A Legend and A Life Story:
Who was Saint Francis of Assisi?
St. Francis of Assisi’s spiritual life was unfathomable even to those around him while he lived, but they attempted to write about him nonetheless. Many contradictions exist in the literature about him, in the things he is said to have accomplished and events that purportedly occurred throughout his life. Countless historians, wanting to understand him within the context of their own views and beliefs, have made him an object of study. However it has proven to be a most arduous task, considering the many differing religious agendas behind all the written works of that time. Just as there are today, forces were at work beneath and beyond any kind of kinship or loyalty to the truth. It turns out that a surprising amount of sifting must be done in order to get any kind of a clear picture of who Saint Francis really was. The man has become a legend. He is almost a myth to the average person now, considering the fact that many associate his name not so much with the man he was as with the stories they’ve heard about him. It can be startling to remember that he was a real person with a concrete history– and an even more concrete spiritual life. This paper will analyze and compare two texts written by a select few men who accompanied St. Francis on some portion of his journey through life– The Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano and The Legend of Three Companions. These particular two texts are both well tailored to this project and seem to be most reliable, as the authors lived with the saint and were close to him. First the paper will analyze where each text came from and the reasons it was written. Then, while striving to look deeply into who this saint really, truly was, comparisons and contrasts will be made between the contents of the two at several crucial points (his youth, conversion, and the tone of his spiritual life). Finally, among the conclusions drawn from the information found in our two texts, the question will be addressed again of whether we can know who Saint Francis was or whether we must take the ‘packaged’ version of his spiritual vitality and wisdom.
The first text chosen for this paper, often called the Vita Prima, was the first written account of the Saint’s life, composed by Thomas of Celano between 1228 and 1229 at the order of Pope Gregory IX.1 It was intended as a kind of ‘literary monument’2 to the new saint when he was canonized. According to the editors of The Saint, which contains our translation, a full three-fourths of The Life of Saint Francis is “dedicated to conversion, promotion of the gospel, and his example and teaching of Christian holiness.”3 As the introduction to the piece so articulately points out:
“At a time when heresies abounded, crusades failed, and the struggle for power between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy intensified, the poor and humble follower of the gospel, Francis of Assisi, offered an alternative way of Christian living.”4
It is more than possible that Pope Gregory intended to use this ‘literary monument’ simply in order to stir up new life in the Church. The papal influence in the writing does not by any means entirely conceal who Francis was however; the document is still centrally about him, about revealing who he was— even if it was arranged by a hand and mind attuned to ecclesiastical necessities.
The Legend of the Three Companions, on the other hand, was written by three men who knew Francis personally and lived with him for years. Their names were Leo, Angelo, and Rufino. The work is believed to have been composed between the years 1241 and 1247, but the source of the commissioning this time was from within the Franciscan Order. Crescentius of Iesi, the head of the Order, felt that the reforms which had occurred during his predecessor’s time had the potential to wipe out the origins of the order. As he watched the many people who had truly known Francis dying, leaving nothing behind but stories and sayings passed along by word of mouth, he saw that the young who replaced the old were so numerous that size began to outweigh content. Crescentius observed the tide of men joining the Order and, seeing the possibility that the brothers would forget who they were, where they had come from, and why, he sought ways to preserve some sort of authentic knowledge of the man who had founded it.5 In order to resurrect the memory of Saint Francis, Crescentius ordered Leo, Angelo, and Rufino to write down everything they knew about him. Thus was born The Legend of The Three Companions. This text focuses on the saint as a man— the focus needed for our purposes. These three men did not want to simply recount all the miracles Saint Francis performed; those had already been documented and written about many times and competently enough. They wanted to express the heart of this man (the heart which the growing Franciscan Order needed to keep conscientiously as its heart, its core). In their own words:
“We do not intend merely to relate miracles, which demonstrate, but do not cause sanctity. Our intention is to point out some striking aspects of his holy manner of life and the intention of his pious desires, for the praise and glory of God and of the holy father Francis, and for the edification of those who desire to follow in his footsteps.”6
The texts were written for different reasons by different people, at the requests of other people who had their own purposes– even the authors themselves had particular and unique focuses they couldn’t get rid of if they tried. Digging through all of that is hard; it is difficult to know when to trust the sources and when to take what is given with a grain or two of salt. But it is best to remember that (1) these are some of the best resources we have (biased and tweaked as they most probably are) and (2) that this very situation is where comparison and contrast fit best into earnest research, purifying our knowledge of each chosen subject along the way— quite a bit like scientific experiments do.
