The Little Flowers of St. Francis

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

The Little Flowers of Saint Francis is not a historical work or a novel. Nor is it a biography or chronological summary of the events of one man’s life. Rather, it is a spiritual text meant to convey the significance of key events in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), a holy man who served as an embodiment of the Christ-like virtues of obedience, humility, and joyfulness. Written more than one hundred years after his death by Brother Ugolino da Monte Santa Maria, The Little Flowers is meant to be a guide to attaining a pious life, which can be best captured and exemplified through St. Francis’s own blessedness.

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Because there is no way to truly summarize the book, as it is simply a compilation of St. Francis’s holy deeds, it may be more helpful here to consider the man as a historical figure, what his motivations and desires were, and how this influenced how he was represented in The Little Flowers. St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order of Saints, formally known as the Order of the Friars Minor (the “Little Brothers”), in 1209. Having come from an affluent merchant family, St. Francis eventually rejected materialism in favor of a life devoted to chivalry and the greater good. Legend holds that Francis’s mother initially wanted to name her son “John.” However, after his father returned home from a profitable trip to France, he decided to name the boy after the country in which he had amassed his fortune—hence “Francis.”

The Franciscans represented some of the purest and most ascetic representatives of the Catholic church. Self-sacrifice and a complete repudiation of worldly gain was one of the hallmarks of Franciscan piety, which is revealed in many chapters of The Little Flowers. For example, in chapter 1, St. Francis’s respect for his companion, St. Bernard, is revealed to be the result of St. Bernard’s decision to renounce all of his worldly goods and distribute them to the poor:

Saint Francis pronounced him [St. Bernard] worthy of all reverence, and would declare that it was he who had founded the order, in that it was he who first showed true evangelical poverty by distributing all he had to the poor, keeping absolutely nothing for himself, offering himself stripped of all to the arms of the Crucified, who is blessed for ever and ever.

In another chapter, this same devotion to asceticism is revealed by Francis’s ability to convert a wealthy knight to the covenant. The chapter is lost in the Latin text, but the heading reveals the general significance of the event to Francis’s piety: “How the blessed Jesus Christ, on the supplication of Saint Francis, caused a rich and courteous knight who had shown him great respect, to be converted and become a friar.”

The Little Flowers celebrates other accomplishments of St. Francis’s life, and how these accomplishments highlight the blessed nature that all Christ-loving people should aspire to. The book demonstrates how St. Francis’s life was one of complete humility and self-abnegation. St. Francis crusaded for the weak and the poor, forgave transgressions that were committed against him and his friends, and cultivated a community of followers that was of a character of goodness similar to the apostles of Jesus Christ during his lifetime. St. Francis was kind of heart and tender, and he expressed a boundless love for humanity and the universe. It is these qualities which The Little Flowers attempts to render as the model of a righteous life to its readers.

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2034

First transcribed: Fioretti di San Francesco d’Assisi, c. 1328 (English translation, 1864)

Edition(s) used: The Little Flowers of St. Francis, translated and edited by Raphael Brown. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1958

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Legends; morality tales

Core issue(s): Humility; Jesus Christ; poverty; simplicity; trust in God

Overview

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 scolded the brother in charge, saying that sinners are led back to Christ by holy meekness rather than cruel scolding. Reminding him that Jesus came as a physician to be with the sick, he sent the brother to find the robbers and give them food and seek their pardon. All three robbers were in this way brought back to God.

This same quality of gentleness provides the secret of Francis’s legendary influence over animals. He preached to the birds, who remained quiet and attentive before flying away in the pattern of a cross to the four corners of the earth; he calmed the fierce wolf of Gubbio and helped the people of that community to overcome their fears. He was an instrument of God’s peace, both in the human world and in nature.

Francis’s pure vision of Gospel life was rooted in poverty and the joy of simple living close to the earth. On one occasion, Francis and Brother Masseo went begging bread in a small village. Masseo, a tall, handsome, imposing figure, was more successful in his begging than the small and insignificant-looking Francis. The two brought their begged pieces of bread to a nearby spring with a flat rock that served as their table. When Francis saw the larger pieces of bread that Masseo had begged, he was filled with intense joy, and exclaimed over and over, louder each time, “Oh, Brother Masseo, we do not deserve such a great treasure as this!” Finally, Masseo protested that such poverty and lack of things could hardly be considered a treasure. They had no cloth, no knife, no dish, no bowl, no table, no house. Francis replied that what made it a great treasure was that nothing had been prepared by human labor, but everything had been given by God—the begged bread, the fine stone table, and the clear spring. “Therefore, I want us to pray to God that He may make us love with all our hearts the very noble treasure of holy poverty.”

