His experience was far from unique; similar stories could be repeated from every age of the church's life over the last 20 centuries. Almost a thousand years before Francis, Antony of Egypt was a young farmer and landowner in the Upper Nile region.
One Sunday morning as he walked into the traditional Coptic service in his local church, he heard the priest reading from Matthew's Gospel: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mt 19:21). The impact was striking and immediate. Antony sold everything and retreated into the Egyptian desert, charting a course which would be followed later by thousands of others who were seeking a deeper and more committed life with God. The Life of Antony, a short biography by the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius, touched the lives of Christians and churches across the Middle East and Europe, and helped lay the foundations of the monastic movement; Antony himself is often known as the "father of monasticism."
And all this grew from that unexpected encounter with the words of Scripture.
A little over 15 centuries later, in the remote Welsh village of Pontrobert, the young daughter of a local farmer became captivated as she listened to the Calvinistic Methodist preachers whose fiery sermons were lighting up the pulpits of Wales. She soaked herself in the vivid scriptural imagery which permeated their teaching, and began to sew together a patchwork of metaphors, symbols and allegories into one of the most striking collections of hymns and poetry that Welsh culture has ever known. In every line the impact of the Bible on her life and faith is glaringly evident.
One of her hymns, Bererin llesg gan rym y stormydd, opens with this verse (in English translation): Pilgrim, swept by storms and weary, raise your head, look up and see:
Jesus, Lamb of God, our Savior,
clothed in robes of majesty;
girdled with the gold of loyalty,
round his hem the bells ring clear,
singing grace to every sinner:
Christ, the eternal Yes, is here!
Remarkably, this single verse ranges across almost the whole sweep of Scripture as it references Paul's experience of being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean (Acts 27:13-44), John the Baptist's exhortation to "Behold the Lamb of God!" (Jn 1:29 KJV), John the Evangelist's vision of Jesus on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:13), the clothing of the Levitical priests (Ex 28:33-35) and the story of the woman reaching for the hem of Jesus' garment (Mt 9:20-22).
Into this are woven theological allusions to the incarnation (Christ's vestments symbolically reach to the earth) and the atonement. It's a remarkable synthesis for a young woman who lived and worked on a rural sheep farm and had only a rudimentary education to her credit.
These poems and hymns, now considered treasures of the Welsh language, might have been lost to us altogether after Ann Griffiths's tragic death at the age of 29, had they not been collected by her maid and published in the early 19th century by Thomas Charles of Bala, a clergyman living over the mountains in northwest Wales. Around the time of their publication, Charles was also playing a key role in an initiative which would enable countless others to experience the life-changing power of Scripture for themselves. At the turn of the century a young teenager named Mary Jones turned up at Charles's home, having walked 26 miles, barefoot, across the Welsh mountains. She had been saving money for six years and had made her difficult journey with one purpose: to buy a Bible.