Of all the merry lads in the sunny streets of Assisi, the merriest was young Francis Bernadone. He it was who sang the liveliest songs, and wore the gayest clothes, and was the leader of the games. His father was a merchant whose shop was filled with silk and cloth of gold, and there was money for Francis to spend, and he spent it splendidly. He worked, too, in the shop, and carried his father's goods into the market of Assisi, and into other markets, even so far away as Rome.
Assisi stands on a hilltop, and one looks out over some of the fairest fields of Italy, away to Perugia on another hilltop, neighbor and rival, with whose citizens the Assisans used to fight whenever opportunity offered. It was thus made plain to Francis, even from the beginning of his life, that Assisi was not the whole of the world. And this important fact his journeys into other towns confirmed. In one of the battles with Perugia he was taken captive, and lay for a whole year in a Perugian prison. Thus amidst his merriment, he had time to think.
One day, in Rome, going into St. Peter's Church, and noticing there the careful economy with which the worshipers made their offerings to God, he took his purse and threw down all he had before an altar, the gold and silver making a great clattering upon the floor. Then he changed clothes with a beggar on the church steps, and there sat all day and begged.
Twice, after an illness, he dreamed strange dreams which seemed to tell him what he ought to do with his life.
One was the vision of a great armory full of swords and lances, into which he was bidden to go and arm himself. He thought that this meant that he should be a soldier, and out he started on the next expedition, with shield and helmet, mounted on horseback. But he came back, convinced that soldiering was not the trade for him.
The other dream commanded him to rebuild a ruined church, and at once he set about the work of making a new wall for the little chapel of St. Darnian. He went around asking his neighbors to give him stones.
It was this rebuilding of St. Darnian's which sent Francis finally upon his great career. The repairing even of a small ruined church without money, and with no other labor than that of one pair of unaccustomed hands, is a slow process. Francis grew impatient. One day, filled with a great desire to get on with this good work, he took a lot of bales of cloth out of his father's store, and rode away to the next town, and sold both cloth and horse. "There," he said to the priest of St. Darnian's, "take this money for the church." But the priest was not willing to take it, fearing the displeasure of Francis's father. Francis, too, as he considered the matter, began to see that his father might object to this selling of his goods. He tossed the money into a corner, and hid himself. And, indeed, his father did object most seriously. His neighbors also felt that Francis had done wrong. When, at last, he ventured out of hiding and made his way to his home, they hooted him in the streets, said he was crazy, and stoned him, till, as he drew near the house, his father came out to see what all the noise might mean, and, finding Francis, seized him, dragged him in, and locked him up.
Francis was not a boy when these events took place. He was twenty-five years old. Of course, it was not right for him to take things out of his father's store and sell them, even for the Church, but he naturally felt, after years of service, that the business belonged in part to him. Anyhow, he was not penitent, and one day when his mother, in love and pity, let him out, back he went to St. Darnian's.
And then his father went to law about it. He appealed to the magistrates to get his money back. The matter was referred to the bishop. The bishop wisely advised the young man to restore the money to his father; and this he did, gathering it up from the dusty corner where he had thrown it. But when he brought it to his father, he brought his clothes also. He took off his fine garments, piled them on the floor and put the money on top. "Now," he cried, "I am the servant of God, and my father is the Father who is in heaven."
The bishop flung a cloak about him, and somebody gave him clothes to wear, and his lodging was at St. Darnian's. The good priest gave him food, and, mindful of the gay feasts in which he had delighted, gave him some dainties with it. For Francis, who was always a boy to the end of his life, confessed long after that he had never lost his early liking for sweet things. But when Francis saw the dainties, he perceived that he had not even yet given up the luxuries of life. Immediately, he took a plate and went out and begged his food from door to door.
From that moment, Francis was independently poor. Gradually, companions came to him, first one and then another, wishing to share his life, and he required them all to give up everything that they possessed. The idea of a great society had not come into his mind, but it was plain already that for himself and his little company of friends, poverty was the best condition. In an age which was tremendously intent on money, when even the Church was more anxious to be rich than to be holy, there was a need of men who had no interest in wealth. These men cared nothing for it. They were glad to be poor. They were happy to be the brothers of the poor. They went about begging with the beggars.
One day, in church, Francis heard the words of Christ to His disciples, telling them to provide no money for their journey, and to take with them neither shoes, nor staff, nor wallet, but to go and preach, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Immediately, he took the words as meant for him. He cast away his shoes and his staff; he unloosed the girdle from which his wallet was suspended, and finding a rope, tied it about his brown cloak. Thus the new order was provided with a uniform. They went with bare feet, in cloak of brown tied with a rope. And they began to preach. They journeyed about among the little towns of Umbria, getting people together in market places, and speaking to them concerning God and their souls.
