And I saw another Angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the sign of the living God; and he cried with a loud voice to the four Angels to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying: Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, till we sign the servants of our God in their foreheads.
The sixth seal of the Book of destinies had just been opened before the eyes of the prophet of Patmos. It was a time of anguish, the hour for the wicked to cry to the mountains: Fall upon us. The sun was darkened: an image of the Sun of Justice eclipsed by the night of iniquity; the moon, the figure of the Church, appeared red as blood, through the evils that defiled the sanctuary; the stars fell from heaven, as the fig-tree casteth its green figs when it is shaken by a great wind. Who would appease the Lamb, and retard the day of wrath? At the invitation of the Saints and of the Apostolic See, let us recognize the Angel who won for the world a delay of the judgment; the Angel with the impress of God upon a mortal body; the Seraph with his sacred stigmata, the sight of which once more disarmed the justice of God. Dante thus sings of the elect of God, under whose leadership took place on earth as it were a repetition of the first and only Redemption:
“Between Tupino, and the wave that falls
From blest Ubaldo’s chosen hill, there hangs
Rich slope of mountain high, whence heat and cold
Are wafted thro’ Perugia’s eastern gate:
And Nocera with Gualdo, in its rear,
Mourn for their heavy yoke. Upon that side,
Where it doth break its steepness most, arose
A sun upon the world, as duly this
From Ganges doth: therefore let none who speak
Of that place say Ascesi; for its name
Were lamely so delivered; but the East,
To call things rightly, be it henceforth styled.
He was not yet much distant from his rising,
When his good influence ‘gan to bless the earth.
A dame to hwom none openeth pleasure’s gate
More than to death, was, ‘gainst his father’s will,
His stripling choice: and he did make her his,
Before the spiritual court, by nuptial bonds
And in his father’s sight: from day to day
Then loved her more devoutly. She bereaved
Of her first husband, slighted and obscure,
Thousand and hundred years and more, remain’d
Without a single suitor, till he came.
“The lovers’ titles—Poverty and Francis.
Their concord and glad looks, wonder and love,
And sweet regard gave birth to holy thoughts,
So much, that venerable Bernard first
Did bare his feet, and, in pursuit of peace
So heavenly, ran, yet deem’d his footing slow.
O hidden riches! O prolific good!
Egidius bares him next, and next Sylvester,
And follow, both, the Bridegroom: so the Bride
Can please them. Thenceforth goes he on his way
The father and the master, with his spouse,
And with that family, whom now the cord
Girt humbly: nor did abjectness of heart
Weigh down his eyelids, for that he was son
Of Pietro Bernadone, and by men
In wondrous sort despised. But royally
His hard intention he to Innocent
Set forth; and from him first received the seal
Of his religion.
He had, thro’ thirst of martyrdom, stood up
In the proud Soldan’s presence, and there preached
Christ and his folowers, but found the race
Unripen’d for conversion; back once more
He hasted, (not to intermit his toil,)
And reap’d Ausonian lands. On the hard rock,
Twixt Arno and the Tiber, he from Christ
Took the last signet, which his limbs two years
Did carry. Then, the season come that he,
Who to such good had destined him, was pleased
To advance him to the meed, which he had earned
By his self-humbling; to his brotherhood,
As their just heritage, he gave in charge
His dearest lady: and enjoined their love
And faith to her; and, from her bosom, will’d
His goodly spirit should move forth, returning
To its appointed kingdom; nor would have
His body laid upon another bier.”
Francis took his flight, for his work was done; innumerable souls were now treading the paths of penance; the Cross of Christ was set before the eyes of the whole world as the treasure of the Church, now that she was beginning her ascent of Calvary. How admirably had the sanctifying Spirit conducted this work!
At the age of four and twenty, Francis, who was destined not to see his forty-sixth year, was the head of a party of gay youths who filled Assisi day and night with their songs. Full of the poetry of France (from which country he borrowed his name), he dreamed of nothing but worldly renown and knightly prowess. One night he beheld in a prophetic dream a large assortment of arms and weapons. “For whom are all these?” he inquired; and on hearing the answer: “For thee and thy soldiers,” he hastened to join Gauthier de Brienne, who was at war with the Germans in the South of Italy. But God arrested him: in a series of manifestations, to which the young man corresponded with all the generous ardor of his pure heart, our Lord revealed to him the object of his life’s labor, the standard he was to carry through the world, and the Lady in whose service he was to win his spurs.
