Francis of Assisi’s penitential lifestyle – how it began


St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Francis, renouncing everything for the love of God

In preparation for teaching Resources for Radical Living with my partner in crime, Mark Van Steenwyk, I’ve been re-reading Paul Sabatier‘s ground-breaking Vie de S. Francois d’Assise, though in a new, annotated English edition. This is The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis, ed. with intro and annotations by Jon M. Sweeney (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2003)–well done and informative in its many annotations.

Since in Resources for Radical Living we are using Francis as a case study in penitential living, I have been looking for material in Sabatier on the penitential life. Plenty of suggestions show up early in Sabatier’s text about why Francis lived the way he did: he was a party animal early in life with too much money and not enough sense, who eventually had a serious illness and came to see the emptiness of his former hedonism. Then, impetuous in doing good as much as he had been in his frivolities, he turned to Christ for answers, and he took the Gospel message not just seriously, but literally.

Sabatier tells all of this in his chapter six: “First Year of Apostolate (Spring 1209 – Summer 1210)”:

After hearing the gospel passage preached to him about selling all you have, going, and following Christ, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff” (44),

The very next morning Francis went up to Assisi and began to preach. His words were simple. . . . His person, his example, were themselves a sermon, and he spoke only of that which he had himself experienced, proclaiming repentance, the shortness of life, a future retribution, the necessity of arriving at Gospel perfection. (45)

Then Sabatier meditates on the yearning within each of us for something like a penitential life:

It is not easy to realize how many waiting souls there are in this world. The greater number of people pass through life with souls asleep. Yet the instinct for love and for the divine is only slumbering. The human heart so naturally yearns to offer itself up, that we have only to meet along our pathway someone who, doubting neither himself nor us, demands it without reserve, and we yield it to him at once. The cause of the miserable failure of all the efforts of natural religion [deism, etc.—so prominent in Sabatier’s France since the Revolution] is that its founders have not had the courage to lay hold upon the hearts of people. They have not understood the imperious desire for immolation that lies in the depths of every soul, and souls have taken their revenge in not heeding these too lukewarm lovers. (45)

Annotates Sweeney:

“the imperious desire for immolation that lies in the depths of very soul”: Chesterton illuminates this brilliantly: “[People] will ask what selfish sort of woman it must have been who ruthlessly exacted tribute in the form of flowers, or what an avaricious creature she can have been to demand solid gold in the form of a ring, just as they ask what cruel kind of God can have demanded sacrifice and self-denial. They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant by love, and will not understand that it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done” (Chesterton [Francis of Assisi], p. 73). (45)

And Sabatier concludes, “Francis had given himself up too completely not to claim from others an absolute self-renunciation.” And the people gradually began to respond, because of his own example: “In the two years and more since he had left the world, the reality and depth of his conversion had shone out in the sight of all; to the scoffing of the early days had gradually succeeded in the minds of many a feeling closely akin to admiration. This feeling inevitably provokes imitation.” (45)

Francis hung out, during this time, with a “rich and prominent man” named Bernard of Quintavalle. After some time, Bernard decided to “distribute his goods to the poor and cast in his lot with Francis.” Francis, says Sabatier, wanted to make this official, and to show that “what he himself practiced, what he preached, was not his own invention, but that Jesus himself had expressly ordained it in his word.” (46)

So they went to the St. Nicholas Church (! I’m writing this on St. Nick’s Day, Dec. 6, 2010), with another young man named Peter, “and there, after praying and hearing mass, Francis opened the Gospels that lay on the altar and read to his companions the portion that had decided his own vocation: the words of Jesus sending forth his disciples on their mission. ‘Brothers,’ he added, ‘this is our life and our Rule, and that of all who may join us. Go then and do as you have heard.’” (46)

Here are the passages, which seem to have become the “Rule” of what was fast emerging as Francis’s new religious order:

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Matt. 19:21)

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, no bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere. (Luke 9:1 – 6)

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matt. 16:24 – 26)

Taken together, these passages amounted, for Francis and his gathering rag-tag band, to a manifesto for a penitential life. “They had,” Sabatier notes, “the great merit of being short and absolute, of promising perfection [holiness], and of being taken from the Gospel.” (47)

The result in Bernard’s life was immediate. He “set to work to distribute his fortune among the poor.” Francis looked on, “full of joy,” as Bernard’s act “had drawn together a crowd.” Then along came an avaricious priest named Sylvester, “who had formerly sold [Francis] some stones for the repairs of San Damiano.” (47) Seeing so much money being given away to all who asked, Sylvester injected himself in the proceedings. Sabatier relates what happened next. Said the priest,

‘Brother, you did not pay me very well for the stones that you bought from me.’

Francis had too thoroughly killed every germ of avarice in himself not to be moved to indignation by hearing a priest speak this way. ‘Here,’ he said, holding out to him a double handful of coins that he took from Bernard’s robe. ‘Here, are you sufficiently paid now?’ (47)

‘Quite so,’ replied Sylvester, somewhat abashed by the murmurs of the bystanders. (48)

One is reminded here of the figure of Francis’s own father, also a grasping man. And again one remembers the terrible corruptions of simony and materialism that were already shredding the church in Francis’s late 12th and early 13th centuries: those problems were long in evidence before Luther brought his Reformation, and the populace at large knew it perfectly well. In fact, this proved a problem when Francis and his “friars” set out upon a penitential lifestyle that depended on the charity of others. Burned by too many money-loving ecclesiastics, the people of Assisi and surrounding towns at first met the humble friars with less than Christian love:

Their life was that of the Umbrian beggars of the present day, going here and there as fancy dictated, sleeping in haylofts, in leper hospitals, or under the porch of some church. . . . When the brothers went up to Assisi to beg from door to door, many refused to give to them, reproaching them with desiring to live on the goods of others after having squandered their own. Many a time they had barely enough not to starve to death. (48 – 49)

Yet, although some no doubt saw them as no different from the “bad monks” then infesting the European countryside, who lived off of the hard work of others and indulged themselves in all sorts of ways contrary to their orders’ founding principles, “others admired them, finding them widely different from the vagrant monks, that plague of Christendom.”

For one thing, the friars were perfectly willing to work for their keep:

The first brothers lived as did the poor people among whom they so willingly moved. . . . The joyous Penitents who loved to call themselves Joculatores Domini, God’s jongleurs [traveling juggler-singer-entertainers of this period] . . . not willing to be a charge to anyone . . . passed a part of the day in aiding the peasants in their field work. They worked and ate together; field-hands and friars often slept in the same barn; and when at the morrow’s dawn the friars went on their way, the hearts of those they left behind had been touched. They were not yet converted, but they knew that not far away, over toward Assisi, were living men who had renounced all worldly goods, and who, consumed with zeal, were going up and down preaching penitence and peace. (48 -49)

Famously, when confronted by the Bishop of Assisi, who puzzled over the hardness of the way of living Francis and his men had chosen, Francis responded, “My lord, if we possessed property we should have need of arms for its defense, for it is the source of quarrels and lawsuits, and the love of God and of one’s neighbor usually finds many obstacles in it. This is why we do not desire temporal goods.” As Sabatier points out, “The argument was unanswerable.” (49)

More later. Thanks for reading and Happy St. Nicholas Day!

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