Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066
A century after the death of the venerated St. Francis of Assisi, several medieval church scholars set themselves to gathering information on the man and his life. The Little Flowers of St. Francis represents a culmination of their work and details certain key events which were significant both for their contribution to the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church and for their individual holiness. Thus, the key characters of this work are St. Francis himself, his followers, and the people he meets and inspires during his time preaching in the towns and cities of twelfth-century Italy.
St. Francis of Assisi is the titular man for whom the book was written. St. Francis was born in 1182 in the small town of Assisi, which lies in the heart of central Italy. His father was a wealthy merchant, and some historians have claimed that he decided to name his son after France (Francis) because of the immense profits he had made there. St. Francis enjoyed the first twenty-four years of his life, in which he traveled extensively, wore lavish clothes, and prodigiously spent his father’s money. Sometime around the year 1202, Francis got caught up in the war between the city-states of Assisi and Perugia, eventually becoming imprisoned for more than a year. During this time he became extremely ill, and it is said that it was the visions he had during his infirmary which caused him to give up the materialism and excessive wealth of his family in order to live a more ascetic life. After his release, he wandered Italy and did everything he could to help the destitute and in-need people he met. He devoted himself to treating the poor and sick and felt particular sympathy for lepers. In 1209, he founded the Order of the Friars Minor, otherwise known as the Franciscan Order. It is from the founding of this order that The Little Flowers picks up the story of St. Francis. Throughout the narrative, the reader is taught the blessedness of St. Francis’s character, how he is able to inspire people around him to give up the secular life and join him in piety, and how St. Francis embodies the most Christian characteristics of humility, asceticism, and utter devotion to God.
Brother Bernard is one of the “noblest, richest, and wisest men in the city [of Assisi].” He comes to follow St. Francis after being convinced of his faith one night after watching him pray. St. Francis considers Brother Bernard to have been the true founder of the Franciscan Order, as it was Bernard who first gave up all of his worldly possessions to the poor before joining St. Francis in his travels across Italy. St. Francis holds Bernard in the deepest reverence, for in his final hours, Bernard told his friends, his fellow friars, and the brethren surrounding him that he wished nothing else but to accuse himself before Jesus Christ and that all of his acquaintances would love one another forever. Upon his death, “his face shone with a great joy, astonishing to all about him” (chapter 5). Such joy, both in life and death, is one of the central themes related to the holy life that The Little Flowers attempts to convey.
Brother Leo is a friar of the Franciscan Order who learns a great deal from his conversations with St. Francis. St. Francis teaches him that “true” happiness is not in material abundance or in a perfect understanding of all the creatures of the earth or treasures of the universe. Rather, it is the ability to endure cold and hunger without complaint, to be able to endure submission and in doing so gain favor in the eyes of God which brings happiness. Throughout his conversations with St. Francis in The Little Flowers, the concepts of humility and self-abnegation are put on display. In one scene, St. Francis instructs Leo to respond to the query “Will God have mercy on St. Francis?” by saying, “No, Francis is a worthless fellow.” Leo, however, responds that God will have mercy on Francis but that he himself is not so worthy as to accept the grace of God. Within their many other conversations, St. Francis and Brother Leo trouble over the meaning and significance of humility, worthiness, and God’s mercy.
Brother Masseo is another bishop who has his humility tested by St. Francis. During their travels together, Masseo questions why it is that people follow Francis, despite the fact that he is not a handsome or wise man in any way. Francis responds that it is because he is so wretched that God chose him as a vehicle to spread the word of Christ to the people. Later, Masseo questions why his own piety has not been recognized by Francis, but later rebukes himself for wishing to assign for himself praise which it is only God’s right to give. For holding this opinion, St. Francis gives Brother Masseo his approval.
There are various other minor characters who St. Francis and his followers meet during their journey. These include people such as a leper whom Francis cures, three robbers, two noblemen, a tyrant, and a wealthy knight (all of whom St. Francis converts to the Franciscan way of life), a wild wolf which Francis tames, three birds which Francis releases from captivity, and a pious soldier. The presence of animals such as the wolf and turtle doves represent St. Francis’s recognition of holiness, not just in the realm of humanity, but in the natural world as well.
Brother Ruffino is another friar and companion of St. Francis. Ruffino represents the theme of obedience in The Little Flowers and the importance of obeying both the Lord and his fellow churchmen. St. Francis asks Ruffino to go to Assisi to preach to the people, to which Ruffino declines, saying that he is not a good speaker, that he is simpleminded and of no impressive education. Because of this disobedience, St. Francis immediately requires him to travel to Assisi naked, wearing only his breeches, and preach to the people. Though he is laughed at for doing so, Brother Ruffino acquiesces. St. Francis joins him at the pulpit and delivers a speech so moving that it brings Ruffino’s audience to tears.
There are other friars who join St. Francis’s Franciscan Order, including Brother Giles, Brother James, Brother Ricerio, Saint Antony, Brother Conrad, and Brother John.
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