Life of St. Francis of Assisi | 8


Chapter 8.

His tender piety, and how even creatures devoid of reason were obedient to his will.

True piety, which, according to the Apostle, is profitable for all things, had so filled and penetrated the heart of Francis, the servant of God, that he was seen to be wholly subject to its dominion.

He was thereby raised to God by devotion, transformed into Christ by compassion, brought nearby condescension to his neighbour; and by the love which he bore to all creatures he attracted them to himself) even as Adam in his state of innocence.

And as he was thus tenderly affectionate to all, so especially when he saw souls redeemed by the precious blood of Christ Jesus to be defiled by any stain of sin,

he mourned over them with such tenderness of commiseration, as if like a mother he were daily bringing them forth to Christ.

And this was the principal cause of his veneration for all the ministers of the Word of God, as for those who raise up seed for Christ, their deceased Brother, crucified for sinners, and with pious solicitude rear and govern the children whom they bring forth to Him.

And this office of mercy he affirmed to be the more acceptable to the Father of Mercies if fulfilled with perfect charity;

and therefore he laboured after this in his own person, rather by example than by words, rather by the language of tears than by the eloquence of speech.

For he said that that preacher is worthy to be bewailed with many tears who is devoid of true piety, or who in his preaching seeks not the salvation of souls, but his own praise, or who destroys by the depravity of his life what he builds up by the truth of his doctrine.

And he said that the brother is to be preferred, who, being simple and slow of speech, excites others to good by the force of his good example, and he gave this explanation of the verse, “The barren has borne many children.”

The barren,” he said, “ is a poor little friar, who has no office to bring forth children in the Church; but he shall bring forth many in the last judgment, for they who are now converted to Christ by his secret prayers shall then be ascribed by the Judge to his glory.”

“He who has borne many children has become weak;” that is, the vain and loquacious preacher who rejoices now in many children, begotten (as he believes) by his own virtue, shall then acknowledge that he has no part in them.

Francis, therefore, desiring with his whole heart the salvation of souls, and being full of most fervent zeal for their conversion,

was wont to say that he was perfumed with sweet odours, and, as it were, anointed with precious ointment, when he heard that, by the sweet odour of his brethren’s sanctity diffused throughout the world, many were brought into the way of truth.

And when he heard such tidings he rejoiced in spirit, and poured forth most abundant blessings upon those brethren who, by word or deed, brought sinners to the love of Christ.

But they who by their evil deeds dishonour holy religion, incurred the most heavy sentence of his malediction:

“By Thee,” said he, “Most Holy Lord, by the whole heavenly court, and by me, Thy little one, let them be accursed, who by their evil example confound and destroy that which, by the holy brethren of this Order, Thou hast built up, and ceasest not still to build.”

And he was oftentimes so oppressed with sadness at the scandal thus given to the little ones of Christ, that it seemed he would have even sunk under it, had he not been supported by the consolation of the Divine mercy.

As he was one day greatly troubled on this account, and was praying with an anxious heart to the Father of mercies for his children, he received this answer from the Lord:

“Why art thou troubled, poor little one, as if I had in such wise set thee as a pastor over Mine order, that thou shouldst forget that I am its chief Master?

I have chosen thee, a simple man, for this office, that whatsoever I shall work in thee may be ascribed not to thee, but to Divine grace.

I have called, I will preserve, I will feed these my sheep; and if some be cut off, I will bring others into their place; and if they be not yet born, I will bring them into being; and by whatever attacks this poor religion shall be assailed, by My help it shall be preserved, and shall abide forever.”

Francis abhorred detraction, as a vice most hostile to the fountain of grace and piety;

he compared it to the bite of a most venomous and horrible serpent, accounting it to be most hateful to our good and gracious God, and affirming that detraction feeds upon the blood of souls, which it slays with the sword of the tongue.

