No man among the saints of Christendom has had so much written about him; none enjoyed so wide a popularity as Francis of Assisi. Remy de Gourmont wrote “No man since Saint Paul has had as much influence on the orientation of the human spirit as the founder of the Friars Minor: a new poetry, a new art, a renewed religion, have radiated from the humble Porziuncula convent through the Christian world”. He is not referring to the popular images of a spiritual-looking young man in a cute costume surrounded by animals. The real Francis is far more complex, enigmatic, more challenging.
His father an ambitious and successful member of the new merchant class, his mother gentle and indulgent; the young Francis partied with friends, exuberant, extravagant, irresponsible, until a mysterious and sudden urge made him embrace and kiss a leper – the first sign of an abnormal psychological profile. Further signs followed when he heard Jesus speak to him several times, inspiring him with the urgent sense of a special vocation from God. He was also a man of extreme emotions. He experienced soaring ecstasies, but also great anguish and darkness of spirit.
Some psychologists have seen indications of acute psychosis, of manic depression, obsessive traits and hysteria, manifesting itself finally in the bizarre lesions of the stigmata. But others see him as a nature mystic with a passionate yearning for total freedom from anything that could separate him from the humblest of earth’s creatures: people, animals, even the flowers and trees, the earth and sky. In his own poetic language his heart burned with a passionate love for his “Lady Poverty”. But he was a poet in action as much word. He cared for lepers and lived as a beggar, sharing their life.
It is strange that such a personality could have a magnetic attraction for people of his materialistic and rationalistic world, but he gathered thousands of devoted disciples in his short lifetime. It is perhaps even stranger that Francis’ eccentricity was seen by an incredibly wealthy and powerful church hierarchy as signs of holiness, not heresy. He was revered in life by popes and bishops and canonised less than two years after his death.
Most of what we read about Francis is based on legends, inspired by a devotion and enthusiasm that still lacks a full explanation. We have little hard data about his life. These few words are intended only to arouse your own interest enough to delve into the immense bibliography yourself.
Brother William SSF