Poverty, for Francis, was not a romantic ideal. He wanted to be poor because Jesus was poor and the biblical promises were made to the poor. He thought the Gospel could be preached only to the poor because they alone had the freedom to hear it without distorting it for their own purposes. One could only see rightly from a place of weakness and poverty: “For poverty is that heavenly virtue by which all earthly things are trodden under foot . . . by which every obstacle is removed from the soul so that it may freely enter into union with the eternal Lord God.” In contrast to the rest of the human race, Francis hurried in the direction of poverty, certain that he was following in the steps of Christ.

A joyous trust also characterized the simplicity of the early Franciscans. When the movement was only a few years old, Francis called all of the friars together, nearly five thousand brothers, to an open camp meeting on the plain at Saint Mary of the Angels. Several prominent people, including Saint Dominic, were present as observers. When everyone had assembled, Francis rose to preach, encouraging the brothers in love, prayer, praise to God, service to others, and patience in adversity. He concluded with the command that the brothers not have “any care or anxiety concerning anything to eat or drink or the other things necessary for the body, but to concentrate only on praying and praising God . . . because He takes special care of you.” Saint Dominic was greatly surprised at Francis’s command and thought he was proceeding in a impudent way. What would the friars eat? Who would care for them? Soon, however, from all the surrounding countryside, people arrived bringing food and drink. A great celebration followed as the friars praised God for his provision. Saint Dominic reproached himself and knelt before Francis, saying, “God is truly taking care of these holy little poor men, and I did not realize it. Therefore I promise henceforth to observe the holy poverty of the Gospel.”

The dominant keynote in Francis’s life was joy: joy in God, in poverty, in the wonders of creation, in the cross of Christ. One of the most delightful stories in The Little Flowers concerns how Francis taught Brother Leo the meaning of perfect joy. Walking together in the rain and bitter cold, Francis spoke to Leo of all the things that people believed would bring joy, such as having all knowledge, or healing the sick, or converting prominent people to the Franciscan order. After each recounting, Francis added: “Perfect joy is not in that.” Brother Leo finally begged Francis to tell him where to find perfect joy. Francis then began an imagined account of how the two of them would be shabbily treated at the friary they were approaching, and how they would be humiliated, beaten, and left hungry in the cold and rain, and how that was the context of perfect joy. He concluded: “Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.”

Christian Themes

True joy, peace, and happiness are found only in loving, knowing, and serving God and one’s neighbor with true humility, simplicity, compassion, meekness, patience, and obedience to Christ. To read The Little Flowers is to discover a man in love with God, lost in the joy of relationship to Christ, the greatest of all lovers. Francis’s life reveals what is happening in the heart of God: not omnipotence but humility; not cold omniscience but endless self-revelation; not detached judgment but relentless welcoming and giving. There seems no bottom to Francis’s grateful happiness, no matter the amount of his suffering. Eyewitnesses tell us that he was so filled with gladness he would pick up a stick and place it across his arm like a bow on a violin and play, dance, and sing to the Lord in an ecstasy of joy. Bonaventure recounts that even on his deathbed, two years after mystically receiving the stigmata of Christ in his own body, Francis wanted to go forward again because he had still done so little to heed and obey the call of Christ. Such joyful obedience and humility, love and simplicity, shine through The Little Flowers of St. Francis so that to read it today is to be carried across time into the presence of Francis and his followers and to want to join them in a more faithful, less selfish, more joyful following after Christ.

Sources for Further Study

  • Fortini, Arnaldo. Nova Vita di San Francisco. 1959. Translated into English as Francis of Assisi by Helen Monk. New York: Crossroad, 1981. Fortini, one of the foremost Franciscan historians, moves beyond the spiritual portraits of the early biographies to give a critical reconstruction of the social, economic, political, and religious milieus during the time of Saint Francis.
  • Green, Julien. God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi. Translated by Peter Heinegg. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. A lively, sensitive, and authoritative biography.
  • Habig, Marion A., ed. St. Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973. The complete sourcebook, including authentic writings of Saint Francis, the earliest biographies by Thomas Celano (1228) and Bonaventure (1263), and other material, along with extensive introductions, historical notes, and bibliography.
  • The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. Written by Ugolino di Monte Santa Maria, edited and adapted from a translation by W. Heywood. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Madeleine L’Engle’s preface appears in this widely available edition. Bibliography.
  • The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi: A Modern English Translation from the Latin and the Italian. Translated by Raphael Brown. New York: Image Books, 1991. Brown offers useful notes, biographical sketches, and an introduction in this “entirely new version with twenty additional chapters.” Bibliography.

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