Bernard de Besse, one of the writers of his life, and secretary to St. Bonaventure, says that he never spoke to his brethren but in terms of moderation and mildness; that he compassionated the weak, and encouraged the young in the practice of virtue; that he had great respect for old age; that whatever faults a priest might commit, he never reprimanded him but in private; in fine, that he had proper consideration for all those whose birth, merit, or dignity required it.
Brother Guy, who was beatified by the Holy See, and of whom we have before spoken, begged the saint to allow him to build a cell in the fissure of a rock which was opposite to the convent of Celles, near Cortona, in order that he might live there in great solitude, and give himself up to contemplation. Francis, who knew that Guy, although he was only in the novitiate, had the virtue of the ancients, and would raise himself up to an eminent degree of sanctity, permitted him this peculiar retreat, but upon this condition, that it was not to prevent him from attending all the offices said by the community, in order to preserve the uniformity of the observance, and to obviate the illusion which might mix itself up with unusual practices. This was also what the Saint himself practised; he quitted regularly his contemplation, to join in singing the praise of God in community.
St. Bonaventure says that some of his religious asked him one day if he thought it proper that persons who were already learned, when they were admitted into the Order, should continue to study the Holy Scriptures? To which he replied: "This is very pleasing to me, provided they follow the example of Jesus Christ, whom we find to have prayed more than He seems to have read."
A novice, to whom the vicar-general had allowed the particular use of a psalter, came to solicit Francis' confirmation of this permission, and this is the reply he got: "Charlemagne, Orlando, and other great captains, rendered themselves illustrious by their exploits; the martyrs are celebrated in the Church by their sufferings and death; but there are others who aspire to glory by the sole reading of the feats of these persons." The Saint intended to give him to understand that no one is estimable unless by his actions and conduct, and that there is nothing more vain than a reputation grounded on fruitless science.
Doubtless the holy Patriarch wished his brethren to have psalters and breviaries, since they were obliged to say the Divine Office. He knew, also, that books were necessary for them, to enable them, by study, to be capable to instruct their neighbors, according as their vocation required, for he himself read the Scriptures. But he did not approve that any one should have a book for his own peculiar use.
All study which is entered upon more through vanity than piety, and less to gain souls to God than to gain for oneself the praise of man, was his abhorrence.--He said of those whose desire for learning was out of curiosity: "In the day of tribulation, they will find nothing in their hands. It would be better that they should labor now to improve themselves in virtue, in order to have the Lord on their side at that time; for the time will come, when books will be thrown aside as useless. I do not choose that my brethren shall be curious in learning and books; what I wish is, that they be well grounded in humility, simplicity, prayer, and poverty, our mistress. It is the only sure way for their salvation, and for the edification of their neighbor, because they are called to imitate Jesus Christ, who followed and pointed out this path. Many will forsake this path, on pretence of edifying other men by their knowledge; and it will turn out that understanding the Scriptures, by which alone they fancied themselves filled with light, devotion, and the love of God, will be the cause of their remaining cold and empty. Thus, in consequence of having, in pursuit of vain and useless literature, lost the time which ought to have been given to living according to the spirit of the state they had embraced, they will not have it in their power to return to their primitive vocation."
St. Francis looked upon the ministry of preaching as the most agreeable sacrifice which could be offered to the Father of Mercies; this is also the grand idea which St. Paul entertains of it, when he says: "God has given me the grace that I should be the minister of Jesus Christ among the Gentiles, sanctifying the Gospel of God, that the oblation of the Gentiles may be made acceptable, and sanctified by the Holy Ghost." St. Chrysostom concludes from this, that preaching is a sacrifice; that the preacher is the priest; that an attentive and devout audience is the victim; that the Word of God is the sword which immolates, spiritually, and the grace of the Holy Ghost the fire which consumes. What exalted sentiments must not a preacher entertain, in exercising this sort of priesthood; and with what spirit of devotion should not those attend who are thus holily immolated!
The ardor of his love for Jesus Christ, and his great zeal for the salvation of souls, made him esteem all preachers very venerable. His intention was, that some of his Order should be brought up to that duty, and that they should be respected by the others, because it is they who instil life, who combat the infernal enemy, and who enlighten the world. But he desired that they should exercise their ministry in a spirit of charity, even more by example, by prayers, and tears, than by eloquent discourses.
"I desire," he said, "that these ministers of the Word of God should apply themselves solely to spiritual exercises, and let nothing turn them from this; for, as they are chosen by the great King to declare His will to the people, it is requisite that they should learn, in the privacy of prayer, what they are to make known in their sermons; and that they should be interiorly warmed, in order to make use of language which shall kindle fire in the hearts they address. Those who make use of their own lights, and who savor the truths they preach, are very praiseworthy; but it is a bad division when all is given to preaching, and little or nothing to devotion. As to those who sell their labors for the oil of approbation, such persons excite my pity."
