Saint Francis Of Assisi
The official biography of Saint Francis was written by Saint Bonaventura, who was appointed this task by the Franciscan general chapter in 1260, thirty-four years after Saint Francis’s death.
Saint Francis was born in the city of Assisi on September 26, 1182 and died on October 3, 1226. His father was a prosperous merchant and his mother a noblewoman. He was given the name John by his mother, but when his father returned from France, he changed the name to Francis, in honor of France, the country where he had made his wealth.
Coming from a well-to-do family, Francis had the opportunity to study Latin, poetry, music, Italian, French, the Provencal dialect, and literature. It seemed that Francis was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Around the age of twenty, Francis joined up with the Assisi army and fought against the city of Perugia, but he was taken prisoner and remained in prison for one year. The time he spent in jail was very hard, so much so that he contracted a serious illness when he returned home. His sickness was the turning point in his life. He decided to radically change his lifestyle. To that point he had lived a worldly life, but now he chose to dedicate himself to following Jesus’s model. He began to give money to help the lepers, the poor, and the needy.
Francis’s new life and prodigality were not appreciated by his father, who eventually disinherited him. From then on, Francis lived a life of poverty and absolute simplicity. Soon other young people joined him, giving rise to the monastic Franciscan order. His soul was so pure that he talked with birds, and one day he even tamed a wolf. An example of the pureness of his heart can be found in the “Canticle of the Creatures,” which he composed in 1225.
Saint Francis’s life was short; in fact, he lived only forty four years. After his death, many authors started writing his biography. Some biographies had a hagiographic aim, while others were straightforward accounts, but some data is common to all of them:
Saint Francis was a great traveler. Around the age of thirty he left his hometown to go to Syria. Unfortunately, his journey was interrupted in Dalmatia for an unknown reason, but probably because he couldn’t find a ship to Syria, so he was forced to return to Italy.
In spite of the failure of his first attempted trip to a Muslim country, he set off on another journey to Islamic lands, this time Morocco. To go to Morocco, he crossed France and Spain.
Again he failed to succeed in his plan, because he contracted a serious disease in Spain and once more had to return to Assisi.
His third endeavor to get to an Arab country finally succeeded. He boarded a ship at Ancona in the year 1219, seven years before his death, at the same time the fifth crusade was under way. Once in Egypt, Saint Francis wanted to meet Sultan Malic al-Kamil. Their meeting really happened, and as far as we know, he was treated kindly by the sultan as a guest, and not as an enemy. He received safe conduct and was invited to return to visit Egypt anytime.
From Egypt he travelled to the Holy Land. About two years before his death, he received the stigmata on Mount Verna.
Later, his health worsened and he died in a small church near Assisi called Porziuncola. At his death, his body was taken to Assisi and a basilica was later built in the place where he was buried.
I had the opportunity of going to Assisi three times in my life. The first time was with my parents on a travel to north Italy. It happened many years ago. Even though I was very young and not in a condition to appreciate Saint Francis’s message to humanity, a few things remained etched in my mind. One was the sight of the cilice, which Saint Francis wore to mortify his body.
The cilice was a special garment made of goat hair, which caused considerable suffering to the person who wore it. The flesh was considered a kind of contamination of the soul; therefore, through the mortification of the body, the soul would be purified.
Hearing the story of Saint Francis from my parents, I was struck by the strength of character of this great man who rebelled against his father in order to follow the aspirations of his heart.
The second time I visited Assisi was while I was traveling on a trip organized by the parish priest from the Church of San Cataldo. We visited the basilica, which is divided into three parts: the upstairs basilica, the walls of which are covered with gorgeous frescoes by Giotto; the downstairs basilica, which contains other works of art; and finally the crypt where Saint Francis’s mortal remains are kept. The tomb is placed in a raised position over the altar, and is made without frills of grey square and rectangular stones.
As soon as I knelt to say some prayers and make a wish, I had the sensation that a kind of energy was radiating from his tomb, and then I asked Saint Francis to hear my prayer.
“Please, Saint Francis, grant me a gift! You are a very powerful saint and can easily make my wish come true. I love Elisabetta more than life, and I want her to become my wife. There are many hindrances that prevent us from getting married. Please, Saint Francis, remove all the hindrances and help us get married as soon as possible.”
At that time I had fallen in love with a young lady named Elisabetta. She was from Enna as well, and taught Latin and Greek at the high school. I courted her for two years and wanted to get engaged to her. We used to stroll along Via Roma and Belvedere and talk religion. In fact, she was an earnest Catholic, to such an extent that she was once on the verge of quitting her job to become a Carmelite cloistered nun.
One day while we were walking around the Lombardia Castle, she told me of her pilgrimage to Assisi. “I have been struck by Saint Francis’s burial place. I felt a special energy coming from his tomb,” she said.
Now, I don’t know whether or not it was due to autosuggestion because Elisabetta had told me her feelings, but the same strange sensation was now happening to me. While I repeatedly asked San Francis to grant my wish, I felt as if powerful energy was radiating from his tomb and talking to me.
“I have spent all my life searching for God,” Saint Francis’s energy seemed to say, “and now you arrive at my tomb and ask me to grant you a trivial wish, Vincenzino!”