Hearing a friar once lessening the good fame of another, he turned to his vicar, and said:

“Arise, search diligently, and if thou shouldst find the accused brother innocent, let the accuser be severely corrected in the sight of all.”

He was wont to say that he who deprived his brother of his good fame should be deprived of his habit, nor should he venture to raise his eyes to the Lord until to the best of his power he had restored that which he had taken from him.

Detraction,” he said, “is so much greater a sin than theft, as the law of Christ, which is fulfilled by charity, bids us seek after the health of the soul rather than of the body.”

Yet with exceeding tenderness of compassion did he minister to all bodily sufferings, whether penury, or want of any kind, sweetly commending the sufferer to Christ.

Mercy, indeed, was born with him, but it received a two-fold increase by the infused charity of Christ, for truly his soul melted within him at the sight of poverty and sickness; and the comfort which his hand was unable to bestow, he gave by the affection of his heart.

It happened once that a certain poor man begged of him importunately, and was answered roughly by one of the brothers.

When the pious lover of the poor heard it, he commanded the friar to lay aside his habit, and cast himself at the poor man’s feet, acknowledging his fault, and begging him to pardon and pray for him.

When he had humbly obeyed, our sweet Father said to him:

“My brother, when you see a poor man, behold in him a mirror of the Lord, and of His poor Mother. In the sick, in like manner, consider that He bore our sicknesses.”

Thus in all the poor this model of Christian poverty beheld the image of Christ, and so when he had received as an alms things necessary for the body,

he not only liberally bestowed them upon any poor man whom he met on the way, but accounted that he was thus restoring to him what was rightfully his own.

It happened once that he met a poor man as Francis was returning from Sienna, wearing, by reason of sickness, a cloak over his habit.

Beholding with a pitiful eye the misery of this poor man, “It is fitting,” said he, to his companion, “that we should restore this cloak to this poor man, for it is his, and I accepted it only until I should find someone poorer than myself.”

But his companion, considering the necessity of the compassionate Father, pertinaciously objected to his relieving others and neglecting himself.

But he answered: “I should be accounted a thief by the great Almsgiver, were I to withhold that which I wear from him who has greater need of it than I.”

Therefore, he was accustomed to ask permission of those who relieved his corporal necessities, to give away that which he received from them to any he should meet with in any greater need than himself.

He spared nothing, neither cloak, nor tunic, nor books, nor even the ornaments of the altar, but would give all these things to the poor to fulfil the office of mercy.

Oftentimes when he met a poor man on the way, laden with a heavy burden, he would take it on his own weak shoulders and carry it for him.

The consideration of the common origin of all creatures filled him with overflowing tenderness for all; and he called them all his brothers and sisters, because they had all one origin with himself.

But he bore the sweetest and strongest affection to those whose natural qualities set forth the sweet meekness of Christ, and by which He is therefore signified in Holy Scripture.

He would frequently redeem lambs which were being led to the slaughter, in memory of that most meek Lamb who, to redeem sinners, vouchsafed to be led forth to die.

It happened once, when the servant of God abode at the Monastery of St. Verecundo, in the diocese of Gubbio that a sheep brought forth her lamb in the night.

A ferocious sow, which was in the place, destroyed that innocent life with her ravenous jaws.

When the loving Father heard of it, he was moved with compassion, and in memory of the Lamb without spot, he began to lament over the death of the little creature before them all, saying:

“Woe is me, brother lamb, innocent animal representing Christ to men; accursed be that evil beast which slew thee; let neither man nor beast eat of its flesh forever.”

Marvellous to say, the cruel sow at once fell sick, and after three days paid the penalty of her evil deed by her own death. Being cast into the convent ditch, her body long remained there, dried up like a piece of wood.

See, then, what chastisement shall befall the wickedness of men, if the ferocity of a beast was punished by so evil a death.

Consider also how marvellous was the piety, and how overflowing the sweetness, of the servant of God, which caused even brute natures to pay him all the homage in their power.