The Church, ever under attack, yet hitherto ever victorious, seemed about to succumb, so undermined were he walls by heresy, so broken by the battering ram of the secular power; while within the citadel, the ancient faith was sinking under prolonged scandals, leaving the field open to the enterprises of traitors, and multiplying defections in a society already beginning to feel the torpor of death. Nevertheless, it is written that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. “Francis, seest thou not that my house is falling to decay? Go, then, and repair it for me.”
There was need of a sudden surprise to disconcert the enemy; and of an energetic appeal, to rouse the sleepy garrison, and rally them around the too forgotten ensign of Christians, the Cross of Christ. Francis was to be, in his very flesh, the standard of the Crucified. The sacred wounds already pierced his soul, an dmade his eyes two ceaseless fountains of tears: “I weep for the Passion of Jesus Christ my Master; nor shall I blush to go weeping all over the world.”
Avarice was the crying sin of the age; the hearts of men, too preoccupied with earthly affairs to have a desire of heaven, must be delivered from a slavery which crushed out all noble thoughts, all love, all devotedness. Holy Poverty, the mother of that true liberty which disarms hell and laughs at tyrants, could alone achieve such a deliverance. Francis was taken with the beauty of poverty, in spite of the jeers and insults of the vulgar, and of his rejection by his own family; but his sublime folly was the salvation of his people, and he was blessed by our heavenly Father, as a true brother of his eternal Son.
As by nature the consubstantial Word receives his unbeginning Being from him who begets him eternally; so within the Holy Trinity, he has nothing appropriated to himself but the title of Son, to the glory of the Father, in the Holy Spirit who is their love. Such is God’s destitution of all things, whereof nothing created could give an idea, but which is reflected in the Incarnate Word’s sublime disappropriation in presence of that Father form whom he derived his all. Would it, then, be far wrong to consider the Poverty chosen by St. Francis as no other than Eternal Wisdom, offering herself, even under the old Law, to the human race, as bride, and as sister? Once espoused in Mary’s womb at the Incarnation, how great has been her fidelity! But whoever loves her must become in Jesus like unto her.
“Lord Jesus,” said Francis, “show me the paths of thy well-beloved Poverty. ‘Tis she that accompanied thee from thy Mother’s womb to the crib in the stable, and, on the waysides of the world, took care thou shouldst not have where to lay thy head. In the combat which concluded the war of our Redemption, Poverty, adorned with all the privations which form her bridal attire, mounted with thee upon the Cross, which even Mary could not ascend. She followed thee to thy borrowed tomb; and, as thou didst yield up thy soul in her embrace, so n her arms thou didst gake it again in the glorious nakedness of the Resurrection; and together with her didst enter heaven, leaving to the earth all that was earthly. Oh! who would not love this queen of the world which she tramples under her feet, my lady and my love? Most poor Jesus, my sweet Master, have pity on me; without her I can taste no peace, and I die of desire.”
God cannot turn a deaf ear to such entreaties. If he contends, it is in order to add fresh wounds of love, until the old man being destroyed, the new rises form the ruins, in all things conformed to the image of the heavenly Adam. Eighteen years later, after the prodigy on Mount Alvernia, Francis, impressed with the divine seal of Christ’s wounds, sang in heavenly language the sublime combat which had made up his life:
“Love has cast me into a furnace, love has cast me into a furnace, I am cast into a furnace of love.
“My new Bridegroom, the loving Lamb, gave me the nuptial ring; then having cast me into prison, he cleft my heart, and my body fell to the ground.
“Those arrows, propelled by love, struck me and set me on fire. From peace he made war, and I am dying of sweetness.
“The darts rained so thick and fast, that I was all in an agony. Then I took a buckler, but the shafts were so swift that it shielded me no more; they mangled my whole body, so strong was the arm that shot them.
“He shot them so powerfully, that I despaired of parrying them; and to escape death, I cried with all my might: ‘Thou transgressest the laws of the camp.’ But he only set up a new instrument of war, which overwhelmed me with fresh blows.
“So true was his aim, that he never missed. I was lying on the ground, unable to move my limbs. My whole body was broken, and I had no more sense than a man deceased;
“Deceased, not by a true death, but through excess of joy. Then regaining possession of my body, I felt so strong, that I could follow the guides who led me to the court of heaven.
