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Living into a new way of being: spending time with St Francis

The Crucifix of San Damiano: Conversion and the story of St Francis

This is the first of three talks given for a St Francis Day retreat this year at the Church of the Resurrection, Mount Macedon.


One day sometime during the period 1205-1206 a young Italian man in his mid-twenties, tired physically and mentally, recovering from malaria and imprisonment, disillusioned with life, full of desire and longing, but confused and feeling wretched, sat before a large Romanesque rood crucifix in an abandoned church in the Umbrian region of Italy. He cried out: 

‘Oh Lord, Most High, enlighten the darkness of my heart that I may carry out Your holy and true command.’ 


And, quite unexpectedly, he heard the response: ’Francis, go and repair my house, which as you see is falling completely into ruin.’


These words of St Francis have come down to us today known as the Prayer Before the Crucifix:

Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart.

Give me right faith, sure hope and perfect charity.

Fill me with understanding and knowledge that I may fulfil your command."


When I began to write these three talks for today, I confess that I actually knew very little about St Francis. Here was a saint whose identity I’d grown up with, but I’d never properly considered or taken seriously. I had also assumed that our knowledge of him would be scarce and only via secondary sources. 


I was wrong.  Almost immediately after his death people began to write about St Francis; he was canonised just two years after his death. Francis himself was educated, he could read and write in his native dialect, and Latin. He wrote two rules of the Franciscan Order. In the weeks preceding his death in 1226, he dictated a Testament of his life to one of his closest companions.  He wrote letters to the clergy, to Saint Anthony, to the Brothers in his Order. He also wrote prayers.  And it’s three of these prayers that I wish to ponder upon today, and use as a lens into the story of his life.


As I read about the story of the life of Francis Bernadone, I encountered a man very different to the one I expected.  Where I anticipated reading about someone with a high sense of ideals, gentle, perhaps a bit rash, I encountered a person who was strong-minded, who could rally men to battle, who could be stubborn, but who could also act as dramatically and impulsively, and courageously as St Peter.  Here was a man who never acted by half measure. As a youth this man we call ‘saint’ was the party boy of Assisi who harboured longings to be a knight; as an adult he was prepared to be seen to do sudden very rash and foolish things for the love of God. He took risks, he learned the power of living symbolically, and he struggled continually: with illness, with desire, and in his relationship with God. 


At the turn of the thirteenth century, Assisi was a fortress town which rivalled other towns, in particular Perugia. Assisi also had its own political internal struggles between the merchant and the noble classes. Francis’ father was a flourishing merchant. He was part of a rising class that sought a more democratic rule and rebelled against heavy taxes. He routinely travelled to France to buy and sell linens. Francis was born when his father was away and his mother named him Giovanni, after John the Baptist. But when his father returned, he changed his name to Francesco, ‘the French one.’


As a youth Francis had enjoyed fine clothes, an easy-going life and mucking about with friends.  He cut something of a romantic figure, popular and unprepossessing. The reality of the violent rivalry between Perugia and Assisi must have come home to him after his participation in a battle with Perugia. He was taken a prisoner of war, and for nearly a year was locked up in a squalid dungeon in Perugia. Somewhere around 1203-04 Francis’ father paid for his release and when he returned home Francis was a changed man.  It took him over a year to recover and the malarial parasites in his body and the exposure to tuberculosis plagued him for the rest of his life. He began to work in his father’s shop, but he was restless, depressed and agitated.  


The call to join papal forces fighting in Apulia reawakened his desire to be a knight. He had a dream in which he saw the great hall of a castle; on the walls hung many shields and a voice assured him that these belonged to Francis and his knights. Having been blessed by the bishop near the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi, he set out of the city gates accompanied by companions and big dreams. However, soon after arriving in Spoleto, fifteen miles from Assisi, his malarial fever returned. But he also had another dream. There was again the castle and the shields, but this time another voice said: 

‘Francis, who is better to serve? The Lord or the servant?’

‘Why the Lord of course?’ replied Francis. 

‘Then why are you serving the servant? Go now, return to Assisi where it will be shown you what to do.’ 


So returning home, to the dismay of his father and confusion of his mother, he became once more despondent and restless. Contemporary Franciscan priest and writer, Murray Bodo writes that for a period of time, Francis now felt shame. He was in darkness, he ‘walked and waited, prayed and wept, and thought he would go mad.’ (Francis and Jesus, Murray Bodo, Franciscan Media, 2012, p9)


I wonder if the passion that drove Francis when he was very young to carouse with friends throughout the night, inspired him to fight in the war with Perugia and later head towards Apulia, was the same searching energy that later brought him before the crucifix in San Damiano? Passion and dreaming, combined with longing for meaning needs to find fulfilment. Although upon return from Spoleto Francis went back to partying with his mates late into the night, gradually he lessened his ties with them and with his family. 


At around the age of 22 or 23 Francis started retreating regularly into caves around Mount Subasio and he spent time praying and what we would call ‘working himself out’. We are told that usually a close friend would accompany him and wait outside the cave. It’s difficult to know clearly the nature of his struggles at this time. Love? Temptations of the flesh? Family and social expectations? Certainly desire for understanding God. In his later Testament he refers to this time as one when he was ‘still in sin’ and ‘doing ‘penance.’ (Francis and Jesus, Murray Bodo, Franciscan Media, 2012, p38).  The movement away from being a playboy of Assisi to the celibate monk would be quite a journey for anyone.


However, in 1206, Francis Bernadone dramatically confronted something inside himself. This had to with the nature of the body. He tells us in his Testament that as he was returning home on his horse one day the path took him past one of a number of leper hospitals in the valley of Assisi. His repulsion of lepers was not uncommon. Lepers were separated from society and had to rattle a bell on a stick to let others know they were there. Like many others Francis would cover his nose if he had to pass by them. ‘The sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure’ he wrote in his Testament. But this one day he stopped when he heard the sound of the leper rattling his bell. He wrote: ‘God inspired me.’ He dismounted, hesitated, then ran over to the leper and fully embraced him. In that moment his life turned upside down. (A Mended and Broken Heart, Wendy Murray, Basic Books, 2008, p50)


It was shortly after this episode, a period when he was still working for his father, yet frequenting caves to pray, that he passed a dilapidated Benedictine church - abandoned except for the presence of an elderly Benedictine priest. Francis stopped and went in to pray.  


Inside was an old wooden Byzantine image of the cross. Painted on linen covering walnut wood, this icon dated from the 12th century and was written by an unknown Umbrian artist. It stands just over two metres high and one metre wide.  


Francis prayed:

‘Oh Lord, Most High, enlighten the darkness of my heart that I may carry out Your holy and true command.’