Life of St. Francis of Assisi | 7


Chapter 7.

His love of poverty, and the wonderful provision made for all his wants by god.

Amidst the other graces which Francis received from the bountiful Giver of all good gifts, he merited by a special prerogative to increase continually in the treasure of simplicity by the love of most deep poverty.

For the holy man considering this poverty to have been ever the familiar and beloved companion of the Son of God, and seeing that it was now cast out by all the world, so bound himself to it in perpetual espousals, that he forsook for it not only his father and mother, but also distributed all things whatsoever which he had in his power to give.

No man was ever so covetous of gold as he of poverty, nor did any man ever so carefully guard a treasure as he this pearl of the gospel. Nothing gave him so much offence as to see anything in the brethren not wholly in accordance with poverty.

Certain it is that from his entrance into religion, even unto his death, he contented himself with a single tunic and cord.

He frequently called to mind, with many tears, the poverty of Jesus Christ and His Mother; and affirmed that to be the queen of virtues, which shone so gloriously in the King of Kings, and in the Queen His Mother.

Therefore, when his brethren once asked him in conclave, by which virtue we become dearest to Christ, he, as if opening to them the secret of his heart, replied:

“Know, my brethren, that poverty is the special way to salvation; for it is the food of humility, and the root of perfection, whose fruits, although hidden, are manifold.

This is the treasure of which we read in the Gospel, which was hidden in the field; to buy which a man should sell all that he has, and in comparison with which all that can be given for its purchase is to be accounted as nothing.

And he who would attain to this height of perfection must lay aside not only worldly prudence, but even all knowledge of letters; that thus, stripped of all things, he may come to see the power of the Lord, and cast himself naked into the arms of the Crucified.

Neither does he perfectly renounce the world who keeps a place for the indulgence of his own senses in the secret of his heart.”

And many times when he spoke to his brethren of poverty, he would quote these words of the Gospel: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of Man has not where to lay his head.”

Therefore, he taught the brethren, that after the manner of the poor, they should build for themselves poor little huts, and that they should not look upon even these as their own, but dwell in them as pilgrims in the houses of others.

For, he said that it was the manner of pilgrims to dwell under the roof of other men, longing for the day when they should peacefully return to their own country.

He would sometimes command that houses already built should be pulled down, or that the friars should remove from them, if he saw anything therein which savoured of proprietorship, or that seemed too sumptuous to befit evangelical poverty;

for this, he said, was the foundation of the Order, which, if it were first laid, the whole religious structure would rest upon it, being strengthened by its strength; whereas, if the foundation fail, the whole edifice comes to ruin.

He taught also, as he had learned by revelation, that the beginning of holy religion must be the fulfilment of these words of the Gospel: “Go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor.”

Therefore, he would admit none to the Order except such as would strip themselves of all things, retaining nothing for themselves,

as well in obedience to the words of the Holy Gospel, as to avoid the danger and scandal which the reservation of worldly goods would occasion to the soul.

Therefore, when a certain man, in the March of Ancona, asked to be received into the Order, the true Patriarch of the poor replied: “If thou wilt become one of the poor of Christ, distribute thy goods to the poor.”

The man went his way, and being led astray by carnal affection, he left his property to his kindred, and not to the poor.

When the holy man heard thereof he severely rebuked him, saying:

“Go thy way, Brother Fly, for thou hast in no wise gone forth from thy kindred and from thy father’s house.

Thou hast given thy goods to thy family, and hast defrauded the poor; thou art not worthy to be a follower of holy poverty. Thou hast begun with the flesh, and hast sought to raise a spiritual building upon a ruinous foundation.”

 Then this carnal man returned home, and reclaiming his goods, which he would not give up to the poor, he quickly forsook his holy purpose.

Another time there was such poverty at St. Mary of the Portiuncula, that there was not wherewithal to supply the necessary wants of the brethren who came thither.

Wherefore, the vicar of the man of God came to him, beseeching him that on account of the poverty of the brethren, he would give permission to all the novices on their entrance to keep somewhat of their property, that so the brethren might have something to fall back upon in time of need.

To whom the holy man replied, being enlightened with knowledge from on high:

“God forbid, beloved brother, that for any man whomsoever we should thus sin against the rule.

I would rather have thee strip the altar of the glorious Virgin, should necessity so require, than infringe in the slightest degree the vow of poverty, and the due observance of the Gospel precept.

For rather would the Blessed Virgin see her altar unadorned, and the counsel of the Holy Gospel perfectly observed, than that her altar should be ornamented, and the counsel of her Son set at nought.”

