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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Movers and Shakers > Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi
Mystical founder of the Franciscans
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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Francis of Assisi

"Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom You give us light."

It is difficult to think clearly about Francis of Assisi. The first thing that comes to mind is the gentle saint who preached to birds, tamed wolves, and padded about in flower-filled fields basking in the love of God. But it's also difficult to imagine how such a benign figure could turn thirteenth-century Europe upside down.

In fact, Francis was a complex figure, a man who contemporaries claimed lived out the Sermon on the Mount better than anyone else, except of course, the man who first preached it. If that's even close to the truth, it's a bit easier to see why he left such an impression on his age and every age since.

From hermit to itinerant

He was born in Assisi, Italy, as Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, son of a wecaptionhy merchant. As a young man, Francis led a worldly, carefree life. An early biographer said, "He squandered his time terribly. Indeed, he outshone all his friends in trivialities." In 1202 he marched off to battle against the city of Perugia, full of a young man's dreams of military glory. But he was taken prisoner during the battle, and a year passed before his father could arrange ransom. That was followed by a year's convalescence in Assisi, a year in which Francis, now in his early twenties, was slowly transformed.



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Waldensian movement begins


Francis of Assisi born


Francis of Assisi dies


Gregory IX appoints first "inquisitors"

During his illness, he experienced dreams and visions. One day as he prayed in a dilapidated church in San Damiano, at the edge of Assisi, he heard Christ say three times from the crucifix: "Francis, go repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling completely to ruin." Francis understood that he was to repair the church he prayed in (though his followers later would see this as his call to reform the church), so he proceeded to sell off family goods to raise money for repairs.

When his father caught wind of this, he was furious. He dragged Francis before the local bishop to force his son into changing his unseemly behavior and to pay him back. In the course of the interview, Francis took off his clothes and laid them neatly in a pile before his father. "Up to today I called you 'father,'" he said to him, "but now I can say in all honesty, 'Our Father who art in heaven.'" He walked out of the cathedral to become a hermit—to "be alone in solitude and silence," a biographer noted, "to hear the secrets which God could reveal to him."

Other inspirations followed. One day in church he heard from the Gospel of Matthew, "Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or a staff." He took it literally and began an itinerant life: he intended to live in utter simplicity and to preach a gospel that usually entailed strong injunctions to repent. "He denounced evil whenever he found it," wrote one early biographer, "and made no effort to palliate it; from him a life of sin met with outspoken rebuke, not support."

Francis was more rigorous than popular imagination allows. In winter, he sometimes hurled himself in a ditch full of ice and stayed there until every vestige of sinful temptation departed. To avoid lust, he fixed his gaze on the sky or ground whenever he spoke with a woman.

Though known for his infectious joy, Francis abhorred laughing or idle words. "Not only did he wish that he should not laugh, but that he should not even afford to others the slightest occasion for laughing."

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