“Returning to myself, I took up arms, and I made war upon Christ; I rode into his territory, and meeting him, I engaged him at once, and took my revenge on him.
“Having had my revenge, I made a treaty with him; for from the beginning Christ had loved me with a true love. And now my heart has become capable of the consolations of Christ.”
Around the standard-bearer of Christ were already gathered those whom he called his knights of the Round Table. However captivating he may have been when his fellow-citizens proclaimed him the flower of their youth, and he presided at their feasts and games; Francis was much more attractive now in his life of self-renunciation. Scarcely ten years after his espousals with holy Poverty, he had so well avenged her for having been so long despised, that she held full court in the midst of five thousand Friars Minor encamped under the walls of Assisi; while Clare and her companions formed for her such a suite of honor as no empress could ever boast of. The enthusiasm soon became so general that Francis, in order to satisfy it without depopulating the State and the Church, gave to the world his Third Order, into which, led by Louis IX of France and Elizabeth of Hungary, entered countless multitudes of every nation and tribe and tongue. Thanks to the three Seraphic Orders, as well as to the triple militia founded at the same time by Dominic de Gusman, devotedness to the Roman Church, and the spirit of penance and prayer, everywhere triumphed for a time over the anticipated rationalism, the luxury, and all the other evils which had been threatening the speedy ruin of the world.
The influence of the Saints springs from their sanctity, as rays from the focus. No rich man ever possessed the earth to such a degree as this poor man who, seeking God and depending absolutely upon his Providence, had regained the condition of Adam in Eden. Thus, as he passed along, the flocks would welcome him; the fishes would follow his boat in the water; the birds would gather round him and joyfully obey him. And why? Francis drew all things to himself because all things drew him to God.
With him there was no such thing as analyzing love, and making distinctions among those things which come from God and lead to God. To raise himself up to God, to compassionate with Christ, to be of service to his neighbor, to be in harmony with the whole universe like Adam when innocent, was for the seraphic father, says St. Bonaventure, one and the same impulse of that true piety which ruled his whole being. The divine fire within him found fuel in everything. No touch of the Holy Spirit, whencesoever it came, did Francis let pass; so much he feared to frustrate the effect of a single grace. He did not despise the stream for not being the ocean; and it was with an unheard of tenderness of devotion, says his son and historian Bonaventure, that Francis relished God’s goodness in creation, contemplated his supreme beauty in every created beauty, and heard the echo of heaven’s harmonies in the concert of beings sprung like man himself from the only source of existence. Hence it was by the sweet name of brothers and sisters that he invited all creatures to praise with him that well-beloved Lord, whose every trace on earth was the dear object of his love and contemplation.
Neither the progress nor the consummation of his holiness alteres, in this respect, what would now be called his method of prayer. On hearing that his death was approaching, and again a few minutes before he passed away, he sang, and would have others sing to him, his favorite canticle: “Praised be God my Lord, for all creatures, and especially for our brother the sun, which gives us light, and is an image of thee, my God! Praised be my Lord for our sister the moon; and for all the stars which he has created bright and beautiful in the heavens! Praised be my Lord for our brother the wind; and for the air, and the clouds, and the fine weather, and all the seasons; for our sister the water, which is very useful, humble, precious and pure; for our brother the fire, which is bright and strong; for our mother the earth, which bears us, and produces the fruits and the flowers! Be thou praised, O my God, for those who pardon and who suffer for love of thee! Be thou praised for our sister the death of the body, which no living man can escape; unhappy is he who dies in mortal sin; but happy is he whom death finds conformed to thy holy will! Praise and bless my Lord, give him thanks, and serve him in great humility.”
After having received the stigmata, Francis’ life was an unspeakable martyrdom; in spite of which he continued to travel through towns and villages, riding, like Jesus of whom he was so touching an image, upon a poor little ass; and everywhere he preached the Cross, working miracles and wonders of grace. Assisi cherishes the memory of the blessing bequeathed to it by its glorious son, when, gazing upon it for the last time from the beautiful plain that stretches at its feet, he exclaimed with tears: “Be thou blessed of the Lord, O city faithful to God, for in thee and by thee shall many souls be saved!”
The humble Portiuncula, the cradle of the Order, where Clare too had exchanged the vain ornaments of the world for the poverty of the Cross: St. Mary of the Angels, which awakens in the pilgrim a feeling of the nearness of heaven; and where the Great Pardon of the 2nd of August proves the pleasure our Lord still takes in it: this was the appointed place of Francis’ death. He passed away on the 3rd of October, towards eight o’clock in the evening; and although darkness had already set in, a flight of larks descended, singing and rising in heaven of the new sun, which was mounting towards the Seraphim.
