Francis was originally named Giovanni, or John, after John the Baptist. His father was in France on business when his son was born, and upon his return he renamed him Francesco—“the little Frenchman.”

When he was young, Francis tried to become a knight, and he fought in a battle against Assisi’s rival city, Perugia. (Francis was captured and imprisoned for a year.) Later he set out to join another army, but he received a dream that instructed him to return home and seek a different calling.

Francis severely disciplined himself against temptations of the flesh. In winter, he would sometimes hurl himself into a ditch full of ice and remain there until every vestige of sinful temptation had departed. To avoid lust, he avoided talking with women. When he was required to speak with one, he fixed his gaze on the ground or sky.

Francis observed literally Jesus’ command to “take no thought for the morrow.” He would not allow the cook of his Order even to soak vegetables overnight for cooking the next day.

In his preaching, Francis spoke bluntly about sin and the need 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. He spoke with equal candor to great and small.”

Francis may have been the first person to create a “living nativity” scene. On Christmas Eve 1223, in order to “set before our bodily eyes how he [Jesus] lay in a manger,” Francis and companions worshiped in a cave, surrounded by the traditional oxen, sheep, and donkeys.

Although Francis was known for his infectious joy, he abhorred laughing and idle words. His companion Brother Leo wrote, “Not only did he wish that he should not laugh, but that he ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.