How did the son of a wealthy merchant become the town beggar?
What would prompt a popular young bachelor to start talking dreamily about “Lady Poverty”? What would cause him to abandon the party scene and spend his time rebuilding a ramshackle old chapel stone by stone?
The story of Francis of Assisi’s conversion is the story of how deeply God can change a human heart. And it is the story of one man’s response to God’s call—a response that was at times uncertain and searching, at times anguished, yet always wholehearted.
Seeking Adventure. Born in Assisi in central Italy around 1181, Francis was the son of Pietro de Bernardone, and his wife, Pica. As heir to Pietro’s prosperous cloth business, Francis enjoyed wearing fashionable clothes made from his father’s inventory and entertaining his friends with lavish meals. He was captivated by stories of knights in shining armor and longed for the day when he would ride gloriously into battle.
In 1202, Francis joined his townsmen in a petty war against the neighboring city of Perugia. It was his “big chance” as a knight, but the adventure ended in defeat. He spent a year in captivity, where he kept up the spirits of his fellow inmates with his good-natured patience and cheerful songs. After his release, Francis suffered a prolonged fever. During his convalescence, he had time to think about his life and the things of eternity. But his desire for adventure was still strong. When he did recover, he joined a company of knights serving the pope.
Francis set off for battle again in 1205, but another illness dashed his hopes. In a feverish dream, he heard a voice asking, “Who do you think can best reward you, the master or the servant?” “The master,” Francis answered. The voice then replied, “Then why do you leave the master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?” Francis returned home, uncertain what the dream meant, but convinced that God was speaking to him.
Won by Lady Poverty. Back in Assisi, Francis took up his familiar pastimes, but his heart was no longer in them. He began to disdain the old ways and believed that he had wasted his life on trivial and transitory things. Wrestling with himself and searching for his way, he spent hours in intense prayer out in the countryside or in dark caves, all the time seeking to understand God’s will. Slowly, he began to feel a desire to live like Jesus, whom he called the “poor Christ.”
One evening after partying with his friends, Francis experienced a sense of God’s love that was so profound that he felt enraptured. When his friends jested that he had fallen in love, he replied, “Yes, I am thinking of marrying. But the bride I am going to woo is nobler, richer, and fairer than any woman you know.” Francis pledged himself to “Lady Poverty” and chose to live simply, in imitation of the poor Christ who was capturing his heart.
Inspired to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis came face to face with the poverty to which he had pledged himself. In Rome, he exchanged his costly clothes for rags and begged for his bread. Finally, the idealistic troubadour had the chance to put into practice the ideals that had filled his imagination.
Mastered by Love. Francis’ experiment in poverty proved liberating, and, when he returned home, he no longer feared living on the edge of necessity. Still, he knew that more steps lay ahead of him. The final test came a few years later when he caught sight of a man afflicted with leprosy on the road before him. Francis was repulsed by the terrible sight and instinctively retreated. But then he stopped. He felt the time had come to deal with the pride and lack of love inside of him.
Francis turned back and embraced the leper. He kissed the man’s diseased hand and pressed a few coins into it. In this simple act of love, Francis felt his natural aversion to the sick and outcast disappear. Instead, he was filled with such compassion that the next day he gave away money to all the lepers at the local hospital and begged their pardon for having so often despised them.
Francis began to care for the sick, but he also continued to ask God to show him a fuller purpose for his life. One day in 1207, while praying in the ruined church of San Damiano, he heard Jesus speaking to him from the crucifix: “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.”
In his eagerness to respond to God, Francis took these words literally and set about repairing the dilapidated chapel. Impulsively, he sold some of his father’s cloth to get money for stones. Pietro, however, wasn’t as thrilled over the liberality with which he treated his father’s stock. Indignant and angry, he hauled Francis before the episcopal court.
On trial before the bishop, Francis performed a dramatic gesture that marked a final break with his old life: he returned even the clothes on his back to his father. “Hitherto I have called Pietro de Bernardone my father on earth,” he declared. “Henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” Bishop Guido recognized that somehow the Spirit was at work in Francis, so he took the naked man under his cloak to signify the protection of the Church. From that time on, Francis dressed in a rough tunic and lived “according to the gospel.”
A Brotherhood Is Born. Francis went about Assisi proclaiming God’s love to all and singing his praises. Soon, other young men felt attracted to his way of life and began to follow him. But they were uncertain how they should proceed, so they decided to ask God for guidance.
With the simplicity that characterized all of Francis’ decisions, he and his new brothers randomly opened a book of the gospels three times. The first passage read, “If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; come, follow me.” Then, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money.” And finally, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” “Brothers,” Francis said, “this is our life and our rule. Let us fulfill all that we have heard.”
Later Francis described these early days in his Testament: “When the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I ought to do, but the Most High himself revealed to me that I ought to live according to the model of the holy Gospel.” In 1210, the new brotherhood obtained the approval of Pope Innocent III
Calling themselves Friars Minor—the “lesser” people of society—the brothers went about preaching not only in Italy, but in Germany, Spain, France, Morocco, and the Orient. Like troubadours, they sang of God’s love and called the people of the towns and villages to repent of their sins and receive forgiveness through the cross of Jesus Christ. The brothers lived simply: they worked for their food and begged when they found no work. They freely gave to anyone who asked anything of them and kept nothing for themselves.
Crucified with Christ. The gospel that Francis and his brothers preached—along with the witness of their lives—had a profound effect. Not only did countless people give their lives to the Lord, but the brotherhood itself grew at a pace that soon challenged Francis’ ability to guide it.
Over time, many of the newer brothers found the heroic poverty that Francis and the first friars practiced too difficult. The more learned brothers criticized their founder’s carefree spirit and accused him of being improvident and naive. They wanted more material security and clearer organization and pressed Francis into writing a new rule.
Francis complied, but many still thought that even his modified rule was too hard. Consequently, Cardinal Ugolino—the advisor of the order—amended it further and won its approval by Pope Honorius in 1223. Deeply hurt by the changes to his “gospel ideal,” Francis sought consolation by frequently secluding himself with God in prayer.
Francis spent September 1224 praying and fasting in a hermitage on the rugged mountain of Alverno. There, during a blazing vision of the wounded Christ, he was imprinted in his hands and feet and side with marks of the crucified Lord. Francis had become so completely converted to Jesus Christ that he resembled his Lord even in physical appearance.
To “Best Please our Lord.” In the remaining two years of his life, Francis suffered from pleurisy, stomach ulcers, and blindness, in addition to the wound-marks. Yet as death approached, he was content—confident that, through all his struggles and attempts to understand how to respond to God, he had obeyed God’s call to him as he best understood it. “I have done what was mine to do,” he told his brothers. “May Christ teach you what you are to do.”
On the evening of October 3, 1226, in the forty-fifth year of his life, Francis asked to be laid on the bare ground in the chapel where he had prayed so often with his companions. After the passion was read to him, Francis sang the Evening Office with his brothers. His frail voice intoned Psalm 142: “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name; the just wait for me, until you reward me.” Then, he fell silent.
Francis once encouraged his beloved Brother Leo, “In whatever way you think you will best please our Lord, take that way.” Even when, time and again, he had been unsure what to do, Francis always tried to “best please our Lord.” Each step he took had opened his heart more widely to God’s transforming grace until he was fully conformed to Christ. May we too, like Francis, always seek “that way” which makes us pleasing to Christ.