"They are true brethren, whom I call Knights of the Round Table, who hide themselves in solitary places, to have better opportunities of devoting themselves to prayer, and whose sanctity, well known to God, is sometimes unknown to men, or even to their brethren. One day they will be presented by angels to the Lord, who will say to them: 'My beloved children, here are the souls that have been saved by your prayers, by your tears, by your good example. Receive now the fruit of the labors of those who only make use of their learning for this object. Because you have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many.' They will thus enter into the joy of the Lord, loaded with the fruit of their virtues; while the others, who have employed themselves in studying the way of salvation, in order to teach it, without following it themselves, will appear naked and empty-handed at the tribunal of Jesus Christ, having on them marks of grief and confusion."
All that St. Francis says against vain learning,--a learning which is ostentatious and void of devotion,--is founded on the beautiful words of our Saviour: "Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from me you that work iniquity;" and on these of St. Paul: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." "I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection, lest, perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway."
But it may not be concluded from this that the holy patriarch had any wish to prevent his brethren from studying and becoming learned; for, 1st, he was not unaware of what St. Augustine teaches on that head. That learning is good in itself; that it is a gift of God; that it is most useful, when charity employs it; that it serves as a guide to piety; and that, when it has the Holy Scripture for its object, it powerfully excites to the love of God. How many learned men there are in whom humility, simplicity, and all the other virtues, are combined with deep reading! 2d. He positively declared, as has been reported upon the evidence of St. Bonaventure that he was well pleased that his brethren should study; it was his wish that schools should be opened in his Order, and he himself, as has been already noticed, instituted St. Anthony of Padua lecturer in theology. 3d. He wished to have his brethren Apostolical men, employed in the holy ministry for the salvation of souls, and he had inserted in his Rule a chapter which solely relates to the instruction of preachers. He desired, in consequence, that the Friars Minor should acquire the learning requisite for fulfilling their functions, which, in the ordinary course of things, is impossible without study. "It was, certainly, his intention," adds St. Bonaventure, "that his brethren should apply themselves to the study of the Holy Scriptures, for, one day, having but one copy of the New Testament, he divided it into leaves, which he distributed among them, that all might read and instruct themselves at the same time." The holy doctor maintains, in another place, that there are no religious who, by their position, are more employed in preaching than the Friars Minor; and he adds, that, as St. Francis required them to be correct and accurate in their discourses, it is clear that he himself obliges them to study, since, without such application, it is impossible to be accurate.
If the blessed founder has spoken more of humility and piety than of learning and study, it is, in the first place, because he well knew that, naturally, persons are more prone to learn than to practise; and, secondly, because the virtues which purify the heart, are gifts more precious and necessary than learning, which only enlightens the mind; and, in the third place, because he knew what St. Paul says, that "knowledge puffeth up," that a learned person easily becomes proud and presumptuous, if charity does not keep him in humility, and in mistrust of himself. Finally, let not his words be misconstrued to give color, under pretence of piety, to laziness and ignorance. He preferred, to vain and sterile learning, the humility and simplicity of the poor brethren, who spent their time in prayer: this was no more than right. "A rustical holiness," St. Jerome remarks, "is more valuable than vicious learning and criminal eloquence." But the blessed patriarch only spoke of the lay-brethren, who were not intended for the sacred ministries, or of those clerics whose talents were not equal to being employed in them, and whose occupations were limited to prayer and labor. In respect to the others, who, by study, might render themselves capable of serving their neighbor spiritually, he certainly would have censured them, had they continued in ignorance, even under the pretext of prayer and manual labor,--he, who had adopted, as we have seen, the maxim, that "nothing is preferable to the salvation of souls." He well knew that all the brethren did not resemble some among them whom God had supernaturally enlightened, and who, without any other aid than that of prayer, had sufficient light to be able to announce the Word of God. St. Jerome says, that as a man of talent must not persuade himself that holiness consists in the beauty of his composition, and in the ornament of eloquence, so also a simple and unpolished man must not imagine that his ignorance constitutes him a saint. This is even still clearer, when this man may not be ignorant. Now, it is self-evident that a Friar Minor, cleric, or priest, is obliged, in conscience, according to the talent he has received from Heaven, to study carefully, in order to be competent to fulfil properly the ministries of preaching and of the confessional; since the spirit of his vocation, and of his Order, is to labor for the salvation of souls. But he must always have before his eyes what his blessed Father wrote to St. Anthony of Padua: "I agree that you should teach the brethren sacred theology, in such manner, however, that the spirit of holy prayer be not extinguished, either in yourself or in others, according to the rule of which we have made profession."
