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Saint Francis: the extraordinary life of a holy madman

Perhaps the best known of all Catholic saints, St Francis lived an extremely colorful life.

  • Joan Acocella
  • International
  • January 8, 2013
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“Why you?” a man asked Francesco di Bernardone, known to us now as St. Francis of Assisi. Francis (1181/2-1226) was scrawny and plain-looking. He wore a filthy tunic, with a piece of rope as a belt, and no shoes. While preaching, he often would dance, weep, make animal sounds, strip to his underwear, or play the zither. His black eyes sparkled. Many people regarded him as mad, or dangerous. They threw dirt at him. Women locked themselves in their houses.

Francis accepted all this serenely, and the qualities that at the beginning had marked him as an eccentric eventually made him seem holy. His words, one writer said, were “soothing, burning, and penetrating.” He had a way of “making his whole body a tongue.” Now, when he arrived in a town, church bells rang. People stole the water in which he had washed his feet; it was said to cure sick cows.

Years before he died, Francis was considered a saint, and in eight centuries he has lost none of his prestige. Apart from the Virgin Mary, he is the best known and the most honored of Catholic saints. In 1986, when Pope John Paul II organized a conference of world religious leaders to promote peace, he held it in Assisi. Francis is especially loved by partisans of leftist causes: the animal-rights movement, feminism, ecology, vegetarianism (though he was not a vegetarian). But you don’t have to be on the left to love Francis. He is the patron saint (with Catherine and Bernardino of Siena) of the nation of Italy.

Consequently, a vast number of books have been written about him. The first of the biographies appeared a few years after his death, and they’ve been coming ever since. Two more have recently appeared in English. One, “Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint” (Yale), is by André Vauchez, a professor emeritus of medieval studies at the University of Paris. The book appeared in France in 2009 and has now been published in English, in a translation by Michael F. Cusato.

The other volume, “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” (Cornell), is by Augustine Thompson, a Dominican priest and professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The two books show that the Church is still trembling from the impact of this great reformer.

Francis came from the nouveau riche. His father, Pietro, was a successful cloth merchant in a time when the mercantile class was on the rise and clothes very much made the man. Francis went to school for only a few years, as was typical for a boy of his circumstances and sufficient for acquiring the skills a cloth merchant needed. As a teen-ager, he belonged to a gang of rowdies from prosperous Assisi families who, of a night, would eat a fine dinner, get drunk, and, in the words of Francis’s first biographer, commit “every kind of debauchery.” Francis, a high-spirited boy, was their leader and paid the bills, which made him popular.

Pietro often went on business trips to France, and Francis, in time, probably went with him. On those journeys, he would have learned both French and the troubadour style of poetry, which, scholars say, infused even his most earthy writings, notably the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” said to be the first poem in the Italian language, in which he addresses the sun, the water, and the wind with humble adoration.

Francis’s world was filled with violence—between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, between Assisi and other towns, and, in the town itself, between the merchant class and the local nobility. It wouldn’t have been a rare day when Francis saw somebody being knifed. In 1202, around the age of twenty-one, he himself went to war, in a battle between Assisi and Perugia. He was apparently glad to go. He got to wear fine clothes and ride an excellent horse. But Assisi was soon defeated, and Francis spent a year in a dank prison, with rats, before his father was able to ransom him.

It was probably in prison that the change in Francis began. As his friends noticed, he had lost heart for revelry. Outside the city walls he found a little abandoned church, and he spent whole days there, praying. Finally, he began sleeping there as well. 

Full Story: Rich Man, Poor Man

Source: The New Yorker

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