The spirit of simplicity, humility, and joyful obedience of Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) and his jubilant followers, who tramped the thirteenth century plains and hills of Italy winning the hearts and minds of countless citizens of their day, is wonderfully captured in The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Not a biography or even a historical chronology of Francis or his movement, The Little Flowers is a collection of incidents drawn together more than one hundred years after Francis’s death. In a straightforward and moving style, the stories capture the buoyancy and childlike innocence of the early medieval spirit and bring one into the Christlike presence of the saint.
Born c. 1181 to a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis was an attractive and fun-loving youth given to revelry and worldly excitement. He dreamed of being a soldier and fighting in the Crusades but was captured following a local battle and spent a discouraging year in prison. There followed a long period of illness that led to his awakening to more serious questions about life and to a search for God. At about age twenty-five, following a trip to Rome and attempts to care for lepers, Francis heard God speak to him from the wooden crucifix of an abandoned church at San Damiano: “Francis, go repair my house, which is falling into ruins.” Three times the voice spoke, and when Francis came to himself, he obeyed in the most literal way, by beginning the physical rebuilding of the church at San Damiano. Soon, the whole church was to feel the effects of his obedience as thousands followed after him in the most widespread spiritual awakening in the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.
Francis understood his vocation in simple Gospel terms. The Little Flowers recounts how one day, after Mass at the Church of San Nicolo, Francis and Brother Bernard prayed to the Lord Christ that he reveal to them through the Scripture his path of obedience for them. Opening the text, their eyes fell on the words: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me.” They opened the Scripture a second time and read: “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor wallet, nor bread, nor money.” And then a third time: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Closing the Bible, Francis exclaimed to Bernard that this was the counsel of Christ and that they should go and do perfectly what Christ commanded them. For Francis, Christ was enough. The renewal movement he founded was a return to the Gospel teachings of Jesus with such force that it shook the entire world.
Francis exerted a strange attraction on the people of his time. Brother Masseo asked him one day, “Why after you? Why after you? . . . Why does all the world seem to be running after you? . . . You are not a handsome man. You do not have great learning or wisdom. You are not a nobleman. So why is all the world running after you?” Francis, rejoicing in the Spirit, answered that it was perhaps because of all men he had the least to boast of in himself. No one was more vile or insufficient, and thus he had been chosen because God chooses what is foolish in order to shame the wise, so that all excellence and goodness may be seen to come from God and not from his creatures.
Such humility was evident in the way Francis sought guidance through the prayers of friends, in his willing acceptance of ridicule and public insult, and in his gentle and forgiving spirit toward all people. In one incident, some robbers came begging food from the brothers, and the one in charge drove them away. When Francis heard what had happened, he...
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