As he was passing through the plains round the city of Sienna, he met with a large flock of sheep, which, when he saluted them benignly (as was his custom), all left their pasture, and ran to him, raising their heads and fixing their eyes upon him.

And so gladsomely did they frolic round him, that the friars and shepherds marvelled, beholding not only the lambs, but even the rams exulting in his presence.

At another time, at St. Mary of the Portiuncula, a sheep was brought to the man of God which, because of the innocence and loving simplicity betokened by these creatures, he gladly received.

Francis taught the sheep that it should always praise God, and give no offence, to the brethren and the sheep, as if it had a sense of the piety of the man of God, carefully observed all his commandments.

For when it heard the brethren singing in the choir, it would go into the church, and, unbidden, bend its knees, bleating, before the altar of the Virgin Mother of the Lamb.

And when the most sacred Body of Christ was elevated in the holy Mass it would bend its knees; thus, by the reverence of an animal, rebuking the irreverence of the undevout, and exciting the devout to greater veneration for the Sacrament of Christ

Another time he kept a little lamb with him in the city of Rome, in reverence of the most meek Lamb of God, which he committed to the care of a noble lady, Jacoba di Settesoli.

And the lamb, as if it had been trained in spiritual things by the holy man, would go with the lady to church, remain there with all reverence, and return with her as her inseparable companion.

If the lady was late in rising in the morning, the lamb would come and push her with its little horns, and excite her by its bleating, signs, and gestures to hasten to the church.

Therefore, this lamb, the disciple of Francis, and so great a master of devotion, was kept by the lady as a marvellous and precious thing.

Another time, when the man of God was at Grecio, a live hare was brought to him, which, although it was placed upon the ground that it might escape if it would, at the call of the loving Father leaped of its own accord into his bosom.

And he, pressing it to him with tender affection, admonished it with motherly compassion not to let itself be taken again, and then set it free.

But although it was many times placed upon the ground, that it might depart, it still returned into the Father’s bosom, as if it had some hidden sense of the pitifulness of his heart; at last, by his command, it was carried safely by the brethren to a solitary place.

In like manner, a rabbit which was caught in an island on the lake of Perugia, and brought to the man of God, while it fled from all others, committed itself fearlessly to his hands, and nestled in his bosom.

As he was passing by the lake of Rieti, near the hermitage of Grecio, a fisherman, out of devotion, brought to him a water-fowl, which, having willingly accepted, he opened his hands to let it fly away, but it would not depart;

then raising his eyes to heaven, he remained for a long time in prayer, and coming to himself (as it were), after the space of more than an hour, he sweetly reiterated his command that, giving praise to the Lord, it should depart. Then, receiving his holy benediction, it flew joyfully away.

In the same lake was found a great fish, which was brought to him alive:

After his custom, he called it by the name of brother, and put it back again into the water, near the boat in which he was.

But the fish gambolled in the water before the man of God, and, as if attracted by the love of him, would by no means depart from the boat, until he sent it away with his blessing.

Another day, as he was walking with a certain friar near the Lagunas of Venice, he saw a great multitude of birds sitting upon the branches of a tree, and singing aloud:

Then he said to his companion, “Our sisters, the birds, praise their Creator; let us therefore go into the midst of them, and sing the canonical hours to the Lord.”

And when they went into the midst of them, the birds departed not from their place.

But because, for the noise they made, the friars could not hear each other as they said the hours, the holy man said to the birds: “My sisters, the birds, cease your singing until we have fulfilled our duty in praising God.”

And the birds hushed their singing at once, and remained silent until the office was fully said, and they received permission from the man of God to resume their song.

No sooner had he given them leave, than they began to sing after their wonted manner, on a fig-tree, near the cell of the man of God.

At St. Mary of the Angels, a grasshopper was continually chirping, which, by its song, excited the servant of God to praise the Lord; for he had learnt, even in the most insignificant creatures, to admire the wonderful works of the Creator.