Francis had chosen to be buried in the place of public execution, called the Colle d’Inferno, near the West wall of his native city. But within two years, Gregory IX enrolled him among the Saints, and changed the name of the hill into Colle del Paradiso. James the German built over the bare rock, where lies the Poor Man of Assisi, a two-storied church, which the genius of Giotto has made to outshine in glory all the princely palaces on earth.
The church’s narrative, though short, will complete these somewhat lengthy pages.
Franciscus, Assisii in Umbria natus, patris exemplum secutus, a prima ætate mercaturam fecit. Qui quodam die pauperem, pro Christi amore flagitantem pecuniam, cum præter consuetudinem repulisset, repente eo facto commotus, large ei misericordiam impertivit: et ex eo die Deo promisit se nemini umquam poscenti eleemosynam negaturum. Cum vero post in gravem morbum incidisset, ex eo aliquando confirmatus, cœpit ardentius colere officia caritatis. Qua in exercitatione tantum profecit, ut evangelicæ perfectionis cupidus, quidquid haberet, pauperibus largiretur. Quod ferens iniquis pater, eum ad Assisinatem episcopum duxit, ut coram illo bonis cederet paternis: qui rejectis etiam vestibus, patri concessit omnia, illud subjungens, sibi in posterum majorem facultatem fore dicendi: Pater noster, qui es in cœlis.
Francis was born at Assisi in Unbria, and, after his father’s example, followed from is youth a mercantile career. One day, contrary to his custom, he repulsed a poor man who begged an alms of him for Christ’s sake; but, immediately repenting of what he had done, he bestowed a large bounty upon the beggar, and at the same time made a promise to God, never to refuse an alms to any one that asked him. After this he fell into a serious illness; and on his recovery, devoted himself more eagerly than ever to works of charity, making such rapid progress in this virtue that, desirous of attaining evangelical perfection, he gave all he had to the poor. His father, angered at his proceedings, brought Francis before the Bishop of Assisi, that, in his presence, he might formally renounce all claim to his patrimony. The Saint gave up all to his father, even stripping off his garments, that he might, he said, for the future have more right to say: Our Father who art in heaven.
Cum autem illus ex Evangelio audisset: Nolite possidere aurum, neque argontum, neque pecuniam in zonis vestris, non peram in via, neque duas tunicas, neque calceamenta: sibi eam regulam servandum proposuit. Itaque detractic calceis, et una contentus tunica, cum duodecim socios adhibuisset, Ordinem Minorum instituit. Quare Romam venit, anno salutis millesimo ducentesimo nono, ut sui Ordinis regula ab Apostolica Sede confirmaretur. Quem cum accedentem ad se Summus Pontifex Innocentius Tertius rejecisset; quod in somnis postea sibi ille, quem repulerat, collabentem Lateranensem basilicam suis humeris sustinere visus esset, conquisitum accersiri jussit: benigneque accipiens, omnem ejus institutorum rationem confirmavit. Franciscus igitur, dimissis in omnes orbis terrae partes fratribus ad prædicandum Christi Evangelium, ipse cupiens sibi aliquam dari martyrii occasionem, navigavit in Syriam: ubi a rege Soldano liberalissime tractatus, cum nihil proficeret, rediit in Italiam.
After hearing one day this passage of the Gospel: Do not possess gold nor silver, nor money in your purses; nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, he took it for his rule of life, laid aside his shoes and kept but one tunic. He gathered together twelve disciples and founded the Order of the Minors. In the year of our salvation 1209 he went to Rome, to obtain the confirmation of his rule and Order from the Apostolic See. Pope Innocent III at first refused to see him; but having in sleep beheld the man he had repulsed supporting with his shoulders the Lateran basilica which was threatening to fall, he had him sought out and brought to him; and receiving him kindly confirmed the whole system of his institute. Francis then sent his brethren into every part of the world to preach the Gospel. He himself, desirous of an opportunity of martyrdom sailed into Syria; but the Soldan treated him most kindly; so that, unable to gain his end, he returned into Italy.