While the holy Patriarch was ill at Sienna, a religious of the Order of the Friars Preachers, who was a doctor of theology, and a truly learned man, put several very difficult questions to him: he answered them so learnedly, and so clearly, that the doctor was quite surprised, and spoke of the circumstance with admiration. Truly, said he, the theology of this holy Father is an eagle, which soars to a great height; it is raised up, as if with wings, by the purity of the heart, and by contemplation, while our knowledge is as that of animals which crawl on the ground.
Thus, according to St. Athanasius, the great Anthony, who was illiterate, showed admirable knowledge in his controversy with the heretical Arians, and in his replies to pagan philosophers who strove to puzzle him. So also, according to the testimony of Sulpicius Severus, no one explained the Holy Scriptures more clearly than the celebrated Bishop of Tours, St. Martin, who had never studied.
Another Friar Preacher asked St. Francis how he was to understand these words of the Saviour to the Prophet Ezekiel: "If thou speakest not to the impious that he may be converted from his wicked way and live, the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but I will require his blood at thy hand." The humble Father having at first excused himself! saying that he should apply to learned theologians to learn the sense of the Holy Scriptures; but, as the religious urged him, nevertheless, to give his opinion, and expressed a great wish to have it preferably to that of others whom he had consulted, he gave him this answer: "I believe these words, if taken in the full extent, to mean, that the servant of God must be by holiness, and the good odor of his life, a torch which burns and enlightens, in order that the splendor of his example may be as a voice which censures the impious; for this is the way to warn and reprehend them all: if he act otherwise, and scandalize his neighbor, he will not escape the punishment of heaven."
St. Francis was not ignorant that the literal and immediate sense of this passage is, that pastors, and all those who are in authority, are obliged to instruct, warn, censure, and correct those who are committed to their charge; that they become guilty of the loss of souls, if they are silent when they ought to speak. He himself, faithful in the mission he had received from God and the Holy See, never ceased from exhorting his brethren to sanctify themselves, and from urging sinners to be converted; but he found in the above passage a more extended sense, and one of greater moral influence, which was, to preach by example; and he adhered to this for many reasons:--1. Because words produce small effect when they are not backed by example. 2. Because there are a greater number of superiors who instruct and censure, than of those who edify by example. 3. Because the number of persons who have no right to instruct and reprove, is the greater, and it is good that they should know that God will call them to account for the good example which it was their duty to have given, which might have contributed to the conversion of sinners. All this shows how solid and proper the Saint's reply was.
His style is plain, because he formed it on the Gospel, from which he would not in any degree deviate--besides that, his was not the age of elegant Latinity; but in all that he has written we do not find anything that is not clear and intelligible--there are even passages insinuating and persuasive: we have also reason to admire some parts which are beautiful from their simplicity. Let the cleverest men read his description of the rich sinner on his death-bed, and he will be obliged to admit that it would be impossible to draw a more natural or more striking portrait.
He had so completely the talent of persuasion, that neither popes, cardinals, nobles, nor any other persons could resist his appeals; whatsoever he wished, they complied with. It is not easy, for the sake of piety, to persuade to that which is contrary to the interests of a family: nevertheless, St. Francis succeeded in this. The following is an example, which, relating only to a very common subject, we, notwithstanding, select, because it contains wholesome instruction:--
The Saint was one day sweeping in a country church, according to his usual practice, when a man, whose name was John, and who was ploughing in an adjoining field, came and took the broom from his hands, and after having swept the whole church, he said to him: "Brother, what I have heard of you and of your brethren, has inspired me with an idea of serving God as you do. I did not know how to come to you, but, since it has pleased God that I should find you here as I had wished, I offer myself to you: do with me as you please." Francis, knowing by an interior light, that this man had been sent him by the Lord, resolved to receive him into his Order, and after having instructed him in the Rule, he said to him: "If you resolve upon joining this Institute, you must renounce all you have, and give it to the poor." John went immediately to his plough, unyoked the oxen, and brought one to Francis, saying: "I have been long in the service of my father, and I maintain the family by my labor; I think I may take this ox for my reward, and do with it as you shall direct me." He immediately went home to take leave of his parents, and desired them to take care of the plough.