One of the beautiful stories of the preaching of Francis is about his sermon to the birds. As he was preaching to the people, the birds came and made such a noise chirping to each other in the air that the voice of the speaker could hardly be heard. Then the saint, with his gentle courtesy, turned to the birds. "My sisters," he said, "it is now time that I should speak. Since you have had your say, listen now in your turn to the word of God, and be silent till the sermon is finished." And the legend says that the birds obeyed, and sat still, listening with attention.
Another time, when the number of the disciples of Francis had grown great, and the Little Brothers, as they called themselves, were very many, they held a council at Assisi, in the flowery plain beside the church of St. Mary of the Angels. But Francis had made no arrangements for feeding his multitude of guests. "My children," he said, "we have promised great things to God, and greater things still have we promised ourselves from God; let us observe those which we have promised to Him, and certainly expect those which are promised to us." And from all the neighboring towns people came driving in with food, so that they had more than enough.
One day Francis said to a young brother of the company, "Let us go into the town and preach." So in they went, from St. Mary's church beside the gate, and climbed the long Assisi hill, and went about the streets and markets, and at last turned their steps towards home having said never a word. At last the young man asked, "Father, when do we begin to preach?" And Francis answered, "My son, we have been preaching all the way, for men have seen us as we went and we have been sermons without speech. Every man is a sermon every day."
One dark night Francis and Leo walked in the cold rain, weary after a long journey, Francis before, Leo behind. And Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we were able to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and recovery to the sick, that would not be the perfect joy." And presently Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we were able to know all knowledge, that would not be the perfect joy." And, a while after Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we were able to speak with the tongues of angels, that would not be the perfect joy." "Well then, Father Francis," said Leo at last, "what would be the perfect joy?" And Francis answered, "Here we come, dripping with rain and shivering with cold, to the monastery of St. Mary of the Angels, expecting dry clothes, and warmth and food and sleep. Suppose the porter does not know us. We knock, and he says, 'Who is there?' and we answer, 'We are two of thy brethren,' and he says, 'You are two vagabonds, you are two tramps,' and out he comes and beats us, and calls us hard names, and rolls us in the mud and snow, and goes in, fastening the door behind him. Then if we get up and go on in great content, glad to suffer hardships, remembering how our Master suffered for our sake, that, Brother Leo, would be the perfect joy."
These stories illustrate the character of Francis. He was the most gentle, the most cheerful, the most unselfish of the saints. In the midst of a time when every man seemed to be thinking chiefly of his own advantage, Francis sought no gain whatever, and desired only to be of service to others. His example revealed the fact that the world was not so selfish as it seemed. Not only were there men who came to live under his rule, but great numbers of women, beginning with Clara, a devout young girl of Assisi, who came from her pleasant home to follow the brown-gowned brethren, and took up her residence in that little church of St. Darnian which Francis had rebuilt. And after her, in the enthusiasm which a holy life enkindled, came multitudes of men and women having still their business in the world, their shops to keep, their children to bring up, unable to live in the complete consecration and poverty of Francis and Clara, and yet most earnestly desiring to be better. And for them Francis established a third order, giving them simple rules of devout living which they could keep in their own homes. Thus the influence of Francis began to touch all the life about him.
He went to Rome, to ask the blessing of the pope upon his new society. It is said that the great Innocent, who had humbled the king of England, was walking in his garden when Francis appeared, and at first ordered him away, thinking that he was a beggar from the street who had got in by mistake; but it was the pope who was mistaken. Innocent blessed the work of Francis, as he was presently to bless the work of Dominic.
He went even to the remote East, to Egypt and the Holy Land, following the track of the Crusaders, and had an interview with the Sultan. The Sultan was engaged in killing Christians, but Francis was not afraid. In he went and preached his gospel, to which the Sultan listened gravely, and dismissed him in peace.
And year by year, the influence of the self-sacrifice of Francis extended, and the Order grew. One day, the report was brought to him that in a certain city a generous man had given some of his followers a house to live in. He was filled with great grief and alarm. He foresaw that his disciples, devoted to holy poverty and friends of the people because they were poor as the poorest, would by-and-by grow rich like the rest of them, like the men who had followed Benedict, and the men who had followed Bernard. And so indeed it proved. Even in his own lifetime, the beautiful simplicity of the Order began to be changed.
On he went, walking in the steps of Jesus, making his life as near as he could like the perfect life. He went singing, with the love songs of the spirit in place of the love songs of the troubadours. The sun and moon, the hills and lakes, the birds and beasts, he called his brothers and sisters, and made a poem about them, praising God for all the blessings of the world. He was always kind and tender, courteous and gentle; but never sparing himself. Even near the end of his short life, when sickness had begun to overtake him, he would say, "Let us begin over again; up to this moment we have done nothing for God." And it is said that when he died, and they prepared his body to be buried, they found what looked like nail-prints in his hands and feet, and what looked like the mark of a spear in his side, so long and lovingly had he considered the Cross of Christ, and so deeply had he entered into the fellowship of his sufferings.