Everyone agrees on certain things about Francis of Assisi. All detail him as a man touched by God, a man with a strong sense of calling and an incredible devotion and love for his Lord (as well as his chosen bride: the shiningly beautiful Lady Poverty). In his youth, before his conversion, he was a cloth merchant, and rather well off from the sound of it. The texts agree that he was not particularly attuned to virtue at that time and that he spent enormous amounts of money on lavish feasting and trifles, although differing greatly in their assessment of the basic inner attributes behind these actions. They explain his conversion with some differences as well, although providing these explanations within roughly the same mold. These two things are basic disagreements between the writings, both specific enough to analyze closely. But throughout the text of each a far more subtle thread is woven, showing us what the saint’s soul was like. In looking at the two accounts, one sees that they agree in many areas about Francis, but Leo, Angelo, and Rufino paint his inner life in more detail and with a more realistic simplicity.
The most striking difference between the two texts is the recounting of Saint Francis’ youth. Thomas of Celano was almost unbelievably severe in his account of Francis’s early life, describing how, “maliciously advancing beyond all of his peers in vanities, he proved himself a more excessive inciter of evil and a zealous imitator of foolishness.”7 The very second sentence of this entire work introduces him to the reader, saying that “from the earliest years of his life his parents reared him to arrogance in accordance with the vanity of the age[,] and by long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant.”8 In stark contrast to this, the three companions portray him as “endowed with clever natural abilities…, good natured and generous.”9 The Legend also alludes to his lavishness and his vanity, however it sprinkles praises lavishly even throughout its early description of him. The three companions do not appear to be brandishing the sword of judgement the way Thomas does.
Young Francis often presided over feasts, generously taking care of the expenses for his companions when he partied with them. He was known to be generous and carelessly merry in that way which only successful young men who have lived in plenty all their lives can be. A responsible businessman, he was quite absorbed in his work as a merchant and worldly matters of the richer classes. Soon, though, he began to grow more aware of the many poor and destitute people around him. He had always given alms to the poor, but the Lord began to touch his heart with true sympathy for them. The three companions have a penchant for inserting many small happenings in between the ones which Thomas addresses, like the interaction with the beggar in the store. Francis was engaged in business, deep in conversation with some customer most likely, and a beggar came into the store asking for alms in God’s name. “Preoccupied with thoughts of wealth and the care of business,” Francis ignored him, but later,
“touched by divine grace he accused himself of great rudeness, saying: ‘If that poor man had asked something of you for a great count or baron, you would certainly have granted him his request. How much more should you have done this for the king of kings and the Lord of all!’”10
There are many instances like this, intimate revelations that are completely internal which Thomas of Celano never addresses. He is more concerned with presenting the external, the visible, with the promotion of the kind of Christianity he lived rather than what went on inside of him to cause him to act or be the way he was.
Francis decided after the experience with the beggar that he would not refuse alms to anyone asking in the name of God ever again, and soon “his whole heart was intent
“on seeing the poor, listening to them, and giving them alms. He was so changed by divine grace that, although he was still in secular attire, he yearned to be in another city where, as someone unknown, he would take off his own clothes and, in exchange, put on the rags of a poor man. And he would try begging for the love of God.”11
He began overcoming himself and his fears in small ways, showing mercy to lepers and even accepting the kiss of peace from them.12 Saint Francis acted all the way through his learning process, throwing himself into projects without reserve and coming to a fuller understanding through his acts. This understanding triggered a longing within the saint to dedicate himself fully to the Lord and this grew almost impossibly quickly. The companions say that he “endured great suffering and mental anxiety, unable to rest until he accomplished in action what he had conceived in mind… He was burning inwardly with a divine fire, unable to conceal outwardly the flame kindled in his soul.”13 It took years for the Lord’s plans for his eager and youthful son to come to fruition, but Francis had the willing spirit necessary for the process.
