Life of St. Francis of Assisi | 6


Chapter 6.

His humility and obedience,
and how the divine majesty granted all his prayers.

The man of God was filled to overflowing with humility, which is the glory and the guardian of all other virtues. In his own estimation he was a grievous sinner, though he was in truth the mirror and the glory of all sanctity.

Upon this foundation he studied to build up himself, having laid, as a wise architect, that foundation which he had learnt from Christ.

He was wont to say that the Son of God had descended from the bosom of his Father to our lowliness, that so by His example, as well as by His words, He, our Lord and Master, might teach us humility;

and therefore, as the true disciple of Christ, he sought to abase himself, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, remembering the words of our Divine Master:

“That which is highly esteemed among men is hateful in the sight of God.”

And he had these words continually in his mouth:

“What a man is in the eyes of God, so much he is, and no more.”

He held it, therefore, to be a folly to be elated by the favours of the world, and thus he rejoiced in contempt, and was troubled at praise.

He loved rather to meet with one who blamed him than with one who praised him, knowing that reproof leads to amendment, while praises excite to sin.

And because the people often extolled his sanctity, he commanded certain of the brethren that, contrariwise, they should revile him, and address to him words of contempt;

and when a brother (though against his will) called him a villain, a hireling, a useless person, with a joyful heart and countenance he made answer, “May the Lord bless thee, my dearest son, for thou speakest truly, and such words it befits the son of Peter Bernardone to hear.”

And that he might make himself contemptible to all, he was not ashamed when preaching to manifest his defects before all the people.

It happened once that, being grievously sick, he relaxed somewhat of the rigour of his abstinence for the recovery of his health.

No sooner had he recovered his bodily strength than, filled with self-contempt, he determined to take shame to his body. “It is not fitting,” he said, “that the people should account me a mortified man, while I secretly indulge my body.”

He rose, therefore, being inflamed with the spirit of holy humility, and, having called together the people into the market-place of Assisi, together with many friars whom he brought with him,

he entered into the principal church, and having placed a cord round his neck, he commanded them to drag him, half naked, to a stone on which condemned malefactors were wont to be placed.

And mounting upon this stone, although he was suffering from ague and excessive weakness, and the weather was intensely cold,

he preached with great force and energy to the people there assembled, affirming that he in nowise deserved to be honoured by them as a spiritual man, but rather to be despised by all, as one carnal and gluttonous.

All the assembly marvelled greatly at so strange a spectacle, and well knowing his austerity, they were pierced with compunction, and exclaimed that such humility was rather to be admired than within the reach of imitation.

And although, indeed, such an act may rather be called a miracle than an example, nevertheless, it was a true lesson of perfect humility,

by which everyone who would follow Christ is taught to despise the testimony of the world’s transitory praise, and to repress the pride of vain boasting, and confute the falsehood of dissimulation.

Many such things he did, that he might appear outwardly a vile vessel of dishonour, possessing within the true spirit of sanctification.

He studied to conceal the gifts of the Lord in the secret of his breast, lest, turning to his glory, they might become the occasion of his ruin.

When he heard himself praised and blessed by many, he would often say: “I may yet have sons and daughters; you cannot safely praise me. No man is to be praised whose end is uncertain.”

This, to those who praised him; and to himself: “Francis, if a robber had received such graces as thou hast received, he would be far more grateful than thou.”

And he often said to the brethren: “No man ought wickedly to pride himself upon such things as a sinner can do:

A sinner,” he said, “can fast, pray, weep, mortify his flesh; this only he cannot do—be faithful to his Lord. In this, then, we may glory,—if we give Him the glory which is due to Him, if we serve Him faithfully, if we ascribe all His gifts to Him.”

Now this evangelical merchant, that he might make the greater profit, and spend every moment of his life in laying up merit, ever chose to be a subject rather than a superior; to obey rather than to command:

Therefore, laying aside his office of Minister General, he desired to be under the Guardian, that he might in all things obey his will.

For he declared that, so abundant is the fruit of holy obedience, that to those who place their neck beneath its yoke, no place and no time shall be without its profit.

Therefore, he was accustomed to promise obedience to the friar who went with him as his companion; which promise he was most careful to fulfil.

He said one day to the brethren:

“Amongst many gifts which our Lord, in His goodness, has bestowed upon me, He has granted me this grace, to obey with the same readiness a novice who had been but an hour in religion, were he set over me as my superior, as the most ancient and discreet amongst the brethren.”

“The subject,” he was wont to say, “should look upon his prelate not as a man, but as the representative of Him for whose love he is subject to Him, For the more contemptible is he who commands, the more pleasing to God is the humility of him who obeys.”

