St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)
St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before becoming known as St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was the son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant, next in line to take over his father’s prosperous business.

In his youth Francis was a popular dilettante, enjoying friends and parties. In keeping with expectations for the young upper-class men of the day, he fought in the army and was taken prisoner. Suffering a serious illness, Francis apparently had some kind of powerful mystical vision.

He returned to his father, telling him he could no longer continue with the family business. Scorned by his father, Francis went to the central square in Assisi where he removed his clothing for all to see, which was his way of renouncing his life of worldly gain. Standing naked, a nearby person threw him a course blanket, which he took to wear. Francis went on to form the friars minor (fratres minores), a monastic order characterized by chastity and extreme poverty, and all of its members wore the same course cloth.

The order grew quickly. By 1219 the Franciscans swelled to over 5,000 members. His former friend and spiritual love, Lady Clare of Assisi, followed suit by likewise renouncing the world. She founded a similar but sequestered order and was eventually canonized.

Stories about St. Francis abound, telling of his love and tenderness toward animals, his writing a canticle to “brother sun, sister moon” and his insistence on complete poverty, which he affectionately personified as “Lady Poverty.” He apparently opened the Bible at random every morning and read a verse to set the tone for his actions throughout the day, believing that God directed him to the right passage. And with Papal permission, he unsuccessfully tried to convert the Muslims in the Holy Land, who nonetheless were impressed by his piety.

He also endured a painful medieval eye operation using red-hot irons to remove cataracts. And he is one of the very few mystics said to have miraculously received the stigmata—physical marks of Christ’s crucifixion appearing on one’s own hands and feet.

St. Francis was buried in his native town of Assisi. He remains, perhaps, Catholicism’s most popular saint, probably because his kind of example can be easily understood by rank and file Catholics. However, it’s hard to know if his knowledge of God was as deep as, say, the contemplative St. Faustina Kowalska, who apparently saw Jesus on a near-daily basis.

His feast day is October 4.

Related » Divination, Jainism, Levels of Knowledge, Suffering


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