The parents, alarmed when they learnt his intention, ran in despair to the church, where Francis still was, and conjured him not to take a man from them who was so useful in work, who earned their means of living. He replied with mildness, and then said that he would come to dine with them, and sleep at their house, and would endeavor to console them. He went, and after dinner, addressing himself to John's father, he said: "My dear host, your son wishes to serve God, and it is God who has inspired him with this thought. This ought not to give you any displeasure; on the contrary, it ought to be gratifying to you, and you should give God thanks that He has been pleased to select one of your family for His service. This will be no small gain to you; for, in place of this son whom you give up, you will gain as many children and brethren as there are religious in the Order he is about to join. Moreover, your son is one of God's creatures; and if God has destined him for Himself, who shall dare to resist His will? Who shall say to Him, 'Why dost Thou do thus?' He is all-powerful, and He is also just. He only asks for what belongs to Him. May His will therefore be done, and may His mercy be extended to your son, whom I cannot and ought not to refuse to receive into the house of God, which he so anxiously wishes me to do. All that I can, and will do for you, is, to inform him to leave you the ox he had destined for the poor, according to the Gospel, and that, abandoning to the world what belongs to the world, he come stripped of everything, to throw himself into the arms of Jesus Christ."
This reasoning was so convincing to the parents, that they assented willingly and cheerfully to their son's leaving them, whom before they thought they could not part with. Human prudence will not fail to say that he ought to have remained with his parents, to provide for their subsistence by his labor; but will it say that James and John, being called by Jesus Christ, ought not to have left Zebedee, their father, who was poor, and whom they maintained by their fishing? Our Lord, in calling them, desired that they should obey His voice, and leave to Providence to provide for the subsistence of their father. St. Francis well knew that, under any other circumstances, this laborer would have been bound to work to provide for his parents; but, as he knew that his call was from God to a religious state of life, he wisely judged that the Lord would assist the family by some other means, and that the vocation ought to be followed.
The supernatural and miraculous gifts which St. Francis had received from God, gave great weight to his discourses. A man, who casts out devils, who raises the dead to life, who cures the sick, whose prophecies are verified, who discovers spirits, who commands animals, and makes them obey him,--a man who performs these prodigies, and many others, is listened to as if he were an angel, when he speaks.
The polish of language which St. Francis neglected, was wonderfully compensated by Divine Power. St. Bonaventura says that the Holy Ghost, from whom he had received his unction and his mission, inspired him with abundance of words to preach His holy doctrine, and continually assisted him; and that Jesus Christ, who is the strength of the Father, came invariably to his aid; that, indeed, he had recourse to the ornaments of human eloquence, in his discourses, but that inspiration was very perceptible; that his preaching was a great fire, which penetrated quite to the bottom of hearts, with so much efficacy, that the most obdurate were softened, and had recourse to penance. Men and women, young and old, nobles and plebeians, flocked in crowds to see and hear this extraordinary man, whom God had sent them. He seemed to them, in fact, to be a man from the other world, when they saw him, with his eyes elevated to heaven, with the view of drawing them thither; and, as soon as he spoke, they felt their hearts moved to compunction. All that he said against the public scandals, was received with respect; those whose crimes he censured, whatever confusion they might feel from it, did not dare complain--not even those in the highest station. Some of the learned were likewise noticed amongst his auditory, and they, more than any others, admired the powerful influence of his discourses, knowing him to be a man who had not gone through any course of study. In short, the public was so charmed by hearing him, that, after preaching one day at Cortona, and wishing to return to the convent of Celles, the guards at the gates of the town would not let him pass. After having preached for three successive days there he only got leave to go, after the strongest entreaties, and after having promised to leave Brother Guy there, whose sanctity he assured them would free Cortona from many evils. God punished, in a most frightful manner, an insolent young girl, who was making a noise with a sort of drum during the Saint's sermon; he called upon her three times to be quiet, but she laughed at him, and he was then inspired to say, in a loud voice, "Devil, take what is thy own." At the same moment the girl was raised up into the air, and she was seen no more. By this dreadful example, God proposed to teach them the respect they were bound to have for the instructions which His servants teach them, as once He taught the faithful not to lie to the Holy Ghost, by the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, which followed the reproach which St. Peter had made them.
St. Bonaventure assures us that the gift of prophecy appeared in our Saint with great splendor; that not only did he foretell things to come, but also spoke of those things which were happening in his absence, as if they were present before his eyes; that he penetrated to the bottom of hearts, and saw the most secret recesses of consciences, so that it might have been said that he inspected the mirror of eternal light, and that its admirable splendor uncovered to him what was most hidden.
God revealed to him, in prayer, the loss of one of the religious, who had the reputation of being a saint, but who was so peculiar in everything, that, in order the more rigidly to keep silence, he usually confessed by signs. The blessed Father having come to the convent in which this religious was, he saw him, and spoke of him to the others, who were loud in their praises of him. "Brethren," said he, "cease all these praises, and give them not to inventions of the devil; know that all this is but a temptation, and an extraordinary illusion." The brethren could not persuade themselves that so many marks of perfection were but covers to imposture; but, a few days after, this pretended saint left the Order, which proved that St. Francis had probed to the bottom of his soul.
