J N a Church at the very zenith of her splendid predominance and her ambitious ease there was need to fan, out of the whitened embers of religion, the smouldering flame of zeal and love. That work was achieved mainly by two men—St. Dominic of Spain and St. Francis of Assisi. St. Dominic founded the Ordo Praedicatorum, or Preaching Friars; St. Francis the Fratres Minores, or Mendicant Friars. They both bore witness to the need of energy and self-denial; but I shall speak almost solely of the latter. I do so partly because he was the originator of that ideal of absolute poverty which, for a time, produced rich fruit; and partly because his character is infinitely more attractive than that of his stern contemporary. That St. Dominic was a sincere and holy man, we do not dream of questioning. He whom Dante calls "The loving cavalier Of Christian faith, the athlete sanctified.
Fond to his own, and dreadful to his foes ;" the man who lived so much in prayer; the man who could fearlessly rebuke great Papal legates for their pride and ostentation; the man who, even in his youth, having given away all that he had in charity, was so distressed by the tears of a poor woman, who wished to redeem her son from slavery, that he offered himself to be sold into slavery in her son's place,—was one whose holiness and self-devotion it would be inexcusable for the comfortable and conventional Christians of this age to deny. But, however wide may be the Catholicity of our admiration, we cannot feel specially drawn to one who instituted the vain and mechanical iterations of the rosary; to one who, however sincere in his zeal—who, however much he may have been convinced that "agonies of pain and blood shed in rivers was better than the soul spotted and bewildered with (what he deemed to be) mortal sin" —yet comes to us with the traditions of a persecutor; looms black and ghastly to us through a century darkened with the Tophet-smoke of the Inquisition, and from the midst of men whose robes were drenched and dyed with Albigensian blood. He presented, doubtless, a very different aspect to a different age. Dante sees him like one of the shining cherubs the spiritus lucentes of Paradise, and says of him and of St. Francis :—
"One all seraphic was in ardent love ; The other was for wisdom on the earth A radiation of cherubic light".
But though the workman be saved, the work is burned; though he and his followers built, or meant to build, on the one foundation, yet that which they built—the cruelty of remorseless persecution, the fanaticism of bigoted intolerance, the furies of anathema and interdict—was a superstructure of worthless hay and stubble, fit only to be consumed in God's revealing fire, and winnowed to the four winds with His purging fan. And therefore from the ferocity and gloom of the Dominicans we will turn to the angelic gentleness of Francis of Assisi—fit successor of Antony, the greatest of the hermits, and Benedict, the wisest of monastic founders. "Antony," it has been said, " had shown to an effete and dying age an image of the strength of man in fellowship with God." Benedict had reared on the ruins of the desolated empire the fabric of an abiding society. It remained for Francis, in the midst of a Church endowed with all that learning, and art, and wealth, and power could give, to reassert the love of God to the poorest, the meanest, the most repulsive of His children. " A man," he said, " is as great as he is in the sight of God, and no greater." " If I lived to the end of the world," he said again, " I should need no other book than the record of the Passion of Christ." Humbling himself by every mortification beneath the lowliest, he yet did not mistake his mission. Once, when he was suddenly seized by robbers, and they roughly questioned him as to who he was, he replied with a prophetic voice, " I am a herald of the Great King".
Of all the men who have ever lived there is probably not one who has ever made it so absolutely his aim, as did St. Francis, to reproduce, in letter as well as in spirit, the very life of Christ. Among the hills and villages of Umbria he strove to live with his few first followers the very same life that our Lord had lived with His apostles on the shores of Galilee and in the villages of Palestine. You will say that there was in this a fundamental mistake. Let the tree be known by its fruits. Call St. Francis, if you will, a sublime madman, a fanatical enthusiast. Insult and. misrepresentation have ever been the portion in their lifetime of God's most earnest children "Enough ! high words abate no jot or tittle Of what, while life still lasts, shall still be true ; Heaven's great ones must be slandered by earth's little, And God makes no ado".
But still it remains true that no human being who has had the faith to take Christ at His very word,—be it even in unlettered ignorance,—has ever been allowed to find His promise fail. This man, who was dressed in rags, who fed on scraps, who was unlearned and simple, and had sold cloth in a shop, did more for the Church than the most absolute Pontiff, whose stirrup was ever held for him by princes, or who put his haughty foot upon the neck of Emperors. The Church which they helped to ruin, this beggar,—this simple wanderer, this glorious pauper of Christ, this man who had become a fool for wisdom's sake,—inspired and glorified. One day when Innocent III. was walking on a terrace in the Lateran,—that Pope Innocent who had made Otho of Germany tremble; who had reduced Philip Augustus to submission; who had sent "Pandulph, of fair Milan, cardinal," to bring King John of England to his knees—while this stateliest of imperial Pontiffs, at the summit of his grandeur, was meditating on the government of nations in his silent pacing to and fro—he was disturbed by the approach of a humble brown figure in peasant's garb. With a gesture of contempt the great Pope motioned him away; but that night he had two dreams—the one was that a tall and beautiful palm-tree grew up at his very feet; the other that he saw the grand church of St. John Lateran falling into ruins, when the same poor brown figure whom he had repelled ran forward and upheld it with his hands. Admonished by these dreams, or with a flash of insight into the power of enthusiasm, he sent for Francis and gave a general sanction to his organisation of the Fratres Minores, the " Lesser Brothers,"—the lowest and humblest, but destined to be the most powerful order, the most militant missionaries of the Church. Now which was the most really influential, the magnificent Pope or the ascetic visionary ? Did not God make the counsels of princes of none effect, but bring the poor out of his misery and make him households like a flock of sheep ? Almost every vast design of the mighty Innocent was, even in his own lifetime, more or less of failure; but the order of St. Francis of Assisi soon multiplied to myriads, and was to be counted by thousands even at his early death. The humility and devotion of Francis gave fresh force to that Church which the ambition of Innocent had weakened by over-strain. And yet, happy in his wise ignorance, profound in his unlearned simplicity, his whole secret was to follow Christ, and to hold cheap what the world desires. What is at this moment occupying the vast majority in this city—the vast majority, it may be, of us even in this congregation? Is it not some form or other of self-interest ? Is it not, in some form or other, money, or pleasure, or ambition ? Do not the streets, the shops, the offices buzz with talk of money ? Bossuet speaks thus: " There are three things that make up all business, which enter into all the intrigues, which inflame all the passions, which actuate all the eagerness of the world. St. Francis saw that they were illusions; he saw that riches enslave, that honours overpower, that pleasures effeminate the heart. He saw that these broad roads lead many to perdition. For himself he sought another road. He found riches in poverty; joy in suffering; glory in self-abasement." At the age of twenty-five he burst every bond of family, of position, of comfort, and, stripped bare of every possession, descended from the hill of Assisi to show the world the most complete example of the madness of the cross. " But far from revolting the world," says Montalembert, " he subdues it! The more this sublime fanatic abased himself in order to make himself more worthy, by his humility and the contempt of men, to be the instrument of love, the more did his greatness shine and radiate afar, and the more did men fling themselves in his path, some ambitious to despoil themselves of everything like him, some eager, at least, to gather up his words of inspiration ;"—words which " penetrated like glowing fire to the inmost depths of the heart".