The tale of the saint’s conversion contains so many similarities it should be safe to say either that because of this the story is reliably true most of the way through, or that the three companions used this part of Thomas of Celano’s work and spruced it up to their liking with bits and pieces Thomas did not know and never mentioned. In any case, “The Legend of the Three Companions provides insights into Francis, his youth, struggles with his father, and the emerging consciousness of his call that Thomas of Celano… [does] not have.”14
Once Saint Francis learned to hear the still small voice of the Lord, his focus shifted from worldly things to spiritual things. After a time of confusion and misinterpreted visions of glory (confirmed in both texts), young Francis finally understood that the glory he had been shown was not earthly glory or power— he was to receive physically invisible power, and favor from the Lord of all. He became so sensitive to the Spirit’s calling in his life that he was willing to go anywhere and do anything– give up his whole world and walk about naked and poor for the sake of becoming closer to God. One day he traveled to another city by horse, sold a great quantity of expensive cloth all at once, and left his horse there, wanting nothing more of his material life. But the money bothered him.“Feeling the heavy weight of carrying that money even for an hour, and reckoning all its benefit to be like so much sand,” Thomas tells us, “he hurried to get rid of it. Returning toward the city of Assisi, he came across a church on the side of the road. It had been built in ancient times in honor of Saint Damian and was threatening to collapse because of age.”15 He tried to give the money to the poor priest of that church, but the man would not take it for fear of incurring the wrath of the young man’s parents. This would indicate it was a very large sum, but when the priest repeatedly refused Francis simply threw it on the windowsill and thought no more of it, “begging the priest with all his heart to allow him to stay with him for the sake of the Lord.”16
Francis’ father, in the meantime, had grown worried about his son and “went about like a diligent spy, seeking to learn what might have happened to [him].”17 For a time Francis hid in a cave, praying to God to release him from his father’s wrath and persecution, but soon the Lord enlightened him and gave him courage to return to Assisi and to continue to live in his chosen way. The texts are almost superposable on this point, as The Legend tells us that “he begged the Lord relentlessly in fasting and weeping. Lacking confidence in his own effort and strength, he cast his hope completely on the Lord, who filled him with an inexpressible happiness…”18 Thomas of Celano states that “fasting and weeping,
“he earnestly prayed for the Savior’s mercy, and lacking confidence in his own efforts, he cast his care upon the Lord. Though staying in a pit and in darkness he was imbued with an indescribable happiness never before experienced. Then totally on fire, he abandoned the pit and openly exposed himself to the curses of his persecutors.”19
This is another place which leads the reader of the two texts to believe that perhaps Leo, Angelo and Rufino used Thomas’ work as a guide or a base for their own.
The stories of his return home are virtually identical as well, down to the very greeting he receives from his former friends:
“When all those who knew him saw him, they compared his latest circumstances with his former and they began to reproach him harshly. Shouting that he was insane and out of his mind, they threw mud from the street and stones at him… they blamed everything he did on starvation and madness.”20 (See The Founder, bottom of page 78 for a comparison passage).
Soon word of his return (and word of how the people of Assisi had treated him) reached his father, who “instantly arose to look for him, not to free him, but rather to destroy him.”21
Both texts portray the saint’s father as abusive and greedy. It is true that he did not want his son to dedicate himself to such a hard life, but he also feared it would damage the family’s reputation to be related to a person who scorned everything the world had to give him and was ridiculed in the streets. Francis’ father, in his great pride, and fear for his own well-being, came looking for him, intent on taking him back home and breaking him of his fool notion. He locked him “in a dark prison for several days [and] he strove, by words and blows, to turn his spirit to the vanities of this world.”22 After days of watching her son endure such treatment with great strength of spirit, Francis’ mother pitied him and, while her husband was away, let him out. Francis returned to the Church of San Damiano, and when his father learnt of this he pursued him, bringing him before all sorts of authorities in order to take all of his possessions from him. He even caused the money that was laying neglected in the windowsill of the church to be found and given to him. Francis gladly complied with all of this, even taking off all his clothes, saying “because I have proposed to serve God, I return to [my father] the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’”23
The three companions do not mention it, but according to Thomas of Celano he even chose for himself an adopted father in the streets, where his father passed by often and cried out against his son in bitterness and anger. Francis instructed that whenever this happened, the adopted father should put his right hand over him and bless him as his father cursed him. This shows that some sort of ingenuity is laced throughout the simple character portrayed everywhere else. Although it makes sense to expect some such creativity from an accomplished businessman, the rest of the texts center on his simple approach to life. To see him so intelligent and responsive in the Spirit so early on is interesting, if nothing else. He was truly, according to both texts, a changed man.
