Here is a chapter (33) from my upcoming book (working title) A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation. I hope you like it.
Other interesting things are also attributed to this rascal believer, including legends that he conversed with the birds and talked a wild wolf out of terrorizing a little mountain town. The more believable aspects of his life are fascinating enough, however, and the deeper I researched into the life of this little man, the more respect I gained for what he accomplished.
Born a rich kid whose father was a textile merchant and mother was French, his “normal guy” name was Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone. Growing up today we might call him Johnny Fran, or something catchy like that. One can only imagine a life with such a moniker, so Francis did what all rich kids with funny names do; he lived it up. He went in for all kinds of exciting things, such as fighting in a battle to defend Assisi, getting captured and spending a year in prison, getting seriously ill, recovering, and then taking a trip to Rome to tour St. Peter’s, much as we just did (except he got to see the original basilica, not the “new” one, of course, it being the thirteenth century and all). Only instead of strolling around admiring architecture and the like, Francis decided to join in with the beggars he saw everywhere. Apparently this life either appealed to him or appalled him so much he was never the same again.
When Francis returned home after his pilgrimage to Rome, he refused to go back to his profligate way of life. As a result, his former friends teased him. It seems Francis wasn’t interested in playing sports anymore. When asked if he was planning to settle down and marry, Francis supposedly answered, “Yes. To the most beautiful bride.” What he meant by this was the bride of poverty. “Oh, that Johnny Fran is such a jokester,” his former friends no doubt thought. But they were wrong. Francis’s vow of poverty was sincere, and his way of life consistent with his new views.
He began tending to the needs of the local lepers: the lowliest and most avoided people of his day. In the church of San Diamano near Assisi he had a vision in which he claims he was told, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which, you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis took this vision literally, and launched himself into one of the original fixer-upper projects – the church in which he’d been praying. Surely pleasing the local priest, Francis began helping with restorations. He made a little miscalculation, however, when he sold some goods out of his father’s store to pay the construction costs, always exorbitant in Italy, I guess even in his day. His father didn’t take too kindly to this appropriation, however, and attempted several popular tactics to get restitution, such as assault, battery, and lawsuits.
In a hearing before the local bishop, Francis renounced his father and his inheritance, in the process even removing every stitch of clothing from his person. Departing the scene entirely naked, Francis went to live among the beggars once again, this time with a more authentic material situation.
Slowly he was able to expand his fixer-upper activities, restoring several more local churches. Then he heard a sermon that changed his life even further, compelling him to officially renounce a material life and to spread the word that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He dressed in a simple rough garment, which lots of painters have since reproduced, and went around to all the towns in the area preaching repentance and faith in Christ. Francis was sincere, and by the end of one year had gained eleven followers. He refused any official ordination as a priest, and he and his followers began to be known as the “lesser brothers,” because they refused to act with pride or take their place above anyone else.
Of course, such offensive behavior got them in trouble with the powers-that-be – The Church in Rome. It seems that preaching at the time was illegal unless one had obtained official sanction. So back Francis and his eleven went to the city that had started it all for him. Incredibly, and thanks to a dream he’d had, Pope Innocent III gave them an audience and an approval of sorts. Francis was instructed that as his group grew, they could come back and gain official acceptance from the church. In other words, “If you can convince more people of your ideas then maybe we’ll be convinced, too,” or something like that. This quasi-approval from The Church was pretty important because it allowed Francis and his eleven to avoid the complications of being declared heretics. This was nice, because it allowed them to live, which was very helpful in gaining new followers.
Francis continued to demonstrate his life of poverty and preach his gospel everywhere he went, many times attempting to spread the message outside of Italy, and even purportedly preaching to the Sultan of Egypt. His order of followers, ultimately called the Franciscans, spread around the globe, and the order he co-founded for women, called the Poor Claires, was also successful. Francis was involved in many pioneering movements of the faith, both big and small, including the interesting Trivial Pursuit-type fact that he was the first to set up a three-dimensional nativity scene, complete with live animals. It was two years after he died that he was officially pronounced a Saint, and therefore got the name he is best known by today: St. Francis of Assisi. He lived a life consistent with his doctrine and has been a hero of the faith down through the ages.
As soon as I realized how close we were staying to Assisi, the town made famous by this fascinating man nearly eight hundred years ago, I knew we had to go check it out. Only a short drive into Umbria past Lake Trasimeno, we began to notice the change in stone color as indicated in all the guidebooks. Where Tuscany is typically the orange of terracotta tiles and the brown of the stones found throughout the region, stones of pinker and whiter hues characterize Umbria.