Another day, as the man of God was passing with his companion by the city of Bari, in Apulia, he found a heavy purse on the way, which was all swollen as if full of money.

His companion showed the purse to the poor man of Christ, and earnestly besought him to let him take it from the ground, and distribute the money among the poor.

The man of God refused, affirming that there was some diabolical delusion connected with that purse, and that the brother would persuade him to do a sinful action and not a good work, by taking the property of another to give away.

So they left that place, and hastened forward on their way. But the friar could not be appeased, being deluded by a vain show of pity, and continued to urge the holy man, as if he cared not to relieve the misery of the poor.

Then Francis, in his meekness, agreed to return to the place, not to fulfil the will of the brother, but to detect the fraud of the devil.

Having returned to the place with the friar and a certain young man who was travelling that way, and having first prayed to God, he commanded his companion to take up the purse.

The brother did so trembling, being struck with sudden terror at the diabolical presence: but in obedience to the holy man’s command he overcame his fear, and stretched out his hand to the purse.

When, behold, a great serpent issued therefrom, and immediately vanishing, together with it, revealed the diabolical deception to the brother.

The delusion of the cunning adversary being thus made known, the holy man said to his companion: “Money, my brother, is to the servants of God nothing else but the devil and a venomous serpent.”

Soon afterwards a marvellous thing befell the holy man, who had gone for some urgent cause to the city of Sienna:

On the plain which is between Campiglia and Santo Quirico he met three women, in appearance poor, and in stature, age, and countenance exactly resembling one another.

They saluted him after this singular manner: “Welcome!” they said, “to the Lady Poverty.”

And when the true lover of poverty heard this he was filled with unspeakable joy, seeing that there was no salutation so dear to him as this which he had now heard.

The women suddenly disappeared, and the brethren in his company observing the marvellous similarity between them, the manner of their salutation, and the strange suddenness of their disappearance, considered (not without reason) that some great mystery was hereby signified concerning the holy man.

It would seem, indeed, that by these women, so poor, and so like to one another, who met him and saluted him after so singular a fashion, and so suddenly disappeared, was signified the beauty of evangelical perfection, which consists in chastity, poverty, and obedience,

all which shone forth in the holy man in equal beauty and glory, although he gloried in the privilege of poverty rather than in any other thing, being wont to call it, now his mother, now his spouse, now his lady.

In this he desired to surpass all others, because by this he had learnt to account himself inferior to all others.

And if he sometimes met with someone who in exterior habit seemed poorer than himself he would immediately reprove himself, and excite himself to do the like, ,as if in the continual battle which he waged for his lady Poverty, he feared to be overcome.

One day he met a poor man on the road, and looking upon his misery he was pierced to the heart, and said, in a lamentable voice to his companion:

“The poverty of this man makes me greatly ashamed, because, whereas we have chosen poverty in exchange for great riches, he shines forth therein far more brightly than we.”

For the love of holy poverty, this servant of Almighty God loved far better to live upon the alms which he begged from door to door than upon that which was freely offered to him.

And when he was sometimes invited by some great person to dine with him, knowing that he should, as a mark of honour, be made to sit down at an abundant table,

he went first to ask for broken pieces of bread at the neighbouring houses, and thus, in the wealth of poverty, he sat down to eat.

Now it happened one day that he was invited by the Cardinal of Ostia, who had an exceeding affection for this poor man of Christ,

and when the bishop complained that it was against his honour, when he was bidden to eat at his table, that he should go about asking for alms, the servant of God replied:

“My lord, by thus acting I have greatly honoured thee, inasmuch as I have honoured a Lord greater than thou. For the Lord delights in poverty, and more than all in that beggary which is embraced for Christ.

Nor will I lay aside that regal dignity which Our Lord Jesus Christ assumed when He became poor that He might enrich us by His poverty, and so make the poor in spirit to be kings and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I will not lay it aside, I say, for the gift of all the false riches which, for a short space, are granted to thee.”

He would oftentimes exhort the brethren to ask for alms in words such as these—

“Go,” said he, “ for the Friars Minor have been given in these last days to the world, that the elect, by their means, may obtain the praise of the Great Judge, and hear these most sweet words:

“Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me.””

And he said that it was a joyful thing to beg under the name of a Friar Minor, seeing that it is the very name used by the mouth of the Master of evangelical truth, when He spoke of the reward of the just.

It was his practice, when opportunity offered, to go begging on the principal Feasts, saying, that in holy poverty the prophet’s words are fulfilled:

“Man shall eat the bread of Angels; for that assuredly,” said he, “is the bread of Angels which is asked for the love of God, and, by the suggestion of Angels, is given by the charity of those at whose doors it is begged by holy poverty.”

