ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
(1181 or 1182–1226)
So humble was the Lord that He was born
A babe in manger’s straw one starry night
In Bethlehem, a King in poverty,
Not raised in palaces adorned with gold,
The homes of earthly kings whose holiness
Flickers like candles when the breezes blow.
“Remember that the Lord takes care of birds,
And clothes the flowers in their finery.
Not even Solomon was dressed like these,”
Christ Jesus told the crowds who followed him
In Galilee, “and you are worth more than
Sparrows, who cannot fall unseen, unknown,
Or unappreciated by the Lord,
Father of day and night, of earth and sky.
As he takes care of these, whose breaths are few,
So will the Lord supply your needs, you men
Seeking for worldly wealth and man’s esteem.
Increase your faith, and walk in holiness,
Surrendering the flesh and its desires,
In poverty of spirit, trusting God.”
When humble men receive the Word of God
In truth and love, as Francis did, their lives
Transform from formless coal to diadems.
I shall relate, dear reader, how this man,
An ordinary youth, was touched by God
And grew in holiness until the signs
That followed him were miracles, the signs
Of supernatural design, as when
He bled the wounds of Christ in hands and feet.
To tell a true biography in verse
About the lives of persons great and small,
Through whom the Lord achieved a mighty end–
That is my goal, though I may pant and sweat
As donkeys do when burdened with their loads,
Hardened in summer sun, as they ascend
A rocky slope, for God called me to write
When decadence has spewed its stones and thorns
As one more century concludes– declines
The way a sprinter’s vigor wanes when heat
And effort drain the muscles’ strength away.
By grace, and not by any righteousness
Of mine, this verse shall triumph over times
Where people value flash of currency
More than denial of the self for God.
My purpose is to glorify the Lord,
To teach how He inspires the meek and weak,
No matter where they live or who they are,
For God works miracles through those who call
Upon the name of Jesus with pure hearts.
God calls to you and me, but we must have
The ears to hear, and hearts that will obey.
Real men are Christians, worshipping in truth.
When Nicodemus came by night to ask
The Lord about His Kingdom, Jesus said,
“Unless a man is born again, he can’t
Enter the Kingdom of eternal life.”
“Can man return inside his mother’s womb?”
Questioned the Pharisee who longed to know
(Much like a chemist, with his charts and tubes
Inquires how catalysts react in tests)
The secrets hidden in the Kingdom’s vaults.
Christ answered by analogy of wind
(Which blows from here to there in mystery)
To God the Holy Spirit, who moves, warms,
Builds, edifies, delights, corrects, convicts
And carries men in ways we cannot grasp.
Why God chose Francis and how this young man
Was born again– these details are unknown.
But that this urban roustabout, who led
His friends in revelry, was stopped, entranced,
We have no doubt; and friends inquired if he
Had fallen for a girl, and been engaged.
“I have a love,” he said, “but do not know
Her name, or where she lives, or how she looks.”
That unknown love was Lady Poverty.
God planted seeds in Francis’ heart and soul,
And they would germinate in time, the way
A sperm may swim inside an egg, and lose
Its tail, the two now fused as one, one life
So small the naked eye may not discern
The doubling of the cells from blastocyst
To embryo then fetus curled within
The womb, one human life throughout the growth,
(Miraculous as walking on a lake,
Or healing one born blind with gentle touch,
Or, with few words, commanding winds to stop)
Until what once was tiny sperm and egg
Spurts forth between the mother’s legs, a child
Who cries in bloody birth, first breath, the hope
Another generation gives to earth
Where God, Creator of the sun and stars,
Eternal, righteous, and all-powerful,
Controls the phases of the moon and tides,
Consoles the downcast, governs atoms’ spins,
Shines on the righteous, grieves for the forlorn,
Performs his miracles for the elect,
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: God,
Who formed the mountains from the driest land,
And shaped Antarctica, the Arctic, North
And South America, Australia, Asia,
And Africa, who nurtures men of God,
Who guards and shelters people in His wings,
Makes nations rise and fall, and molds the hands
Of babies as they grow within the womb.
He sends His word like rain and snow to do
His purposes, and by His will he brought
This birth in Francis, son of pomp and wealth,
This second birth with which he wrestled
Like Jacob with the angel, for this birth
Was like a death, the death of self’s desires,
Through Jesus making nothing of himself,
As though a knight (which Francis had aspired
To be, a killer of the infidels),
As bodyguard, received the darts and spears
The enemy directed at the King,
So that the greater person might yet live.