We spotted the gorgeous little town from the expressway, off to our left a few miles away, cozily nestled into the side of a large ridge. The sun was already running out of steam for the day, and the dimming colors reflecting off the Umbrian stone made a pleasing contrast to the dark green all around the town. It was beautiful.
In keeping with form we managed to park in the wrong place, as some polite residents in lawn chairs informed us. So in standard fashion I unloaded the family and drove down yet another hill in search of a berth for the mini-bus.
The first thing that struck us as we shopped our way into the city was just how marvelously clean it was. This was true of most places we’d been, but for some reason Assisi was so prim we felt as if we were walking around in a dollhouse. There were also plentiful photo opportunities and I was kept busy at the shutter throughout the evening. One in particular featured three large, identical trees on a ledge behind a fountain on which two young men wearing fedoras, facing the opposite direction, were posing side-by-side for a photo of their own. From my angle exiting a small tunnel, it looked like a Beetle’s album cover. It is still one of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken.
It took a searching eye to see the reconstructions and repairs from the devastation an earthquake caused here over a decade ago. One or two buildings were undergoing massive restorations, but I wasn’t sure if this was the last of the repairs or just more of the type of ongoing construction one sees throughout these towns of old in Italy.
Terri really got into the shopping in Assisi, finding a monogramming store to customize some aprons for friends and relatives. We picked up a few more gifts and found a little out of the way place for dinner, taking our seats at long picnic tables in the front by the bar area. This was also where one had to pay at the end of a meal, and a funny photo opportunity presented itself. I looked up between my first and second plates to see a nun standing at the cash register waiting to pay her bill. From my vantage point the cash register was not visible, and it looked like she had sidled up to the bar for a drink. I decided not to take the picture, she not having actually incriminated herself, and instead enjoyed a private giggle at the arrangement of some of these restaurants.
After dinner we strolled the main streets, and I especially liked the Tempio di Minerva, the remains of a Roman temple dating back to the time of Caesar Augustus. It has been incorporated as the front of a more “modern” building, an amalgamation done hundreds of years ago. This made me think of a similar arrangement in Castiglione del Lago, and served as a constant reminder of the many layers of history enveloping us throughout our travels.
Unfortunately, the hour being late, we ran out of time and light. I would have loved to have seen the twenty-eight panels of frescoes depicting the Life of St. Francis by Giotto, some of his most renowned work, in their original position in the lower part of the Basilica di San Francesco. Also in this church rich in art treasures are frescoes by Martini, Lorenzetti, and even Cimabue. Knowing that we were only scratching the surface with our abbreviated evening visit, I made a mental note to return some day and “do” Assisi correctly. Besides, with the kids in tow we had bypassed many a museum and church interior during this trip, missing out on huge amounts of painted masterpieces. Perhaps a future visit, Lord willing, could revolve around an itinerary of Italy’s best frescoes. Wouldn’t that be a chance at sensory overload.
I made due with what we had to work with, however, and leaned against a ledge and watched the sunset. The reflected light from the changing sky almost made the buildings of Assisi glow. As I snapped a few last photos, trying desperately to capture with the lenses what the senses themselves could barely take in, I thought about the ground upon which I stood. How many pilgrims had migrated to this city throughout the centuries, searching for inspiration from a man who actually practiced what he preached? I found it interesting that in a world with no shortage of self-promoting, selfish, greedy, murderous, power hungry, materialistic, and glory hungry people, that a humble, dedicated little man from a tiny hill town could have gained so much acclaim, much less have had such an impact. About him author Robert Clark wrote, “He’d given Christ a face people hadn’t seen before, the peasant’s face. Until then Christ had been the Redeemer as the judge and king of the universe: he was painted enthroned, stern and impassive. Now he was the Redeemer as the man of sorrows, the god who became human to the quick and the marrow in order to lay claim to human wretchedness.” In fact, in my reading I discovered that many historians believe the “Franciscan revolution” begun by this humble man, which brought people back to a basic, humble faith, served to delay the Reformation by nearly three hundred years.
Is it that rare for someone to preach Christ with all his might, and if he must, use words?
Or perhaps it’s not rare, but obscure “lesser brother” types away from the camera lens of Hollywood or the national news are the ones who do it.
Or, maybe it’s supremely difficult, requiring the kind of meekness described in the Bible: enormous strength held under control, the animal appetites tamed and subdued.
The more I thought about it the more I realized what a tough, heroic figure St. Francis really was. The thousands of pilgrims throughout the centuries had chosen a worthy figure to emulate on their own journeys homeward, and I was glad to be numbered among them.