Being once asked who could be counted truly obedient, he brought forward the example of a dead body:

“Take,” he said, “an inanimate corpse, and place it where thou wilt. Thou wilt see that it will not resist thee in anywise. It will not murmur at the place thou givest it, nor cry out if thou leavest it there.

If thou shalt place it on a throne, it will not look upwards, but always downwards. If thou clothe it in purple, it will but look the paler.

Thus,” said he, “is it with the truly obedient man. If he be removed, he considers not wherefore; he cares not where he is placed, nor asks to be transferred to another office.

 If he be exalted, he preserves his accustomed humility; and accounts himself the more unworthy the greater honour he receives.”

Another day, he said to his companion:

“I shall never account myself a friar minor until I attain to the state which I shall now describe to thee:

Suppose I am a prelate set over the brethren, and I go to the chapter to preach and admonish them, and at the end of my discourse they tell me that I am not fit to be over them; that I do not know how to speak; that I am illiterate, foolish, and simple.

Suppose that I am then cast out with shame, amidst the derision of all.

I tell thee that unless I endure these things with an even countenance, an even gladness of heart, and an even sanctity of purpose, I am no friar minor.”

And he added:

“In the loss of dignity, in the absence of praise, in humble subjection, there is great profit to the soul. Why, therefore, when time has been given us to profit withal, do we seek rather for peril than for profit?”

From humility, therefore, Francis desired that his friars should be called minors, and that the prelates of his Order should bear the name of minister,

both to fulfil the words of the Gospel, which they had promised to observe; and also that his disciples might learn by the very name they bear that they have come to the school of the humble Jesus to learn humility:

For the Master of humility, Jesus Christ, that He might form His disciples to perfect humility, said: “Whosoever will be greatest among you let him be your minister, and whosoever will be first among you he shall be your servant.”

Therefore, when the man of God was asked by the Cardinal of Ostia, the protector and chief promoter of the Order of Friars Minor,

who was afterwards raised, according to the prediction of the holy man, to the supreme Pontificate under the name of Gregory the Ninth;

when he was asked by this great man to consent to the promotion of his brethren to ecclesiastical dignities, he made answer thus:

“My Lord, my friars have been called minors that they might not presume to become majors. If thou wilt have them to bear fruit in the Church of God, keep and preserve them in this their state and vocation, and never suffer them to rise to ecclesiastical prelatures.”

And inasmuch as he preferred humility to honours, both in himself and in others, God, who loves the humble, judged him worthy of the highest honour, as was shown by a heavenly vision vouchsafed to a very devout and holy friar:

For this friar, being in company with the holy man, entered with him into a certain deserted church, and there, as he was praying fervently, he fell into an ecstasy,

and amid many thrones in heaven he saw one more glorious than all the rest, adorned with precious stones of most glorious brightness.

And marvelling at the surpassing brightness of that throne, he began anxiously to consider within himself who should be found worthy to fill it.

Then he heard a voice saying to him: “This was the throne of one of the fallen angels, and now it is reserved for the humble Francis.”

When the friar had recovered from his ecstasy, he went forth from the church, following the blessed man, as was his wont.

And as they went on their way conversing, according to their custom, of God, the friar (remembering his vision) bethought him to ask the man of God what he thought of himself.

To which Christ’s humble servant made reply: “I think myself to be the greatest of sinners.”

And when the brother answered that he could not with a safe conscience say or think such a thing, he added:

“If Christ had shown to the most wicked man on earth such mercy as He has shown to me, I believe assuredly that that man would have been far more grateful to God than I have been.”

By this wonderful humility the brother was confirmed in the truth of the vision which he had seen, knowing by the testimony of the holy Gospel that the humble shall be exalted to that excellent glory from which the proud shall be cast down.

Another time, when Francis was praying in a certain deserted church, in the province of Massa, near Mount Casale, he was enlightened in spirit to know that some sacred relics were there concealed.

Grieving that they had been so long defrauded of their due honour, he commanded his brethren to remove them; but being compelled by some urgent cause to leave the place, the sons forgot their father’s command, and lost the merit of obedience.

One day when the Holy Mass was about to be celebrated, on removing the first covering of the altar, they found some beautiful and fragrant bones, which they recognized to be the relics of the saints, brought thither not by the hand of man but by the power of God.

The man of God returning soon afterwards, inquired whether they had fulfilled his command concerning the relics.

The brethren humbly confessed their neglect of obedience, and obtained pardon, together with penance, for their fault.

Then said the holy man: “Blessed be the Lord, my God, who Himself has done that which you ought to have done.”