Thus he became a knight of Christ, a knight
Who loved the poor so much that he himself
Became a humble man of poverty.
A grotto at San Damiano, near
Assisi, hid in solitude the youth
Who sought the face of God in prayers and tears,
Lamenting sins that seared his heart and soul,
In war between the spirit and the flesh
Which roared and raged until the peace of death.
In pilgrimage to Rome the beggars drew
His heart, and he exchanged his silks for rags
And mingled with the beggars, begging alms
In joy with them beside St. Peter’s tomb.
Disgusted by the sight of lepers, once
He had turned his back and held his nose
Until the mercy of the Lord renewed
His heart so that he loved as Jesus did.
When at a leper colony two miles
From his home town, the youth confessed to them,
“I hated you! Forgive me, I beg you!”
He lingered, and before he left, he gave
Them coins and kissed each one upon the mouth.
Inside a crumbling chapel, as he knelt
And prayed before a wooden crucifix,
Christ’s figure called to him by name and said,
“Go, Francis, and repair my ruined church,”
And Francis started with a lamp and oil
To burn and to irradiate the cross
And figure, crucified, which ordered him
To build the Church which lay in disrepair.
Isaiah prophesied the Lord to be
An unattractive man, the same they said
Of Francis, rich man’s son who sold the cloths
Belonging to his father, so he could give
The money to rebuild the chapel’s walls.
His father sued in civil court, which had
No jurisdiction over him who took
His refuge with a priest in poverty.
His father asked the Bishop for relief,
Authority which Francis did respect.
As villagers assembled in the church
To see the verdict, Francis, worn and gaunt
From fasts and prayers, and called a lunatic,
Threw back the money to his father, and
(While he took off his silken clothes, and tossed
Them one by one away, until he stood
Without a stitch to cover up his skin),
Proclaimed his only Father was the one
In heaven, as the bishop covered him,
For sake of modesty, in his robe’s folds.
His father mocked and cursed him ‘til the day
That Francis asked a brother to pronounce
A blessing every time his father swore.
Thus he departed from the merchant’s life,
A rebel with a cause, the cause of Christ,
Because he aimed to follow Jesus’ rules,
Relying on the Lord to meet his needs
As He provided for the birds, who do
Not work nor store their food for future want.
He begged for alms, prayed, fasted, and acquired
Some followers, who had no food to eat
But scraps they begged from door to door despite
The scorn of villagers who called them mad,
These Friars Minor, Lady Poverty’s
Companions, worshippers, and advocates,
Who gave their goods away to follow Christ,
Whose missions brought Good News to pagan lands
Where some achieved the martyrdom they sought.
In God’s Creation is a unity,
A brotherhood with plants and animals,
With fire and water, earth and air, which he
Could feel and know from friendship with the Lord.
When Francis preached, the birds flocked round to hear,
They massed in branches of the nearby trees,
They landed on his arms and by his feet.
A sheep accompanied the saint to his
Communion; a cicada came when he would
Call, lighted on his hand, and sang the praise
Of God with him; a hare from Grecchio
Would follow Francis like a dog; a fish
At Lake Rieta swam to ask the saint
To bless it, for this man of God could speak
Of God to animals, who understood.
He tamed a wolf that terrorized a town
By feasting on its citizens; as one
Would speak to an unruly child, the saint
Spoke to the wolf, whose last two years were spent
As docile as a puppy in a pen,
And, when it died, the people mourned the loss.
In August of twelve hundred twenty-four,
Led by the Poverello, one small group
Of faithful friars–Brothers Angelo,
Illuminato, Leo (trusted guide),
Masseo, and Rufino–prayed and left
The Portiuncula and trekked through fields
And Alpine meadowlands to Mount La Verna
To celebrate a holy day, the Feast
Of the Assumption of the Virgin to
Heaven, a tenet of the Catholic faith.
In prayer beside a hut the Saint, who made
Himself as nothing, serving Christ, received
The marks, the wounds that showed conformity
To Jesus’ agony at Calvary.
The Friar Leo witnessed Francis lift
Off ground as high as limbs and leaves of trees,
And level with a giant beech’s top,
When he conversed with Christ in solitude.
September fourteen in twelve twenty-four,
The Christians celebrated how the cross
Had been recovered from the infidels,
The Feast of Exaltation of the Cross,
And Francis fasted as he dwelt upon
The sufferings of Christ for humankind,
Reality more real than grass or birds,
Unbearable to face unless the heart
Is humble and contrite, firm, pure, and meek.