Multis igitur extructis suæ familiæ domiciliis, se in solitudinem montis Alverni contulit: ubi quadraginta dierum, propter honorem sancti Michaelis Archangeli, jejunio inchoato, festo die Exaltationis sanctæ Crucis ei Seraphim crucifixi effigiem inter alas continens apparuit: qui ejus et manibus, et pedibus, et lateri vestigia clavorum impressit: quæ sanctus Bonaventura, cum Alexandri Quarti Summi Pontificis prædicationi interesset, narrasse Pontificem a se visa esse, litteris commendavit. His insignibus summi in eum Christi amoris, maximam habebat omnium admirationem. Ac biennio post graviter ægratans, deferri voluit in ecclesiam sanctæ Mariæ Angelorum, ut ubi gratiæ spiritum a Deo acceperat, ibi spiritum vitæ redderet. Eo in loco fratres ad paupertatem ac patientiam, et sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ fidem servandam cohortatus, Psalmum illum pronuntians, Voce mea ad Dominum clamavi; in eo versiculo, Me exspectant justi, donec retribuas mihi: efflavit animam quarto nonas octobris. Quem miraculis clarum Gregorius Nonus Pontifex Maximus in Sanctorum numerum adscripsit.
He built many convents of his Order; and then retired into solitude on Mount Alvernia; where he fasted forty days in honor of the Archangel St. Michael. On the Feast of the Exaltation of the holy Cross, he had a vision of a seraph bearing between his wings the figure of the Crucified, who impressed the sacred stigmata on his hands and feet and side. St. Bonaventure says he heard Pope Alexander IV, while preaching, relate how he had himself seen these wounds. These signs of Christ’s exceeding love for his servant excited universal wonder and admiration. Two years later, Francis grew very ill, and was carried, at his own request, into the church of St. Mary of the Angels; that he might give up his mortal life to God, in the very place where he had commenced his life of grace. There, after exhorting the brethren to poverty and patience, and the preservation of the faith of the holy, Roman Church, he said the Psalm: I cried to the Lord with my voice. When he reached the verse: The just wait for me, until thou reward me, he breathed forth his soul, on the fourth of the Nones of October. He was renowned for miracles; and Pope Gregory IX enrolled him among the Saints.
Mayst thou be blessed by every living soul, O thou whom our Savior associated so closely with himself in the work of Redemption. The world, created by God for himself, subsists through the Saints; for it is in them he finds his glory. At the time of thy birth, the Saints were few; the enemy of God and man was daily extending his darksome reign; and when society has entirely lost faith and charity, light and heat, the human race must perish. Thou didst come to bring warmth to the wintry world, till the thirteenth century became like a spring time, rich in beautiful flowers; but alas! no summer was to follow in its wake. By thee the Cross was forced upon men’s notice; not indeed, as heretofore, to be exalted in a permanent triumph, but to rally the elect in face of the enemy, who would too soon afterwards regain the advantage. The Church lays aside the robe of glory, which beseemed her in the days of our Lord’s undisputed royalty; together with thee, she treads barefoot the path of trials, which liken her to her divine Spouse suffering and dying for his Father’s honor. Do thou thyself, and by thy sons, ever hold aloft before her the sacred ensign.
It is by identifying ourselves with Christ on the Cross that we shall find him again in the splendors of his glory; for men, and God in man, cannot be separated; and both, thou didst say, must be contemplated by every soul. Yet no otherwise than by effective compassion with our suffering Head can we find the way of divine union and the sweet fruits of love. If the soul suffers herself to be led by the good pleasure of the Holy Ghost, this Master of masters will conduct her by no other way than that set forth by our Lord in the books of his humility, patience, and suffering.
O Francis, cause the lessons of thy amiable and heroic simplicity to fructify in us. May thy children, to the great profit of the Church, increase in number and still more in sanctity; and never spare themselves in teaching both by word and example, knowing, however, that the latter is of greater avail than the former. Raise them up again, with their former popularity in that country of France, which thou didst love on account of its generous aspirations, now stifled by the sordid vulgarity of money-makers. The whole Religious state looks upon thee as one of its most illustrious Fathers; come to its assistance in the trials of the present time. Friend of Dominic, and his companion under our Lady’s mantle, keep up between your two families the fraternal love which delights the Angels. May the Benedictine Order never lose the affection which causes it to rejoice always on this day; and by thy benefits to it, strengthen the bonds knit once for all by the gift of the Portiuncula!
From The Liturgical Year, by Dom Prosper Gueranger
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