The tone of the two texts is very different as well. Thomas of Celano writes as if he were expressing divine approval; his style is beautiful and enjoyable to read, but written from above with the distinct feel of an Imperial address. It is formal, and intended to inspire awe. The three companions, on the other hand, wrote in a far more familiar way, easily relating to the reader on the same level. This was because it was written in order that it be available to the monks within the Franciscan Order. It was written like a letter from brother to brother.
The tenor of Saint Francis’ spiritual life as portrayed by both authors is detailed with very obviously dissimilar intents. His personal interaction with God is represented more in The Legend, whereas Thomas’s account is in places much more like a pep talk, designed to inspire awe and motivation:
“They [the brothers] never or hardly ever stopped praying and praising God… For when they felt like dozing during prayer they would prop themselves up with a stick, so that sleep would not overtake them. Some anchored themselves with cords, so furtive sleep would not disturb prayer. Some bound themselves with irons; and others shut themselves in wooden cells.”24
Thomas emphasizes every way in which Francis denied his flesh comfort and nourishment, praising him for it with flowery words and poetry, even though it made him almost continually ill (see The Saint, p 266). He speaks often of the Saint providing the people of the Christian world with an example to follow. When he writes that “they were touched in their hearts and were moved to a better way of life by such an example,” he hopes that those he writes to will feel a fire in their spirits like Saint Francis did.25 However The Legend of the Three Companions tells us that although for much of his life Francis “inflicted his flesh with such fasting that, whether healthy or sick, the excessively austere man hardly ever or never wanted to indulge his body[,]… he confessed on his deathbed that he had greatly sinned against ‘Brother Body’.”26 Many of the brothers attempted to follow his extremism, but “the pious father
“used to reprove his brothers who to him were too austere, exerting too much effort in those vigils, fasts, and corporeal punishments. Some of them… seemed to hate themselves. The man of God forbade them, admonishing them with kindness, reprimanding them with reason, and binding up their wounds with the bandages of wholesome precepts.”27
It seems that he was quite willing to learn, and to admit his wrongs in front of the brothers as well as before God. In his last months the Lord showed him many things, and Francis was enraptured upon learning these things from his Savior. Thomas quoted Augustine in describing him, saying:
There was in him such harmony of flesh with spirit
and such obedience that,
as the spirit strove to reach all holiness,
the flesh did not resist
but even tried to run on ahead,
according to the saying:
For you my soul has thirsted;
and my flesh in so many ways!
