The ultimate disciple: The poor, itinerant, preaching brother of penance. He who suffered in the wilderness with Christ, he who was misunderstood, betrayed by some of his own brothers, and who loved Christ so much that he became the Lovescape of Christ. This is St. Francis of Assisi. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the word “Lovescape” to encapsulate how he saw St. Francis’ relationship with Jesus Christ. Francis was Christ’s “Lovescape crucified and seal of his seraph-arrival.” Hopkins is speaking of Francis on the mountain of La Verna, where he received the sacred stigmata of Christ that sealed him as a visible image of
the crucified Christ, Christ’s “Lovescape.”
On La Verna, St. Francis’ transformation into Christ was made visible in his body through the visitation of a seraph-angel whose six wings surrounded the body of the risen crucified Christ. Francis had become the very personification of Christ’s words, “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20). When you look at St. Francis, you see the crucified Christ whose presence within Francis was so real and so intense that the very wounds of Christ crucified broke forth in his body, revealing to the whole world that here, indeed, was the ultimate disciple of Christ, who not only bore in his body the wounds of Christ, but whose heart was filled with the love that moved Christ to suffer for love of us. As St. Francis himself articulates so beautifully in one of the prayers attributed to him, “May the fiery and honey-sweet power of your love, O Lord, wean me from all things under heaven, so that I may die for love of your love, who deigned to die for love of my love.”
Where, then, did this transformation begin and how did it come about? It all began with two transforming events in the young Francis Bernardone’s life: the embrace of a leper and his attendance at Mass on what was then the Feast of St. Matthias, February 24, 1208. Both events represent the radical poverty of St. Francis and how Gospel poverty defined who he was. This radical poverty, in the words of the medieval Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi, is this:
Poverty is to have nothing
And to desire nothing
And to possess everything
In a spirit of freedom
It seems from these lines that to have nothing and desire nothing is what Franciscan poverty is all about, but it is the last line, “in a spirit of freedom,” that is the essence. It was not letting go of things that made St. Francis Christ’s Lovescape, but letting go of his ego.
His had been a grand ambition: He wanted, a merchant’s son though he was, to become a knight, to ascend through military prowess to the ranks of the nobility. He desired to be somebody, to be influential, to matter. But in his first foray into war, he was captured in a decisive battle between Assisi and the neighboring hill town of Perugia and spent a year in a Perugian prison. It is said that he tried to cheer his fellow soldiers, but his health began to decline; and when he returned to Assisi a year later, he was a broken man who had to spend another year recuperating.
When he finally was able to venture outdoors again, nothing seemed the same; the glow of nature no longer shone for him. Was he in a state of post-traumatic shock? Was he simply depressed? Whatever the case, the things that before had stimulated and excited him—the revels, the beauties of nature, singing, and dancing—no longer lifted his spirit, until one day when he heard about another call to arms, this time to join the papal forces in Apulia, south of Rome, under the command of the celebrated Walter of Brienne.
Francis was now awakened from his torpor and once again set forth with other Assisi cavaliers to join the papal armies. But after only one day on the road, he had a dream in the nearby city of Spoleto in which a voice asked him, “Francis, who is it better to serve, the Lord or the servant?” “Why, the Lord, of course.” “Then why are you serving the servant?” Then, in a moment of insight, of epiphany, Francis realized that he had it all wrong, and he returned to Assisi, not knowing what he was supposed to do, or even what he was searching for. He began to visit abandoned churches and caves where he prayed incessantly for enlightenment.
Then one day when he was riding his horse on the road below Assisi, he saw a leper on the road and was moved to get down off his high horse, as it were—a huge gesture for the ambitious young man—and not only place coins in the leper’s outstretched hand, but on an extraordinary impulse, he actually embraced the leper, realizing as he did so, that he was embracing the Lord, Jesus Christ, who is also the Servant. In embracing this servant, he was paradoxically embracing the Lord. He had relinquished the dominance of his ego. He was no longer paralyzed. He was free.
A Poor, Itinerant Preacher
In overcoming himself and embracing the leper, Francis found true Gospel poverty; he found a poverty that was a new kind of riches. Now he had only to rid himself of whatever else was keeping him from this hidden treasure he had found. He discovered what that was in the small chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, hidden among the woods and marshes of the plain where the lepers lived.
It was February 24, 1208, and Francis was attending Mass; at the reading of the Gospel, he heard the Gospel passage that changed his life. It not only completed his vision of poverty, but it also gave him the lifestyle he was to embrace. And this is how it was, as his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, narrates it: “But when on a certain day the Gospel was read in that church, how the Lord sent his disciples out to preach, the holy man of God, assisting there, understood somewhat the words of the Gospel; and after Mass he humbly asked the priest to explain the Gospel to him more fully. When the priest had set forth in order all these things, the holy Francis, hearing that Christ’s disciples should not possess gold or silver or money; nor carry along the way scrip, or wallet, or bread, or a staff; that they should not have shoes, or two tunics; but that they should preach the kingdom of God and penance, he immediately cried out exultingly: `This is what I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart.’”
And that is what Francis did; he became what Jesus asked his disciples to become: a poor, itinerant, preaching brother of penance. He took to the road, he had no fixed abode, and he was brother to everyone he met along the way and to all of creation. And he became a brother in another way he never anticipated. Other men joined him, and they became a brotherhood who embraced lepers and lived out the Gospel passage, the form of life given to them in the Gospel for the Mass of St. Matthias. St. Francis relates the coming of the brothers in these words: “And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what do; but the Most High revealed to me that I was to live after the manner of the Holy Gospel. And I had it written down in brief, simple words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive this life gave everything to the poor, and they were happy with one tunic patched inside and out, and with a cord and breeches. And we had no desire for anything else.”
The Penance of Conversion
And Francis himself began to fall deeper and deeper in love with the Christ he met in the leper and in all those other servants who were really Christ: the poor, the marginal, those rejected by society, the weak, the infirm, and the powerless. For, in loving Christ, Francis realized that the servant is the Lord, and the Lord is the servant. More importantly, he realized that the penance he was to preach and his brothers were to preach, is the penance of conversion, of letting go of one’s ego and surrendering to a love which to others seems madness, but to the true lover is sanity.
True, even to a deeply committed disciple like St. Francis, the embrace of Christ can feel at times like annihilation, like death itself, because, in fact, one is dying to something. One is dying to a false self that tries to be God that tries to always be in control. But that dying is really life, the new life Jesus promised to those who relinquish their own willfulness as he did when he said in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will but as you will.” That surrendering of his own will to the Father’s will was the beginning of Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, for by accepting the cup the Father offers us, we accept death, but a death that is life-giving.
This text is excerpted from the new book Francis and Jesus by Murray F. Bodo (Franciscan Media). Murray Bodo, OFM, is a Franciscan priest and the author of numerous award-winning books, such as Francis: The Journey and the Dream. He writes and lectures on Franciscan spirituality, and travels yearly to Rome and Assisi, where he leads Franciscan pilgrimages.