St. Francis, who expected martyrdom,
Prayed toward the rising sun when suddenly
From heaven’s heights a seraphim with wings,
Six wings of flame, flew down to him who begged
Two graces from the Lord before he died:
To feel the Passion’s pains, and feel for Christ
The love that made Him sacrifice for us.
The seraphim was like a man, limbs nailed
Onto a cross, two wings across his face,
Two wings across his body, and two wings
With which he flew: Christ Jesus in this form
Revealed Himself to Francis, gazed at him,
Imprinted marks on him, then flew away.
St. Francis had received the marks of Christ:
His hands and feet were as though pierced with nails,
With round black heads upon the palms and on
The feet, and from the back of both his hands
And from the soles of both his feet bent points
Extruded, points of toughened flesh like nails.
From his right side flowed blood, blood
From his fifth wound, which looked as though a lance
Had pierced his side the way a soldier’s lance
Pierced Jesus’ side when He hung dead, dead God,
The Lord and Savior dead from broken heart
At Calvary outside Jerusalem,
Humiliated and forsaken Christ.
“Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear
The marks of Jesus on my body, friends,”
Wrote the Apostle Paul, and said no more
About the miracle to followers.
The first in more than a millennium
To gain the stigma of the Savior’s wounds,
St. Francis at first acted like St. Paul,
Reluctant to say much, until his friend
Illuminato told him, “God gives grace
To you, that you may edify your friends,”
And though he hid the wounds in bandages,
St. Francis showed the marks to friar friends,
The wounds that showed upon him even when
His Sister Death had taken him away.
Three hundred people since St. Francis have
Received stigmata, such as Padre Pio,
Teresa of Avila, Catherine of
Siena (an Italian patron saint)
Therese Neumann, and Veronica,
A miracle that skeptics can’t refute,
An intervention from above to show
The grace and glory of Christ crucified,
Beside which worldly riches count as trash.
His Last Two Years
His fast concluded and his body sick,
Despite the sea that stormed within his soul,
“You are the Holy One, the Lord,” he wrote
In happiness, then bid farewell to Mount
La Verna: “Peace to you, beloved mountain,
Which I shall never see again,” and bid
Farewell to Brothers Angelo, Sylvester,
St. Francis Statue, Golden, CO
Masseo, and Illuminato: “Live
In peace, my children! While my body goes
Away, my heart remains with you. Good-bye!”
As Jesus, entering Jerusalem,
The holy city where the prophets die,
Rode on a donkey, Francis rode upon
A donkey’s back for his return to home,
The Portiuncula, his forest home,
The humble chapel that he had rebuilt.
His fasts and penances, his loss of blood
From wounds that oozed his blood from bandaged hands,
Had weakened him, and nails within his feet
Made walking hard, if not impossible.
Yet still the Lord worked through the dying man,
Who healed an epileptic friar, cured
A boy whose wound healed over in the form
Of a red rose, and freed a woman who
Barked like a dog, possessed by demons’ snares.
A friend of Christ will cherish those for whom
Christ suffered on the cross of Calvary.
In joy the saint, now blind and weak, composed
A song, the Canticle to Brother Sun,
Exalting God in honor, glory, praise,
And blessing His Creation: Brother Sun
And Sister Moon, with humble thanks to God,
A song so beautiful that enemies,
Who heard the friars sing it, reconciled
And begged forgiveness in humility.
As Francis sang a Psalm, he died, and larks
Alighted on the roof as a white cloud
Carried a flaming star above the seas,
The Little Poor Man’s soul bound heavenward.
For sorrow after holy Francis died,
A pheasant from Siena would not eat,
And Sister Death transformed his body, limbs
As white as stars, wounds as black as nights
When clouds and branches pass across the moon.
His Last Days
For one like him, who sought to imitate
The Lord on earth in humble poverty,
To die and be with Christ was gain.
The cult of self-denying poverty,
A fellowship of sharing in His pain,
An antidote to greed and strife within the Church,
Was timely to rebuild the Church’s faith.
St. Francis reawakened faith in Christ,
Revolted by relinquishment of goods,
Refused to follow after wind and dust,
And traded silk for sow’s ears, gaining God,
Who sits upon the throne from age to age.
He traded vanishing delights for joy
That lasts, the happiness of serving Christ.
The lives of Christians form dramatic plays,
Where Francis played a simple, humble part;
To imitate the Lord was Francis’ heart,
To follow Him in poverty, his art.