Repeated submission became spontaneous,
as the flesh, yielding each day,
reached a place of great virtue,
for habit often becomes nature.28
His fervor bordered on unhealthy obsession and probably contributed to his sin against “Brother Body”, but it truly was amazing. We all sin, but his fixation was on Jesus alone, and that is what mattered. The companions tell us that he did not “seek counsel from anyone, except from God alone, and, periodically, from the bishop of Assisi.”29 His zealousness is demonstrated, among numerous other things, in the fact that “many times,. . . having sat down at table, he had barely begun to eat when he would stop eating and drinking, absorbed in meditation on heavenly things.”30 According to the Leo, Angelo, and Rufino, Francis was ‘conformed to the passion of Christ until his death’. Taken by a great illness, the saint remained alive for an impossibly long time, wasting away weak and sightless. Saying goodbye to all his sons, he bade them to
“live in fear of God and remain in Him always, for a great test will come upon you and tribulation is drawing near! Happy are those who will persevere in what they have begun: many will be separated from them by the scandals that are to come. But now I am hurrying to the Lord and I am confidant that I am going to my God whom I have served in my spirit.”31
Francis then asked to be returned to the place where God had first opened his eyes, and after recovering from the journey he summoned two brothers who were close to him and “told them to
sing The Praises of the Lord with a loud voice and joyful spirit, rejoicing at his approaching death, or rather at the life that was so near. He himself, as best he could, broke into that psalm of David: ‘With a loud voice I cried to the Lord; with a loud voice I beseeched the Lord.’”32
What a willing spirit! What beautiful, child-like devotion, patience and strength! The companions say that even in his last months of sickness he was as saintly as ever, “for he loved God with such enthusiasm from the depths of his heart that, on hearing His name, completely melting within, he would burst forth saying that heaven and earth must bow at the Lord’s name.”33 Both texts give him a worthy death; he was brave and strong of will, persevering and continually placed himself in the capable and merciful hands of God until the very end.
Remembering that Saint Francis of Assisi was a real man who born and lived a real life in the flesh can be hard. It might be difficult to fathom how he could have had the real loves, hates, trials, obsessions, and relationship problems that come with such a life. But it’s true. He lived here on this very earth. Saints were and are real people who have made their spiritual lives as tangible to themselves and others as their material life is— and Saint Francis’ spiritual life was so concrete and alive that he became known worldwide and his memory was preserved for centuries to come.
So many people have attempted to untangle the mass of literature about Saint Francis, braving the mountainous religious agendas and the hundreds of years of history leading up to his life and trying to pick out the subtle threads belonging to the truth of who he was. And yet the question remains: is it possible?
In light of the fact that the authors each knew Francis, what are we to think when the stories they hand us do not match up? Was his character as a youth as flawed as Thomas of Celano would have us believe? Or was that simply for the sake of magnifying his later piety? Perhaps there was no other stance Thomas could have taken toward the young merchant-Francis, given that he was writing for the pope. How much speculation was involved in the three companions’ account of Francis’ internal life and the things which happened before they met him? They wrote for Francis and the resurrected Lord Jesus; they didn’t have designs on affecting the bride of Christ, His body on earth, the way the pope had reason to. How much of a bent towards their respective purposes in the world did these man allow into the facts? And why were the conversion stories identical in so many ways? Why are there so many passages that echo each other almost exactly? The texts don’t seem to have disagreements (beside differing insertions and omissions) once they reach the point where Francis committed himself to God and His work. Is this because what we see is fact or because once copied the other? Maybe we’ll never know. But in any case, we receive a very muddled view of the man— even from the most reliable of sources.
Can we know him? Is it possible?
Maybe not. But these things we do know: these men who knew Saint Francis, contemplated him, and wished to be like him— they were not drawn to him because of the things he did as such. They were not awed or inspired by a light shining down from heaven or by the manner in which he was pursued by the Lord as a youth. No, they saw something emanating from the deepest regions of his heart, made transparent by his mode of living such that the Father’s seat within was visible to all. They were drawn to the One who lived in him. Those who knew Saint Francis saw themselves as richly blessed because they were allowed to see God’s mercy, love, purity, justice and strength made manifest in a meek and malleable life. In a broken vessel.
“Why do we think of the gift of contemplation; infused contemplation, mystical prayer, as something essentially strange and esoteric reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited to everyone else? It is perhaps because we have forgotten that contemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit acting on our souls through His gifts of Wisdom and Understanding with special intensity to increase and perfect our love for Him. These gifts are part of the normal equipment of Christian sanctity. They are given to us at Baptism, and if they are given it is presumably because God wants them to be developed…. But it is also true that God often measures His gifts by our desire to receive them, and by our cooperation with His grace, and the Holy Spirit will not waste any of His gifts on people who have little or no interest in them.”
~Thomas Merton, What is Contemplation?, Templegate Publishers, Springfield, IL. 1950. p.8.
Katie Huffman / Spring ‘03 Final Paper / Professor Van Liere