He knew, in the same manner, why another, who seemed to be adorned with every virtue, had thrown off the habit of the Order; and he replied to his brethren who expressed their surprise at it: "Do not be astonished, my brethren; this wretch is lost, because he was not grounded in humility, and in the fear of God. Believe me that, without this foundation, it is fruitless to endeavor to become virtuous."
Of two religious who were returning from the Terra di Lavoro, he saw in spirit that the senior did not by any means edify his companion. On their arrival, he asked the younger what had occurred on the road, who then replied, that all had gone on well. "Take care," answered Francis, "take care, and don't say what is false, on pretence of humility. I know, I know; but wait a little, and you will see." In fact, the giver of scandal abandoned his vocation shortly after.
The charitable father received, with great kindness, one of the brethren who had apostatized from the Order, and now returned, he even gave him the kiss of peace. But, pointing out to him the gallows erected upon a height, at some distance, he said: "If the devil induce you to leave the Order a second time, he will lead you to be hanged on the gallows which you see from hence." This weak penitent did not profit from this warning, but left the Order again, and led a libertine life, was taken up for a robbery, and hanged on the spot pointed out. St. Francis might have said of those, as St. John did of the apostates who left the Church, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for, if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us:" that is to say, that they were not firm in the Christian religion.
The knowledge of the human heart belongs to God alone; even the angels have it not unless imparted to them by His light, and He was pleased to communicate that light to Francis. We have had several instances of this, but we must add the following: The blessed Father, being at the hermitage of Grecio, two of his brethren came, from a great distance off, urged by a strong desire to see him, and to receive his blessing, which they had long been desirous of. Unfortunately, they reached the hermitage when he was retired to his cell, from which he did not come out to receive visits, and they could not see him. As they were going away, greatly disappointed, he came out, contrary to his usual custom, called them, and blessed them in the name of Jesus Christ, and made the sign of the cross upon their foreheads, as they had wished. Humanly speaking, he could not have known that they were come, but he knew it in spirit, as well as if he had seen them.
Having restored peace, and performed some splendid miracles in a town, he left the place early in the morning, without having taken leave of the bishop, who had given him a most honorable reception. At a spot where three roads diverged, he did not know which one he ought to take, and desired Brother Masse, who was his companion, to turn round and round, no doubt to put his obedience to the test. When he began to be giddy, he ordered him to stop, and to follow the road which was before him. Masse went first, and said to himself, "How uncivil! how simple! He not only has not taken leave of the bishop who received him with so much kindness, but he makes me turn round and round as a child." This interior murmuring did not last; these reflections followed: "How could I have so much pride as to despise a man who is so evidently beloved by God? Fool that I am, I deserve to go to hell for daring to censure the actions of Francis, through whom the Lord works such wonders, and whom I ought to look upon as an angel. And, after all, what reason has he given me for censuring him? He left the town without having taken leave of the bishop, but it was to avoid fresh honors being shown him; he made me turn round and round, but he made me take the right road." Then Francis exclaimed: "Ah, Brother Masse, how different are these feelings from those first entertained! From whence do these come, and from whence did those others arise?" Masse, seeing that his thoughts were discovered, threw himself at the Saint's feet, and solicited his pardon.
A particular gift which Francis received from God, was the control of animals. He gave them his commands, and they obeyed him, they did whatever he pleased; it was, moreover, noticed that they showed a sort of affection for him, and applauded what he did in their way. Upon which two observations occur. The first is taken from St. Bonaventure, who says that the state of innocence was represented in the power which God gave to His Servant over animals. Adam, just and innocent, had absolute control over them, and he exercised it in giving to each of them its proper name, when God made them pass before him, as we read in Genesis. His sin caused him to lose his privilege, with all the others which had been attached to this happy state; and we experience, as he did, the revolt of the animals, in punishment of his having disobeyed God. But when an eminent sanctity has brought men more to original justice, and has, in some measure, reestablished them in a state of innocence, it has sometimes pleased the Almighty to restore them to some of the privileges which man enjoyed in those times, and, in particular, this control over animals. This is what is seen in well-authenticated acts of many saints, and, in what St Bonaventure relates of St. Francis, on the testimony of ocular witnesses, as well as on the evidence of facts which were of public notoriety.
The second thing which deserves notice is, that, when this holy man compelled animals to obey him, and when they appeared to be attached to him, it never occurred but when it was to give authority to the Word of God, to do some good to a neighbor, to give a salutary lesson, or to excite to the practice of some virtue, as we shall now see. It is another proof that these marvels had their source in God, who proposes, in all He does, some end worthy of His wisdom.