Consider diligently the care which Divine Providence takes of our ashes, and behold how excellent in the eyes of God was the virtue of the humble Francis. For when man cared not to fulfil His command, God was obedient to his desire.

Coming on a certain day to Imola, he humbly besought the Bishop of that city to give him permission to call the people together to hear him preach.

But the Bishop answered roughly, “It is sufficient, friar, that I preach to my people myself.” And the humble Francis bowed his head and went his way. But after the short space of an hour he came back again.

When the Bishop, with some displeasure, inquired what he came again to ask, he made answer, in all humility of heart and speech— “My Lord, if a father sends his son out at one door, there is nothing left for him but to return by another.”

Then the Bishop, being vanquished by this humility, embraced him with a joyful countenance, saying, “Thou and all thy brethren shall have a general license to preach throughout my diocese, as the reward of thy holy humility.”

It came to pass that he went to Arezzo at a time when that city, being torn by intestine wars and seditions, was even nigh to its ruin.

As he lodged in a suburb outside the walls, he saw a multitude of demons rejoicing over the city, and instigating the angry citizens to destroy each other.

In order to disperse these seditious powers of the air, he sent as his herald, B. Sylvester, a man simple as a dove, saying to him:

“Go to the gates of the city, and there, in the name of Almighty God, command the demons by virtue of holy obedience, that without delay they depart from that place.”

The obedient friar, having heard these words, set forth to fulfil the command; and singing the praises of the Lord as he went, he soon stood before the city gates, and cried with a loud voice:

“In the name of Almighty God, and by the command of His servant Francis, I bid you all, infernal demons, to depart far from hence.”

No sooner had he spoken than the tumult in the city was appeased, and all the citizens, in great tranquillity, began to revise the statutes and regulations of the city, that so they might be duly observed.

Thus the fierce pride of the demons, which had enslaved the miserable city, was overcome by the wisdom of the poor, and the humility of Francis restored it to peace and safety:

For the great virtue of humble obedience obtained the mastery over those mutinous and rebellious spirits, bringing down and humbling their fierce pride, and putting their evil will utterly to flight.

The demons of pride ever fly from the sublime virtue of humility;

unless, for its more careful custody and preservation, the Divine clemency permits them to tempt and trouble the humble, as the Apostle Paul writes of himself, and as Francis proved by his own experience.

Cardinal Leo, of Santa Croce, having once prayed him to remain with him awhile at Rome, Francis humbly consented to his desire, for the reverence and love which he bore so great a man.

On the first night, as he desired to take some rest after his prayer, the demons arose in great fury against the soldier of Christ, and having severely beaten him, they left him as it were half dead

When they were gone, Francis called his companion, who came to him at once, and to him the holy man related what had happened, adding:

“I believe, brother, that the demons, who can do nothing but by the disposition of Divine Providence, have beaten me now so cruelly, because it is not well that I should abide in the courts of princes.

My brethren, who dwell in poor places, will perhaps think when they see me living with Cardinals, that I am meddling in worldly matters, or seeking after honours, or enjoying delicacies.

Therefore I judge it far better that he who is to give an example to others should fly from courts, and dwell humbly among the humble in humble places, that he may be able to strengthen those who suffer poverty and are ill at ease, seeing that he endures the same things himself.”

The next morning, therefore, he offered his humble excuses to the Cardinal, and took his leave with the brethren.

And as the holy man greatly abhorred pride, which is the origin of all evils, and disobedience, her most evil daughter, he never failed to accept and commend the humility of penitents.

It happened once that a certain friar was brought before him, who had committed some little fault against the rule of obedience, that he might be corrected by the discipline of his justice.

The holy man perceiving, by evident signs, that this brother was really and deeply contrite, was moved by his love of humility to pardon him.

Nevertheless, that the facility of the pardon might not give occasion to others to sin, he commanded that the friar’s cowl should be taken from him and cast into the fire, that all might learn how great and signal a punishment is due to disobedience.

When the cowl had remained for some time in the midst of the fire, he commanded it to be drawn forth from the flames, and restored to the brother, now humbly penitent.

Marvellous to relate, when the cowl was taken out of the midst of the flames, it bore upon it no vestige of fire.

And thus, by one and the same miracle, God commended the virtue of the holy man, and the humility of the penitent.

Worthy, therefore, of all men to be followed is the humility of Francis, which, even in his earthly life, raised him to such dignity, inclined God to his desires, changed the affections of men, bowed the proud demons to his will, and bridled the voracity of fire at the mere sign of his pleasure. Humility it is which exalts its possessors, and, while it shows reverence to all men, is honoured by all men in return.