Years ago, I was taken, as an impressionable child, to see Franco Zefirelli’s wonderful film Brother Sun, Sister Moon. So you can imagine my shock, years later, when I read the Franciscan sources, and discovered that Zefirelli’s sunlit vision of Francis and Clare of Assisi represents one particular interpretation of the story, and one that leave rather a lot out.
The Franciscan sources are collected in a single useful volume entitled Saint Francis of Assisi, Omnibus of Sources, edited by Marion A. Habig. As you read through the oldest accounts of the life of Francis, one has that sense of an onion being peeled away. Some perhaps would say that in the end we can know very little about the real historical Francis, given that he was subjected to interpretation so early on. And as you read the First Life and the Second Life by Thomas of Celano (author incidentally of the Dies Irae), along with St Bonaventure’s Major Life and The Legend of the Three Companions, you notice the differences, and you spot what has been excluded and you wonder why.
Famously, Thomas’s First life was judged not good enough by St Bonaventure, who commanded the author to try again, hence the Second Life. Bonaventure, the head of the Order, was very keen to present what he thought was the ‘right’ Saint Francis to the world. In particular, Bonaventure was keen to avoid too much emphasis on Francis’s supposedly riotous life before his conversion; but this, of course, has the unintended consequence of toning down the dramatic nature of that conversion.
One thing, however, is absolutely clear from reading the Franciscan sources, and that is that Francis and Clare (whose feast we keep today) were given to long periods of seclusion, silence, prayer and fasting. They were penitents, and they were also religious ecstatics. As St Bonaventure himself tells us:
He withdrew from the busy life of his trade and begged God in His goodness to show him what he should do. He prayed constantly until he was consumed with a passionate longing for God and was ready to give up the whole world in his desire for his heavenly home and think nothing of it… he began to frequent secluded spots where he could mourn for his sins, and there as he poured out his whole soul with groans beyond all utterance, he was eventually found worthy to be heard by God, after long and importunate prayer. One day as he prayed in one of his usual haunts, he became completely absorbed in God in the excess of his fervour. Then Jesus Christ appeared to him, hanging on His cross. His soul melted at the sight… (Major Life, I, 4, 5, (Habig, pp. 638-639)).
The Legend of the Three Companions is somewhat more dramatic in its description of his conversion, and sums it up like this:
One day while Francis was praying fervently to God, he received this answer. ‘O Francis, if you want to know my will, you must hate and despise all that which hitherto your body has loved and desired to possess. Once you begin to do this, all that formerly seemed sweet and pleasant to you will become bitter and unbearable; and instead the things that formerly made you shudder will bring you great sweetness and content.’….He endured great mental anguish and could find no rest for he was searching how he could put into practice what was in his heart. Importunate ideas came and went and greatly worried and distressed him. His heart was aglow with divine fire, and even outwardly he could not hide the new ardour which was taking possession of him and filling him with repentance for his past grave sins. He found no satisfaction in evil whether past or present; but he also lacked confidence in his own capacity for avoiding evil in future. When he emerged from the cave and rejoined his friend, his inner struggle had so changed him as to make him a different man. (Legend of the Three Companions, IV, 11-12, (Habig, p. 900-902)).
Francis’s asceticism is borne out by archaeological evidence as well, thanks to the examination his remains.
Why is this important? First of all, the Second Vatican Council told us all to go back to the sources in theology, and was particular that any unhistorical tales about the saints should be weeded out. So, in the spirit of Vatican Two, properly understood, we need to get back to the real Francis and Clare, in so far as that is possible, which means shedding our warm and fuzzy interpretations and seeing the saints as they really are, in this case, two rather tough and uncompromising figures, much given to self-denial, and in the case of Clare, silence and seclusion in an enclosure, where she practised severe mortifications.
Both Clare and Francis achieved great things in prayer, but this came about because they spent so much time in silence, fasting and mortification. We all want the first, but how many of us are prepared to put up with the second? The contemporary Church should continue to stress the first, but it should not neglect the second.