Francis left Assisi one day, to go to preach, not having any longer a doubt but that he and his brethren were called for the service of souls, after the mission they had received from God, and from the Supreme Pontiff; this was confirmed by supernatural lights, as we have seen above. Being near to the Town of Bevagna, he saw on a particular spot a number of birds collected, of various species, and he went up to them, and said: "My sisters, listen to the word of God; you have great reason to praise your Creator; He has covered you with feathers; He has given you wings wherewith to fly; He has placed you in the air, where the breathing is so pure; and He provider you with everything which is necessary, without giving you any trouble." While he was thus speaking and saying other similar things, the birds remained where they were, turning towards him, and those which were perched on the branches of trees, bending their heads, as if to listen to what he said. It was a curious thing to observe the joy they appeared to feel and make known by their motions; they stretched their necks, they spread their wings, opened their beaks, and looked anxiously at the zealous preacher, who walked about in the midst of them, and sometimes touched them with his habit, without any of them stirring. They only took to flight after he had given them leave, and made on them the sign of the cross, to bless them.
It was God's intention to honor the ministry of the Saint, in the eyes of his companions, by this miracle, which they witnessed, and the circumstances of which they communicated to St. Bonaventure. It was also to show the attention which ought to be given to the truths of salvation; and this is the reason why Francis, in turning to them, said, with admirable candor: "I am very neglectful in not having as yet preached to the birds." He observed, by this apparent simplicity, which was full of good sense, that men often fail to listen to the preachers, as the birds had seemingly listened to him; in the same sense in which St. Martin had said, when complaining of the insensibility of the men of his times: "They do not attend to me, though the serpents obey me." This means that, with the aid of reason and grace, they will not do what unreasonable animals necessarily do, by the impulse of divine power.
But why preach to birds? will the sages of this age ask; but why did David say what the Church repeats daily in her Divine Office? "Whales, and all that move in the waters, bless the Lord. All ye beasts and cattle, fowls of the air, bless the Lord." The three young men who were in the furnace at Babylon, said the same thing. A heart full of love and gratitude would wish that all creatures should have hearts and tongues, to glorify the Author of their being; he knows that even the beasts praise Him by the marks they bear of His power, wisdom, and goodness; in seeing them, in speaking to them, he commemorates His sovereign greatness.
On leaving Bevagna, Francis went to preach in the Borough of Alviano, and not being able to make himself heard, in consequence of the noise the swallows made, who had their nests there, he spoke these words to them: "Swallows, my sisters, you have made yourselves heard long enough; it is now my turn to speak. Listen, then, to the Word of God, and keep silence while I preach." Immediately, as if they had understood what he said, they ceased their noise, and remained where they were, to the end of his sermon. The fruit of this miracle was to revive the fervor and piety of the assembly, who glorified God, and listened to the preacher with wonderful deference. The circumstance was soon spread, and produced everywhere a similar effect.
St. Bonaventure, who gives us this anecdote, adds, that, some time afterwards, a scholar at Paris, who was of good conduct, having been interrupted in his studies by the chirping of a swallow, said to his companions: "This is one of those who interrupted the blessed Francis in his sermon, and which he silenced;" having then addressed the swallow, he said, with great faith: "In the name of Francis, the servant of God, I order you to be silent and to come to me." It was instantly silent, and came to him; in his surprise he let it go, and was not again troubled by it. It was thus it pleased God to honor the name of His servant.
Other examples are found in the Saint's life, of the power he exercised over animals, when, by their noise, or by any other means, they interrupted his sermons or prayers, as on his return from Syria, near the lagunes of Venice, where he saw a great number of birds who were singing. He went into the midst of them to say his office, with his companions, but the noise the birds made prevented their hearing each other; Francis, upon that, ordered them to cease singing, till he had finished his office, and, in fact, says the holy doctor, the author of his life, from that moment they ceased their chirping until the office, being finished, he gave them leave to resume their song, which they did, as before. He took this opportunity to settle some of his religious there, to celebrate the praises of the Lord, as has been before noticed, St. Ambrose speaks of a circumstance as well known to all the world, that some of the faithful, having been assembled in a spot where the croaking of the frogs greatly disturbed them, a priest commanded them to be quiet, and to show respect for holy things, and that they immediately ceased from making any noise, and that these irrational animals respected what they were incapable of understanding.