One day he called the grasshopper to him, which, as if it had been divinely admonished to obey, perched at once upon his hand. And he said to it, “Sing, my sister grasshopper; rejoice and praise the Lord thy Creator.”

And the creature began at once to chirp, and ceased not until, at the command of the Father, it flew back again to its own place.

Thus for eight days together it remained on that same branch, daily coming to the holy man at his command, and departing again when he sent it away.

At length the man of God said to his companions:

“Let us give leave to our sister grasshopper to depart, for she has now sufficiently cheered us by her song, and for these eight days past has excited us to praise our God.”

And immediately it departed, nor did it ever appear there again, as if it dared not in any wise transgress his command.

When he was sick at Sienna, a certain nobleman sent him a live pheasant which had been just caught. No sooner did it see and hear the holy man, than so lovingly did it cleave to him, that it could not bear to be separated from him:

For although it was often taken out of the cloister by the brethren into a vineyard hard by, that it might go whithersoever it would, it always flew back to the Father, as if it had been fed by him all the days of its life.

Being afterwards given to a certain man, who, out of devotion, came often to visit the holy man, as if sorrowful at being taken away from that pitiful Father, the bird refused to eat.

It was brought back again to the servant of God, and as soon as it saw him it gave signs of great joy, and began to eat with avidity.

When he came to the hermitage at Alvernia, to keep the Lent in honour of the Archangel Michael, many different kinds of birds came flying round his cell with sweet songs and glad gestures, as if they rejoiced at his coming, and would invite that pious Father to remain amongst them.

And when he saw it, he said to his companion: “I perceive, brother that it is the will of God that we should abide here awhile, seeing that our sisters, the birds, thus rejoice at our presence.”

Now, while he abode there, a falcon, which had her nest in that place, made a loving friendship with him. For, by her cry, she gave notice to the holy man every night of the hour at which he was wont to rise to say the Divine Office.

The great care which this bird took to wake him was most pleasing to the man of God, because it freed him from all danger of sloth and negligence.

But when the servant of Christ was sick, and weaker than was his wont, the falcon spared his infirmity, and called him later than usual; for, as if she had been admonished by God, she awoke him with a gentle call at the break of day.

And, assuredly, there seemed to be a Divine presage, both in the exultation of the manifold kind of birds and in the cry of this falcon, of the sublime dignity to which the devoted servant and worshipper of God was soon to be raised on the wings of contemplation by the apparition of the Seraph.

While the holy man dwelt, at another time, at the hermitage of Grecio, the inhabitants of that place were troubled with many and various evils, for a great multitude of ravenous wolves devoured not only beasts but men, and the hail also yearly destroyed their corn and vines.

When, therefore, the herald of the Holy Gospel was preaching to these afflicted men, he said to them:

“I bid you believe, to the honour and glory of Almighty God, that all these plagues shall depart from you, and the Lord will look upon you, and will multiply your temporal goods,

if you will believe my words and have mercy upon yourselves, and (having made a good confession) bring, forth worthy fruits of penance.

And again I declare to you that if, being ungrateful to God for His mercies, you return to your evil ways, your wounds shall open again, your punishment shall be two-fold, and the wrath of God shall wax hotter against you than before.”

From that hour they began to do penance, in obedience to the holy man, and the cruel plagues which had molested them ceased, neither wolves nor hail troubling them again.

And what is still more marvellous, when the hail fell on the neighbouring fields, it stopped when it approached their boundaries, or fell upon other places.

The hail having thus ceased, the wolves also kept the promise made by the servant of God, and ventured no longer to rage against those men who no longer impiously rebelled against the laws of the merciful God.

It behoves us, therefore, piously to venerate the piety of that blessed man, by whose marvellous sweetness and power ferocious beasts were quelled, wild animals tamed, and the nature of brutes rebellious to man since his fall, was sweetly inclined to his obedience.

For this virtue of piety it is which, uniting all things together, is profitable to all things, having the promise of this life and of that which is to come.