Therefore, when he once passed the holy day of Easter in a distant hermitage, so far from the dwellings of men that it was not possible to go forth to beg,

in memory of Him who appeared on that day in the form of a pilgrim to the disciples going to Emmaus, he asked alms of his own brethren as a poor pilgrim;

which, when he had humbly received, he admonished them in many holy words,

that, passing through the desert of this world as pilgrims, and strangers, and true Hebrews, they should celebrate, in continual poverty of spirit, the true Pasch of the Lord, that is, this passage from this world to the Father.

And since, in asking alms, he was moved not by covetousness but by liberty of spirit, God the Father of the poor ever extended a special care over him.

It happened once that the servant of God was grievously sick in the city of Norsia, and being brought back to Assisi by messengers sent from the city,

on account of the great devotion that was borne him there, they who carried the holy man came to a poor little town named Sarziano;

and it being now the hour of dinner, and all being hungry, they went to buy some food, and, finding nothing, they returned empty-handed.

“Then,” said the holy man, “you have found nothing, because you trust more in your flies than in the Lord ”—for by flies he was wont to signify money;—

“return, therefore,” said he, “ to the houses which you have already visited, and humbly ask for alms, offering the love of God in return.

Nor do you account this in your false judgment to be a vile thing, for, after sin committed, God, the great almsgiver, grants to all, both worthy and unworthy, all things needful as an alms.”

Then, laying aside their false shame, they went and asked for alms, and more was freely given to them for the love of God, than by the money they had been able to procure.

For the hearts of the poor men who dwelt in that place being pierced by the Divine inspiration, they offered not their possessions only, but themselves;

and thus it befell, that the necessity which by money could not be relieved, the rich and abundant poverty of Francis supplied.

At the time when he lay sick at the hermitage near Rieti, a certain physician was accustomed frequently to visit and attend him.

And as Christ’s poor man was unable to make him a due return for his labours, the most bountiful God—lest he should lack a present remuneration—rewarded his pious service (in the place of his poor patient) by this extraordinary favour.

The house of this physician, which he had built anew with the fruit of his labours, was threatened with approaching ruin by a fissure in the wall, which reached from the top to the bottom of the house, so that it seemed impossible for human art or industry to prevent its fall.

But he, trusting wholly in the merits of the holy man, asked his companion, with great faith and devotion, to give him something which the hands of the man of God had touched.

Therefore, having with much importunity and many prayers obtained a small piece of his hair, he placed it in the fissure;

and the next morning he found the aperture so solidly closed, that it was impossible either to extract the hair or to perceive the slightest vestige of the crack.

And so it was that he who sedulously ministered to the bodily infirmities of the servant of God was preserved from his own peril and the ruin of his house.

Another time, when the man of God wished to go to a certain desert place, that he might give himself the more freely to contemplation, being very weak, he rode upon an ass belonging to a poor man.

It being a hot summer’s day, the poor man, as he followed the servant of Christ, became weary with the long way and the steep ascent,

and beginning to faint with fatigue and burning thirst, he called after the saint: “Behold,” he said, “I shall die of thirst unless I can find a little water at once to refresh me.”

Then without delay the man of God got off the ass, and kneeling down with his hands stretched out to heaven, he ceased not to pray till he knew that he was heard.

Having finished his prayer, he said to the man:

“Hasten to yonder rock, and there shalt thou find living water, which Christ the Merciful has even now brought forth therefrom that thou mayest drink.”

Oh! Marvellous goodness of God, who thus easily inclines to the prayer of His servants!

The thirsty man drank of the water drawn from the hard rock by the power of prayer. Never was flowing water in that place before; neither, however diligently sought for, could it ever be found there afterwards.

How, by the merits of His poor servant, Christ multiplied food on the sea, shall be noted hereafter in its place; suffice it here to say that, by small alms which had been given to him, he preserved many mariners from famine and the danger of death for many days together.

Whence it may be seen, that this servant of Almighty God was made like unto Moses in bringing water out of the rock, and to Eliseus in the multiplication of food.

Therefore, let the poor of Christ lay aside all distrust:

For if the poverty of Francis was so abundantly sufficient to supply by its wonderful power the wants of all those who in any way assisted him, so that they wanted neither food, nor drink, nor house, when all supply of money and all natural power and faculties failed them,

much more shall they deserve to receive those things which the order of Divine Providence is accustomed to grant indifferently to all men.

If, I say, the dry rock at the voice of the poor gave forth abundant water for the need of that poor thirsty man, never will our Lord deny anything to those who have left all things for the Author of all things.