I wondered why Saint Francis would consider my wish to get married to my beloved trivial. As time passed, I realized that I had actually requested something really trivial. In fact, human affairs like love, business, careers, and so on are trifles in comparison to the search and love for God, who is the giver of life.
Meanwhile, Elisabetta got married to another man, and I understood that what I had considered a great love was nothing more than an infatuation doomed to dissolve like the fog dispersed by the wind.
True love is not related to a woman or a person. Love is something that you must have inside you. Love comes from your heart and mind, and it stands apart from the appearance and character of the people who you come across and the happenings of life.
Later, I married a lady from Greece, and we now live together in Enna. In the evenings after dinner, my wife and I usually stroll along Via Roma and Saint Francis Square, which is surrounded by old palaces on three sides and by the stately Church of Saint Francis on the fourth. A small green area had recently been attached to the church, with an olive tree and a statue of Saint Francis surrounded by white doves inside it. While my wife and I were going back home and passed by that green, we noticed a fragrance emanating from the area. We turned in all directions but couldn’t spot a flower or a tree from where that subtle scent might be emanating. The following days we passed by the same place again, but we couldn’t smell anything.
A subtle thread was leading me to Assisi for the third time. My Greek wife and I decided to take a car trip across northern and central Italy. We embarked on a ferry in Palermo and landed in Genoa. From there we travelled to Pisa, Florence, and San Gimignano.
While we were admiring the numerous towers of the last town, my wife suddenly cried out, “What about going to Assisi? Is it far from here? Do you remember the fragrance we smelt in Enna near the Church of Saint Francis?”
“No, it is not far away. We can go to Perugia first, and Assisi is a stone’s throw from there,” I replied.
We arrived at Saint Francis’s hometown around midday and found lodging in a monastery run by Filipino nuns. We strolled for a while around the medieval city and then arrived at the basilica. My wife was surprised at the sight of the frescoes both upstairs and downstairs.
“Even though I am not a Christian,” she said, “and don’t follow any religion, I cannot help being astonished by the religious ardor that was behind these great masterpieces.”
Then we went to the crypt and sat on a pew facing Saint Francis’s tomb. As soon as I sat down, I had the sensation that the same energy that had talked to me many years ago was now speaking again, suggesting the path I should follow to find out who really I was.
Purify your heart, mind, body, and actions, and then you’ll see God inside you!
What was Saint Francis telling me this time? I inferred that he meant that the real kingdom of God is inside every living being, but we cannot find it if our mind is contaminated by too many materialistic desires or our actions are not directed towards the wellbeing of our fellow creatures. I also inferred that prayer and meditation are a good way to purify the mind and get close to God, as long as my actions aim not towards an egoistic goal, but to the love of all creatures.
While I was meditating on what Saint Francis was suggesting to me at that moment, my wife suddenly turned to me. “I have a pain in my heart, and my heart is pounding! I shed tears and I don’t know why. I don’t feel sad and I don’t know why I am crying!”
My wife is not Catholic, and actually doesn’t practice any religion. So we couldn’t understand why such a phenomenon befell her. Maybe the same energy that had talked to me was revealing itself to her in some way.
I left Assisi with a strong devotion to Saint Francis. Every time I had trouble in my life after that, I thought of him and reminded myself that my worldly misfortunes are a mere trifle. What really matters in life is the search and love for God and all His creatures.
Reviewing my encounter with Saint Francis, I reconsidered what my law teacher had taught me a long time ago. She had stressed the importance of the difference between a piece of evidence and a clue. A piece of evidence is a fact that you have seen or heard, or a way that an event can be proved with absolute certainty—evidence that can direct the judge to return his verdict. A clue doesn’t have the strength of evidence, and a mere clue is usually not enough to bring in a judge’s verdict, but if the clues are numerous, unambiguous, precise, and concordant with one another, they can be taken into consideration by the judge in order to pass judgment. In the case of my encounter with Saint Francis, there are five clues that can be admitted as evidence of the existence of another spiritual level that is beyond our ordinary worldly life:
1. The energy that Elisabetta felt while she was praying before the tomb of Saint Francis;
2. The fragrance that my wife and I smelt near his statue while we were strolling in Enna;
3. The energy coming from his tomb that talked to me about the true goals of my life, which were not a mere love of a woman, money, or some other worldly pleasure. Searching for God is the real goal;
4. The energy that I felt when I went to Assisi for the third time. I realized that the kingdom of God is really inside me. I just need purify my mind, my heart, and my actions, and then I can be on the path that leads to the spiritual world;
5. The unusual sensation of pain in my wife’s chest and the tears in her eyes while she was sitting with me in front of Saint Francis’s tomb.
These days, Saint Francis is the master in my daily life. Whenever I am too worried because my business didn’t go well, I remind myself of the teachings he gave me in the crypt in Assisi. The ups and downs of life are mere trifles when compared to meeting God, who stays in the heart of every human.
By minding Saint Francis’s teachings, I live my life in a more relaxed way. I am less anxious. I just juggle the events of life as soccer players do when playing a friendly match.
This is an excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History by ETTORE GRILLO
Ettore Grillo, author of these books:
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind