Glimpses of Francis of Assisi, from Mark Galli

Saint Francis of assisi in his tomb

The following are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Mark Galli’s Francis of Assisi and His World (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002). Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today and former managing editor of Christian History, did his homework well, and this little book, like Chesterton’s biography of Francis, is full of insights. Galli does tend to find “legalism” in medieval monasticism, and has cautioned evangelicals about their “romance of the cloister.” But his understanding of the sacrament of penance (see below) is more nuanced than that of most Protestants.

As with the David Bell and Jaroslav Pelikan “glimpses” and the glimpses of Benedict and Francis by Columba Stewart, William Short, and G. K. Chesterton, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. D means the definition of a term. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

U, 28: Medieval merchants traded a variety of goods all over Europe and the Middle East. But the most financially rewarding product was cloth. Northern Italian towns produced silk, velvet and brocade and, sometimes woven into the fabric, threads of gold and silver.

U (?), 30: Francis was minding his father’s shop when a beggar came in and asked for alms, ‘for the love of God’. Francis was preoccupied with his work and ignored the man. When the man would not go away, Francis became impatient and brusquely told him to leave.

As soon as the beggar stepped into the street, Francis regretted his rudeness. ‘If that poor man had asked something from you for a great count or baron, you would certainly have granted him his request,’ he scolded himself. ‘How much more should you have done this for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.’ He rushed out of his shop and gave the man some money. He resolved never again to refuse anyone who begged in the name of God.

U story, 31: One evening, they [F’s friends] arrived at his house, handed him a mock scepter, and announced that they had made him ‘king of youth’. What they really wanted was for him to foot the bill for another wild night on the town. Francis obliged, as usual. After a gluttonous banquet, the group spilled out into the Assisi streets, singing drunken refrains late into the night. Francis, scepter in hand, dragged behind the rest, preoccupied. He found himself strangely bored with the very activity that had formerly given him such pleasure.

Suddenly, while considering the vanity of his life, Francis was filled with an inexplicable sensation. ‘He was unable to speak or move,’ says The Legend of the Three Companions. ‘He could only feel and hear this marvelous tenderness’, which he attributed to God.

His friends had blithely gone on ahead. When they noticed his absence, they turned around to find him. They found him transfixed, and they began teasing him, asking if he was daydreaming about a woman he might marry. Francis came back in kind: ‘You are right! I was thinking about taking a wife more noble, wealthier, and more beautiful than you have ever seen.’

Everyone laughed at Francis’s characteristic bravado. But a few thought they had detected a change in him. What they did not understand, and what Francis himself still did not fully grasp for years, was that he was speaking of his future marriage to ‘Lady Poverty’. Though he still had no idea what all this meant, this much was clear: ‘He began to consider himself of little value,’ says The Legend of the Three Companions, ‘and to despise those things which he had previously held in love.’

U for context, 48 [section on Leprosy]: Leprosy was still a not uncommon disease in medieval Europe, and once a person was afflicted with the disease—characterized by decaying flesh, ulcers and loss of feeling—he or she was socially isolated. Below Assisi, there were at least six lazar houses (so named after the biblical Lazarus, who in Jesus’ parable was covered with sores—Luke 16:19-31). At San Lazzaro d’Arce, lepers were formally admitted by a priest. The leper stood in the cemetery while the priest pronounced him dead to the world, adding that this life’s suffering would lead him to the kingdom of heaven.

After sprinkling graveyard dust on the leper’s head, the priest reminded him of the rules governing lepers. They could not leave the house unless they wore their distinctive grey cloak and sounded their wooden clapper to warn off the other travelers. They were forbidden from attending fairs, markets, mills and farms, and from entering Assisi. They could beg for food only if they wore gloves and used a bowl to receive the offerings. They were forbidden from drinking directly from springs, rivers and wells (they could drink only from their own flasks). If they spoke with healthy individuals, they had to stand downwind from them.

U (but qualify—really imitation of Christ the most important factor; see Wm. Short Poverty and Joy), 62: The fascination with poverty ebbed and flowed, but in the 11th and 12th centuries, a new wave of reformers began to yearn for the ‘perfect life’ of ‘evangelical poverty’. They meant the life of poverty as practised by Christ and the early apostles.

This was partly a reaction to growing materialism. Towns flourished; a new class of merchants (such as Francis’s father) were growing wealthy, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor was widening. Reforming monks and itinerant preachers spoke against greed and exploitation, especially against the rising practice of lending money out at interest—the sin of usury. Evangelical poverty was an act of penitence for such sins, as well as an attempt to imitate the life of Christ.

U (PowerPoint?), 66 [Discussing F’s journey with Giles to the Marches of Acona and the former’s singing along the way]: He encouraged listeners to fear and love God, and to do penance for their sins. Some hearers thought of Giles and Francis as fools or drunkards. Others reasoned ‘Either they cling to the Lord for the sake of the highest perfection, or they are demented for sure, because their life seems reckless. They use little food, walk barefoot, and wear wretched clothes.’

U, 66 [F’s reply to frequent advisor Bishop of Guido when the latter told him to moderate his lifestyle]: ‘Lord, if we had possessions, we would need arms for our protection,’ he replied. ‘For disputes and lawsuits usually arise out of them, and, because of this, love of God and neighbour are greatly impeded. Therefore, we do not want to possess anything in this world.’

D, 69 [Penance]: Francis was not alone in highlighting penance. Many reform movements of the era, such as the Humiliati of Italy, were known as penitents, as were Francis and his followers.

Francis wanted his followers to practise both the sacrament and virtue of penance. In the sacrament (still practised today in Roman Catholicism), the penitent confessed his sins to a priest, received absolution and performed acts which satisfied the holy demands of the Law. This delivered the sinner from the temporal punishments due to sin (eternal punishments being remitted at absolution).

The virtue of penance was a heartfelt sorrow for sin, even the hating of one’s sin, a necessary condition for the expiation of sin. But, in either case, it entailed concrete acts: prayers, fasting and sometimes self-flagellation. But it also meant such things as giving alms to the poor and reconciling oneself with one’s enemies.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the practice of penance slipped into an exacting and oppressive legalism. But early on, most people thought of it as liberating. Theologically every medieval Christian knew the utter holiness of God and the utter depravity of humankind. Human sin could hardly be atoned for by mere contrition and acts of satisfaction. The offence to God’s perfection was too great. Yet God’s mercy made forgiveness possible again. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, God commissioned the church to forgive sins through the sacrament of penance.

At times, Francis seemed caught between the two. Sometimes he saw penance as liberating; at other times, he seemed to use it as a legalist stick to keep his friars in order. It was a tension that neither he nor the Middle Ages ever resolved.

U, 70 [Discussing Bernard and Giles’ experience in Florence]: Sometimes, angry crowds would strip the tunics off their backs. Since they had vowed, according to Jesus’ command, to give to anyone who asked and to ask for nothing in return, and to go about with only one tunic, they were sometimes left semi-naked in the street. On top of that, and according to another command of Jesus, they prayed for their persecutors.

Slowly, people came to respect their gracious steadfastness in the face of abuse, their refusal to handle money, the patience with which they bore suffering (one story tells of how they left footprints of blood in the snow as they journeyed barefoot). And people could not get over the joy with which they carried themselves and preached their message. Some actually came up to them and asked forgiveness for mistreating them. Others came up and asked to join them.

U (crucial), 79 [rendering Cardinal of St Paul’s challenge to pope Innocent about F]: He noted that if anyone in the room was to argue that Francis’s ideas were irrational or impossible, he would be saying that Christ’s teaching on poverty were the same and would thus be ‘guilty of blasphemy against Christ’.

U, 84 [Discussing the earlier Rule]: Though Francis would become famous as a champion of poverty, the vow of obedience came first for him.

Q, 89 (discussing how F and his brothers, in contrast to popular thought/stereotype, actually weren’t “carefree nature lovers” dwelling on nature and, instead, considered these frivolities]: “Rather than selfishly basking in a sunny meadow, they went about giving themselves completely to God and to others.”

U, 90 [Discussing the Offices and F’s additions to daily services/worship]: In addition, the brothers read Bible passages in each service, so that all 150 Psalms were said each week and the entire Bible was read every 12 months.

Q, 92 [quoting F addressing his brothers]: “Always do something good that the devil may find you occupied.”

Great story, 92-94 [discussing poverty]: In a hermitage north of Borgo San Sepulcro, some thieves would regularly come and ask the brothers for bread. The brothers knew very well who these men were because their reputation for highway robbery was widespread. Soon, the brothers began to question their generosity: ‘It’s wrong to give them alms,’ they reasoned, ‘for they are robbers who inflict all sorts of evil on people.’ When Francis made one of his regular visits to them, they asked him what they should do.