We have already seen that when Francis was at Grecio, he freed the country from the wolves which had ravaged it. At Gubio, he tamed one in an extraordinary manner. He took it into the public square where he preached, and having pointed out to his auditors that God sends sometimes these carnivorous animals to warn sinners to return to their duties, he addressed the wolf, and made an agreement with it, the clauses of which were, that the inhabitants should feed it, and that the wolf should do no injury to any of them. This was faithfully attended to on both sides. During two years the animal came to the town to feed, and did no injury to any one. The holy man had tamed, in a similar manner, at Carinola, a fox that stole all the poultry of a poor old woman, and from which she received no injury afterwards. Similar traits are found in the lives of many saints, whose acts are admitted to be authentic and certain, by the most talented critics. St. Athanasius remarks, in the life of St. Anthony, that wild animals causing great damage in a field which he cultivated, he took one gently, and said to all the others, while speaking to the one he had caught: "Why do you injure me, who never did you any harm? go, and in the name of the Lord, never come here any more." The holy doctor adds, that from that time they were never again seen in that place, as if they had been afraid of disobeying him. Sulpicius Severus relates of St. Martin, that he had an extraordinary control over all animals. Resting himself one day with his disciples, on the bank of a river, he saw a snake swimming over, and he ordered it in the name of the Lord to swim back again, upon which it was seen to return with as much speed as it had come. James, who wrote the life of St. Columban, given by the learned Father Mabillon, after Surius, states that the crows and the bears obeyed him, and that all the beasts of the field came at his call, in the same manner as those which are domesticated. It was in order to teach men to esteem and imitate a virtue which the Lord caused to be respected, even by dumb animals.
St. Francis, when at Rome, in 1222, had always with him a little lamb, to remind him of the Lamb of God, who chose to be sacrificed for us. When he was about to leave the eternal city, he confided the little animal to the care of the Lady of Septisal, the illustrious widow of whom we have often had occasion to speak. The little lamb, as if it had been trained to spiritual exercises by the holy man, followed this lady to church, stayed there, and returned with her, never leaving her. If she was behind her usual time of rising in a morning, it would go to her bed, where, by bleating or striking the bed with its head, or other motions, it seemed to call upon her to rise, and offer her grateful prayer to God. The lady was much attached to this lamb, and took care of it, says St. Bonaventure, as a disciple of Francis, which had become her instructor in devotion. A present was made to the holy Father, at St. Mary of the Angels, of a sheep; he received it thankfully, because of the innocence and simplicity of which it was a symbol, and he said to it, as if it could understand him, that it was necessary it should assist at the praises of the Lord, without incommoding the brethren; the sheep obeyed with great punctuality. When the religious went to the choir, to sing the office, the sheep went of itself to the church, placed itself at the foot of the altar of the Blessed Virgin, bent in its fore-legs, and bleated in a low tone, as if to pay its homage. It did the same at Mass, when the Host was elevated. St. Bonaventure remarks, that this animal, by the respect it manifested during the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries, taught the Christians the deep reverence with which they ought to assist at Mass, and at the same time passed a deserved censure on those who are irreverent or indevout during its celebration.
The smallest things raised the heart of St. Francis to God, and he made use of them to create similar feelings in the hearts of his disciples. The chirping of a grasshopper, which was on a fig tree, near his cell, inspired him with fresh fervor; he called it, and it came to him directly, and he made it sing on his hand, which it began anew, whenever he required it. At the end of eight days he said to his companions: "Let it now go; it has incited us long enough to praise God;" at the very moment the grasshopper flew away, and was seen no more. One day, as he was about to take his collation with Brother Leo, he felt himself interiorly consoled, on hearing a nightingale sing. He begged Leo to sing the praises of God alternately with the bird; the latter having excused himself, alleging the badness of his voice, he himself responded to the bird, and continued to do so till night, when he was obliged to give over, acknowledging that the little bird had beaten him. He made it come upon his hand, and praised it for having sung so well, fed it, and it was only after he had desired it to leave him, and given it his blessing, that the nightingale flew away.
In the impression which the power of God affected upon animals, in favor of St. Francis, there was this further circumstance, which was marvellous: that they seemed to have an affection for him, and appeared pleased when they saw him. It is St. Bonaventure who gives several examples of this.
The Servant of God, going to Sienna, passed near a flock of sheep which were feeding in a meadow. He greeted them, as was his custom, with an air of kindness, and immediately the sheep, the rams, and the lambs, left their pasture, came to him, lifted up their heads to greet him in their manner, which was greatly wondered at by the shepherds and by his companions. Hares and rabbits were presented to him, which had been caught alive; they were put before him on the ground, and they immediately sprang into his arms. Although he gave them their liberty, they remained with him, and he was obliged to have them removed far off into the country, by some of his religious, and put in a place of safety.
On the banks of the Lake of Rieti, a fisherman gave him a live water- fowl. After having kept it a little while, he tried to make it fly away, but in vain. He then raised his eyes to Heaven, and remained for more than an hour in a state of ecstasy, after which he mildly ordered the bird to go away and praise the Lord, and he gave it his blessing. The bird showed signs of pleasure by its motions, and flew away. On the same lake, a large fish which had been just caught, was presented to him; he held it for some time in his hand, and then put it back in the water. The fish remained in the same place, playing in the water before him, as if out of regard for him; it could not leave him, and did not disappear till it had received the Saint's leave, together with his blessing.
