Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
St. Francis of Assisi
By Henry Hart Milman (1791–1868)
From Latin Christianity

ST. FRANCIS was born in the romantic town of Assisi, of a family, the Bernardini, engaged in trade. His birth took place while his father was on a mercantile journey in France; on his return his new-born son was baptized by the name of Francis. His mother, Picca, loved him with all a mother’s tenderness for her first-born. He received the earliest rudiments of instruction from the clergy of the parish of St. George: he was soon taken to assist his father in his trade. The father, a hard, money-making man, was shocked at first by the vanity and prodigality of his son. The young Francis gave banquets to his juvenile friends, dressed splendidly, and the streets of Assisi rang with the songs and revels of the joyous crew; but even then his bounty to the poor formed a large part of his generous wastefulness. He was taken captive in one of the petty wars which had broken out between Perugia and Assisi, and remained a whole year in prison. He was then seized with a violent illness: when he rose from his bed nature looked cold and dreary; he began to feel disgust to the world. The stirrings of some great but yet undefined purpose were already awake within him. He began to see visions, but as yet they were of war and glory: the soldier was not dead in his heart. He determined to follow the fortunes of a youthful poor knight who was setting out to fight under the banner of the “Gentle Count,” Walter of Brienne, against the hated Germans. At Spoleto he again fell ill; his feverish visions took another turn. Francis now felt upon him that profound religious thraldom which he was never to break, never to desire to break. His whole soul became deliberately, calmly, ecstatic faith. He began to talk mysteriously of his future bride—that bride was Poverty. He resolved never to refuse alms to a poor person. He found his way to Rome, threw down all he possessed, no costly offering, on the altar of St. Peter. On his return he joined a troop of beggars, and exchanged his dress for the rags of the filthiest among them. His mother heard and beheld all his strange acts with a tender and prophetic admiration. To a steady trader like the father it was folly if not madness. He was sent with a valuable bale of goods to sell at Foligno. On his return he threw all the money down at the feet of the priest of St. Damian to rebuild his church, as well as the price of his horse, which he likewise sold. The priest refused the gift. In the eyes of the father this was dishonesty as well as folly. Francis concealed himself in a cave, where he lay hid for a month in solitary prayer. He returned to Assisi, looking so wild and haggard, that the rabble hooted him as he passed, and pelted him with mire and stones. The gentle Francis appeared to rejoice in every persecution. The indignant father shut him up in a dark chamber, from which, after a time he was released by the tender solicitude of his mother. Bernardini now despaired of his unprofitable and intractable son, whom he suspected of alienating other sums besides that which he had received for the cloth and the horse. He cited him before the magistrates to compel him to abandon all rights on his patrimony, which he was disposed to squander in this thriftless manner. Francis declared that he was a servant of God, and declined the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. The cause came before the Bishop. The Bishop earnestly exhorted Francis to yield up to his father any money which he might possess, or to which he was entitled. “It might be ungodly gain, and so unfit to be applied to holy uses.” “I will give up the very clothes I wear,” replied the enthusiast, encouraged by the gentle demeanour of the Bishop. He stripped himself entirely naked. “Peter Bernardini was my father; I have now but one Father, He that is in heaven.” The audience burst into tears; the Bishop threw his mantle over him, and ordered an old coarse dress of an artisan to be brought: he then received Francis into his service.
  Francis was now wedded to Poverty; but poverty he would only love in its basest form—mendicancy. He wandered abroad, was ill-used by robbers; on his escape received from an old friend at Gubbio a hermit’s attire—a short tunic, a leathern girdle, a staff and slippers. He begged at the gates of monasteries; he discharged the most menial offices. With even more profound devotion he dedicated himself for some time in the hospital at Gubbio to that unhappy race of beings whom even Christianity was constrained to banish from the social pale—the lepers. He tended them with more than necessary affectionateness, washed their feet, dressed their sores, and is said to have wrought miraculous cures among them. The moral miracle of his charity toward them is a more certain and affecting proof of his true Christianity of heart. It was an especial charge to the brethren of St. Francis of Assisi to choose these outcasts of humanity as the objects of their peculiar care.  2
  On his return to Assisi he employed himself in the restoration of the Church of St. Damian. “Whoever will give me one stone shall have one prayer; whoever two, two; three, three.” The people mocked, but Francis went on carrying the stones in his own hands, and the church began to rise. He refused all food which he did not obtain by begging. His father reproached him and uttered his malediction. He took a beggar of the basest class: “Be thou my father and give me thy blessing.” But so successful was he in awakening the charity of the inhabitants of Assisi, that not only the church of St. Damian but two others, St. Peter and St. Maria dei Angeli, called the Portiuncula, through his means arose out of their ruins to decency and even splendour. One day, in the church of St. Maria dei Angeli he heard the text, “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses. Neither scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves.” He threw away his wallet, his staff, and his shoes, put on the coarsest dark gray tunic, bound himself with a cord, and set out through the city calling all to repentance.  3
  This strange but fervent piety of Francis could not but, in that age, kindle the zeal of others. Wonder grew into admiration, admiration into emulation, emulation into a blind following of his footsteps. Disciples, one by one, the first are carefully recorded, began to gather round him. He retired with them to a lonely spot in the bend of the river, called Rivo Torto.  4

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