Francis, as usual, turned the tables on them. He told them not to wait for the thieves to come to them, but to prepare a meal, then go to find the robbers and invite them to eat: ‘Spread out a tablecloth on the ground, put the bread and wine on it, and serve them with humility and good humour.’ Once the robbers were in a good mood, they were to ask them one favour: ‘Make them promise you not to strike any man and not to harm anyone.’

After that, Francis told them to prepare another meal, and then another and so on. At each meal, the brothers were to ask the robbers to give up one more piece of their trade. The story goes that the robbers slowly gave up their ways and converted to Francis’s order.

Use, 94 [inset titled “On loan from on high”]: Something of Francis’s reasoning about possessions comes through in one story told by Thomas of Celano. Francis was returning from Siena with a companion when a poor man, barely clothed, approached them. ‘Brother,’ Francis said to his companion, ‘we must give back to this poor man the mantle that is his. We accepted it on loan until we should happen to find someone poorer than we are.’

The companion vehemently disagreed, saying that Francis should not expose himself to the elements to help this poor man. But Francis would have none of it, and ended up giving away his mantle. Francis thought that everything he possessed was merely a loan from God and, as such, he needed to give it away if another had more need of it than he did.

U, 95 [Discussing and quoting F on the rule of never touching money, except when needing to beg for money to pay for a doctor or medicine]: Francis saved some of his strongest language for offenders of this rule: ‘If by chance, God forbid, it happens that some brother is collecting or holding coin or money…let all the brothers consider him a deceptive brother, an apostate, a thief, a robber.’

He also saved some of his harshest disciplines for those who broke this rule. According to The Assisi Compilation, one day a layman happened to enter St Mary of the Angels to pray and, as an offering, he laid some money near the cross. After he left, a brother unthinkingly picked the money up and placed it on a window ledge. When the brother heard that Francis had learned of the incident, he immediately rushed to Francis and implored his forgiveness. He even offered his body, saying Francis should whip him for penance. Francis, however, was not so easily placated; he had a better idea. After rebuking the brother sternly, he ordered him to go to the window will, pick up the money with his mouth and carry it outside. Then, again with his mouth, he was to deposit it on a heap of ass’s dung. The brother obeyed gladly.

Q (as with Wesley; quote Walsh [sp?] article), 95: “Francis believed that money was like a drug, as addictive and destructive to the soul as we today believe heroin or cocaine are to the body.”

U, (important critique of church while obeying), 99 [F to his brothers on corrupt priests]: ‘If they obstruct the salvation of the people,’ he explained, ‘vengeance belongs to God, and he will punish them in his own time… If you are sons of peace, you will win both clergy and people, and this will be more pleasing to God than if you were to win the people alone and alienate the clergy. Conceal their mistakes and make up for their many defects; and when you have done this, be even more humble than before.’

U/Q, 100 [Discussing heavy self-abuse common in Middle Ages]: “Even Francis was guilty of this, and his own bodily abuse led to his relatively early death at the age of 46. But what the medieval world grasped rightly in all this was the truth that the body, with its ravenous desires for food, sleep, leisure and sex, often undermines complete devotion to God.”

U (the spur to poverty, asceticism, and penitential life):

let us desire nothing else,
let us want nothing else,
let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our
Creator, Redeemer, and Saviour,
the only true God,
Who is the fullness of good,
All good, every good, the true and supreme good,
Who alone is good,
Merciful, gentle, delightful, and sweet,
Who alone is holy,
Just, true, holy, and upright,
Who alone is kind, innocent, clean,
From whom, through whom, and in whom
Is all pardon, all grace, all glory
Of all penitents and just ones,
Of all the blessed rejoicing together in heaven.

U, 142: For Francis, poverty was a synonym for obedience. Furthermore, poverty meant not only physical poverty, but also a life of self-denial, humility and service to Christ.

2 responses to “Glimpses of Francis of Assisi, from Mark Galli

  1. I haven’t. But now it goes on the list. Thanks.

  2. Have you read “Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi” by Donald Spoto? It’s the only bio of Francis that I’ve read so I can’t compare it to anything, but I enjoyed it.

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