FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Francis of Assisi was born into a prosperous merchant class family. His father Pietro
sold luxury cloth and had met his wife Pica in southern France. Their son Francesco
was raised in a household with a complex web of privileges, responsibilities, luxuries
and limitations. In the twelfth century the merchant class was not allowed to own land
and had little access to state power. Francis’s father helped to finance an uprising in
Assisi that would change the city statutes and share power more equally between the
noble and merchant classes. This civil war had critical consequences for Francis and
for his future collaborator, Clare, of the noble class. Clare and her family sought
political asylum in neighboring Perugia, where the noble class of Assisi allied
themselves with the military forces of the city and eventually attacked Assisi in order to
reclaim their land. By this time (1202), Francis was 20 years old and ready to prove
himself worthy of knighthood in defense of his hometown. Suited up in a new coat of
armor and with the full support of his family and community, Francis rode across the
valley to clash with the Perugians at Collestrada. Struck down in battle and taken
prisoner, he languished for a year as a prisoner of war before he was ransomed and
returned to his family.
These early, harsh years changed Francis forever. Once back in Assisi, he was
completely unable to inhabit his previous mentality of privilege, power, ease and
nonchalance—especially as he realized how easily his fellow citizens would have
sacrificed him to their own selfish interests. He began to question severely the
assumption of power and prestige and wondered whether or not property and
ownership were worth sacrificing talent, youth, hope, and creative vision. In point
of fact, especially as Francis became increasingly honest about his questions, this
restlessness and disillusionment was a profound invitation to radical change—a kind of
saving grace. But the path to freedom, light and new life was not entirely
The church of his day offered Francis little help in his quest for a deeper authenticity
and integrity. Seeking guidance in solitude and prayer, Francis found consolation at the
Church of San Damiano outside the city walls where he began to pray a simple prayer
with deepening sincerity:
Most High, all-powerful God,
Enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith, certain hope, and perfect love
sense and understanding, Lord,
that I may know and do Your most holy will.
Little by little a way of profound metanoia opened up for him, as his plea for courage
and support led him to make bold choices in order to forge a way of poverty and
simplicity in the light of the gospel.
Francis’s instincts toward a new way were reinforced and supported by the leap of hope
he felt as he began to make friends with those confined to the leper colonies down in
the valley below Assisi. The Testament that Francis wrote toward the end of his life
makes clear that the impact of encounters with this sisters and brothers in the leper
colony constituted Francis’s first experience of the power of the living God.
We could easily identify the time period of 1202 to 1206—what earlier Franciscan
scholars sometimes called “the lost years” of Francis’s life, perhaps because early
sources remain silent about these years—as a time of deep “awakening” to the call of
the divine that Francis experienced through his growing awareness of the suffering of
the human community and the solidarity of God that Francis was learning and in which
he wanted to participate. As he came to understand how much his own humanity was
being compromised by the structures—political, economic, social and
religious—operative in his world, Francis knew that, for the sake of his own integrity and
fidelity, he needed to change his life radically. For example, he could no longer tolerate
or perpetuate the contempt and exclusion of those who lived in the leper colony, begged
for a living, or otherwise resided at the margins of society.
Gradually—and with the help of prayer and the lessons he was learning at the margins
of society—Francis gained clarity that the way of life that God was inviting him to
embrace would require a completely fresh start, unencumbered by social or cultural
expectations. He wanted to imitate, as simply and deeply as possible, the life of Jesus
and the early community Jesus created. Stripping himself before the bishop of Assisi
and handing his clothing and inheritance rights back to his father, Francis sensed that a
physical, social and spiritual nakedness was the first step in the freedom that he needed
to answer the gospel call to a new way of life. He set about rebuilding the church of
San Damiano and others in the valley below Assisi, getting to know the poor and
excluded, living by the work of his hands, and doing all that he could to offer solidarity
and care for those around him. To his surprise, this simple way of life began to attract
others, including members of the noble class, some of whom might even have been
involved in the civil war that had produced such misery years before.
One member of the nobility, who became a companion of Francis’s early on, had a
female cousin named Clare, who was greatly admired for her beauty, her character, and
her grace. Clare took an immediate interest in this new movement and began to
support it financially, unbeknownst to her family. Eventually, she would join the
movement and grow an entire female branch known as the Poor Ladies. Francis and
Clare’s shared charism provides a profound model of collaboration and spiritual fruition,
as they devoted themselves completely to the many ways that the love of God might
come alive in the human community around them.
Francis’s desire to share the gospel way of life as broadly as possible led him to seek
formal approval for this way of life. In 1209 he set out for Rome and met with Pope
Innocent III, returning to Assisi with the pope’s blessing. This gave Francis a greater
confidence to speak more boldly about the need for a genuine metanoia—a change in
mindset, attitude, disposition and habit—within the human community. The order itself
expanded into many countries across Europe, as the community’s commitment to being
an instrument of universal peace and goodness grew.
The legacy of Francis and Clare is a living invitation into an authentic, all-
encompassing, Gospel-informed way of life. This legacy is grounded in a God-centered
vision of humanity and the world that manifests and engenders simplicity, tenderness,
reverence, justice, peace and joy. It is a legacy not enshrined in words so much as in a
way of life; one of the sayings attributed to Francis that epitomizes his way of life is this:
Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.
Perhaps Francis’s most famous writing is the Canticle of Creation, a song of praise to
God the creator, giving thanks for the elements of nature, who Francis considered
brother and sister.
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord:
Yours is the praise, the glory and the honor
and every blessing.
To You alone, Most High,
do they belong,
and no one is worthy to speak Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord
with all your creatures,
especially Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom You bring us light,
and who is lovely, shining with great splendor,
for he heralds you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and Stars.
In heaven you have formed them,
light and precious and fair.
And praised be you, my Lord,
through Brother Wind, through air and cloud,
through calm and every weather
by which you sustain your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord,
through Sister Water,
who is useful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be you, my Lord
through Brother Fire,
by whom you light up the night,
and who is handsome and merry, robust and strong.
Praised be you, my Lord,
through our Sister, Mother Earth,
who sustains us and directs us
bringing forth all kinds of fruits
and colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be you, my Lord
through those who forgive for your love
and who bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace,
for by you, Most High,
they will be crowned.
Praised be you, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death
from whom no living being can escape.
How dreadful for those who die in mortal sin!
How blessed are those she finds in your most holy will
for the second death can do them no harm.
O praise and bless my Lord,
and thank and serve God
with humility and joy.
Where there is love and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.
Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor disturbance.
Where there is poverty with joy, there is neither jealousy nor greed.
Where there is inner peace and meditation, there is neither anxiousness nor dissipation.
Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk. 11:21),
there the enemy cannot gain entry.
Where there is mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor hardness of heart.
(The Admonitions of Francis)
This prayer is known and loved worldwide, but Francis did not write it. His life inspired
the words, which were written just before World War I and prayed often during the wars
of the 20 th century, in the spirit of St. Francis and his greeting to all: “May peace be with
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is injury, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek not so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in seeking that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.