Francis Bernadone (1182-1226)


I like my saints wild. The fierce ones, the oddballs, the out of kilter holy women and holy men, the ones with edges and cracks and terrible visions, the ridiculed and feared. The ones who sooner or later have to be tamed; who, with the passage of time and shifting angles of vision, must be edited so that you can read about them safely in prim collections of hagiographies. The ones who become no longer strange, alas, but ‘best-loved.’

Like Francis Bernadone. Of Assisi. You know him—the “make me a channel of your peace” saint. The animal saint, who preached to birds and did therapy with wolves. He wished ill to no creature. He loved earth, fire, water, brother sun and sister moon, and even sister death. The environmentally aware, all-natural, organic saint of harmonious convergence.

But do you know this—that he was fierce and dangerous? He went first to war, for glory’s sake. He was something of a coward, it turned out, and returned covered in shame. And badly wounded. He was converted then, turned around by the special grace that flows from the fact of your own futility and that pulses in the feel of your misled heart and your useless flesh.

After that, he could never flee his own flesh or anyone else’s. He started stealing from his wealthy father and gave away what he stole to make beggars warm. There were too many beggars to count in Assisi.  When his father found out, he dragged him off to the bishop for a public reprimand. A lover of troubadours and theater, Francis stripped off his clothes in front of his father, the bishop, and half the stunned and clucking town. Stripped off his legacy (his father dealt in cloth), he behind his name. He walked out of the city into a poppy field, a newborn, naked as a jay.

Being in the buff, you have no way of escaping baseline facts: who you are, to whom you belong, on whom you depend, and who is trustworthy. And so it began. He lived on the street and in the woods and in the meadow below the town. Once he was resting in the ruins of a chapel and saw that the crucifix was still inside. He gazed at it until it spoke to him: ‘Francis, repair my Church. ‘ And so he did, stone by stone with his own hands. Of course, Jesus meant his ‘capital C’ church, but Francis was never one to do grand things when a small, doable, and needed thing was in front of his nose.

Francis loved Chiara Offreduccio, who became sister Clare, and had quite a following of her own.  He loved Lady Poverty, to whom he pledged his eternal troth in a symbolic wedding—rings and all—like a mad courtier. He loved Brother Leo and Brother Juniper and all the brothers who flocked to him, exchanging finery, many of them, for rags. He wrote poems and made up songs and danced to them. He rolled in the snow in his own rags and threw himself into thorn bushes when his body gave him trouble. He kissed the dreadful lepers on their sores.

He wanted people to make peace. He tried for reconciliation everywhere, which is why he became the patron saint of stowaways, having hidden on a boat headed East where he hoped to convert the Sultan and end the bloody horror of the Crusades. He did not succeed, but it is said that the Sultan thought he was a lovely man, and made sure he got home safely.

He was not naïve. He knew what he was up against. But he believed in Jesus. And so on days blistering and freezing, he sang hymns and prayed aloud on  street corners, handing our verbal gospel tracts about the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God. Through nights dark and shimmering, he prayed persistently, alone on a mountain. The visions that came to him there were garish and beautiful and full of pain. On one such frightful night, the wild signs he saw in the sky lasered him, cutting Jesus wounds in his hands, his feet, his side.

Francis founded the Franciscans, although ‘Franciscan’ was never the name he wished for them. He called them ‘friars minor,’ little brothers. Because he needed the pope’s approval for his community, he walked down to Rome. Medieval Rome, holy city and cesspool. After some bureaucratic delays, Francis in his rags got the approval he wanted. It is said that in the audience with the pope, whose name was Innocent, but who wasn’t, the worldly man in ermine and gold came down from his throne, kissed Francis’ feet, and received his blessing.

And then the poor scarecrow lived just a little too long. Long enough to see factions of his now-thousands of sons and brothers grow to despise each other. Long enough to see new leaders reinterpret him. Saints’ deaths are sometimes bitter like this.

Fierce to the end, he had a real death. It was awful, really. At the last minute, he ordered the brothers to lay him down on the ground. That’s where he died, dust to dust. It wasn’t long after that the new leaders began building a gigantic basilica to house his remains.

Francis lives now with Jesus in the heaven he believed in so passionately. (It is said that in the morning mist of paradise, angels cannot tell the two apart.) A heaven that looks a little like the re-built Portiuncula; or a field of poppies; or an alley in Assisi. There are talking birds there, and repentant wolves and singing water and Leo and Clare. The Pope too, who is singing duets with the Sultan. And there are lepers, with rosebuds blossoming on their skin where Francis kissed them.

God grant us to his spirit. God make us fierce.