The first time that St. Francis went to Mount Alverno, he was surrounded by a multitude of birds, which lit upon his head, on his shoulders, on his breast, and on his hands, evincing by their beaks and wings the pleasure his arrival caused them, which he noticed to his companions, as a mark of the will of God that he should remain in this mountain. When he came thither, and received the stigmata there, the birds greeted him in a similar manner; and a hawk, which could only have come thither by a supernatural impulse, attached itself peculiarly to his person. When the hour of the night drew near, at which Francis rose to pray, the bird did not fail to come and make a noise at the door of his cell. This punctuality was very pleasing to the Saint, because it caused him to be watchful; but when his infirmities were more severe than usual, the bird, well taught by Him who controlled its movements, did not come to wake him till sunrise, and even then did not make so much noise as usual.
The numerous miracles of St. Francis attached men to him in a scarcely less degree than his extraordinary sanctity; and the gift he possessed of unbounded love--called for their admiration. This is the portrait we find of him in the legend we have before alluded to: "Our blessed Father was agreeable to all. Joy, serenity, kindness, and modesty, were perceptible in his countenance. He was naturally mild and affable, compassionate, liberal, prudent, discreet, gave sound advice, was faithful to his word, and full of courage; he was easy in his manners, accommodating himself to all sorts of tempers; he was all to all, he was a saint among the saintly, and among sinners, as if he was one of them; his conversation was graceful, and his manner insinuating; clear in his reasoning, energetic and compliant in matters of business; and, finally, simple in his actions and words."
These are qualifications well calculated to make their possessor beloved, particularly when joined, as in the case of St. Francis, with the purest morals, with the most ardent charity, the most profound humility, and a countenance which seemed angelical. After the portrait of his mind, we find in the same narrative the following description of his person: "He was of middle size, neither short nor tall, but well shaped. His face was oval, his forehead smooth, his eyes black and modest, his mouth pretty; his hair was of chestnut color, his beard black, but scanty, his body very thin, his skin delicate, his speech pleasing and animated, his voice strong and piercing, but altogether mild and sonorous."
We must receive in their true sense what was understood in saying that "he was simple in his actions and words." The term simplicity has two significations in English.--Firstly it is used to describe a person of little mind, narrow-minded, dull, not well informed, weak and credulous; it is also used to express candor, ingenuousness, and uprightness; to describe a person who is natural, without artfulness. It is in this sense that it is said that the greatest geniuses are the most simple; enemies of subtlety and trick, which are only appropriate to narrow minds. The simplicity of the just, in Scriptural language, is true virtue, solid without drawback, purity of heart, uprightness of intention; in opposition to every sort of duplicity or disguise--everything that St. Paul calls "the prudence of the flesh; the wisdom of this world." St. Gregory so explains it. This does not exclude prudence, but only malice and double dealing. Our Blessed Lord warns us "to be prudent as serpents, and simple as doves." St. Paul says: "I would have you to be wise in good, and simple in evil." Every Christian must be simple in faith, submitting himself purely and simply to the decisions of the Church, without any endeavor to elude them by crafty evasions, as some do in so scandalous a manner; simple in the intercourse of society, being frank and sincere, doing injury to no one; simple in devotion, going straight to God; following the way pointed out by the Gospel; not resembling those of whom the wise man says: "They go two ways, and have two hearts," the one for God, and the other for the world.
Such was the simplicity of St. Francis. He was simple because he had no other intention in his mind, no other movement in his heart, than to be conformed to Jesus Christ. In order to imitate His poverty, His humility, His sufferings, all His virtues, he did many things far above the ordinary rules of human wisdom; and, as to his language, it was formed on that of the Gospel.
St. Francis was simple, but he had great qualities of mind and heart; and his simplicity was a perfection in him--not a defect. If it induced him to do things of which human prudence disapproves, it was because he was guided by Divine light; it was because he sought to be despised by the world, to render himself more conformable to Jesus Christ. Men of his age were not deceived by it; they discovered the principle which made him act and speak with such simplicity. His constant endeavor to humble himself, and draw on himself contempt, only gave them a greater esteem for his person, and they loaded him with honors. If our age deems itself wiser, what reason has it for not doing similar justice?
May the tender holiness of St. Francis, which we have endeavored to portray, excite all those who read his life to love God, and to manifest their love, not only by their actions, but by their patience in adversities! May they love Him so, that the sweet violence of their ardent love separate them from all that is beneath the Heavens, and wholly absorb them, may they be enabled to kneel in spirit at the side of St. Francis and pray with him from the bottom of their heart:
My God and My All!
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