Let me, then, as briefly as I can, tell you one or two of the facts of his life. Francesco Bernardone was a son of a merchant of Assisi, in Umbria. In his boyhood and youth he was the gayest of the gay, the flower of the Assisian youth, pure and kind, but the bright leader of pleasure-loving companions; living above his station, as though he had been a prince's son; a soldier, a singer, with many a vain ambition, though not without stirrings of deeper hope. When he was twenty-five a dangerous sickness made the whole world look different to him, and changed the current of his thoughts. Visions seemed to summon him to some great work. He saw a palace full of pieces of armour all signed with the cross, and when he asked to whom these belonged, was told : " To thee and to thy soldiers ; " and felt himself bidden to be a soldier; but not, as he at first supposed, in earthly armies. As he knelt before the crucifix he thought that it thrice said to him: " Go, rebuild My house, which, as thou seest, is falling to ruins ;" and it was years before his simple and faithful heart comprehended that the Church which he was bidden to rebuild was, not as he at first supposed, the material structure, but the living congregation. In the very midst of his youthful gaiety deep hushes of emotion came over him. He feels his head overshadowed by the hands of "invisible consecration." The life of Christ seizes possession of his thoughts with overmastering sway. One day, riding across a valley, he sees a leper, turns from him for one instant with irrepressible disgust, then in shame dismounts, fills the poor sufferer's hand with alms, and humbly kisses it. Then, riding on, he looks back for an instant, and lo ! there is no leper there, and he believes that he has had a vision of " the poor man Christ Jesus "—an image of whom he sees ever afterwards in all who suffer and are poor. He visits Rome; flings his whole purse of money as an offering on the floor of St. Peter's, and, going out, strips off his gay robes, exchanges them for the ragged gaberdine of a beggar, and sits begging on the steps. Though naturally fond of delicacies, he began literally to beg for his daily food, and to live only on the unpalatable scraps which were given him. One day in church, as he listened to the words of the Gospel: " Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses ; neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves. And as ye go, preach, saying : The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand "—the words flashed in upon his soul with overpowering force, as though the light of God had moved over the graven gems of the Urim. " Here," he exclaimed, " is what I have wanted ; here is what I have sought!" and with literal simplicity then and there he flung away shoes, and staff, and purse, and bound his tunic round him with a rope. Companions began to join him. The order grew and prospered. They lived in a bare hut; they preached, they prayed; they begged their daily food ; they tended the sick ; they gave of what they had to all the poor who came to them; they possessed nothing, either for their order or for themselves ; and thus making Poverty their bride amid the mad desire of their age for wealth, they introduced nobler aims and holier feelings into a luxurious and ambitious Church, into an oppressive, blood-stained, cruel world.
It was a grand, emphatic protest which appealed to the imagination of all men. Nothing can show more forcibly the power of this appeal than the fact that St. Francis, as the chosen bridegroom of Poverty, was celebrated alike in the paintings of Giotto and in the verse of Dante. When men saw Francis at the table of nobles and cardinals, bright and courteous, but while he went on talking, unostentatiously deluging his plate with cold water, or quietly sprinkling a few ashes over the rich food, with the half apology, " Brother ash is pure," they saw at least that these men had other thoughts and other hopes than the fat monks, and immoral priests, and splendour-loving bishops, of whom the Church in that day was full.
Thus humbly and simply did St. Francis live with his brethren, caring for others, not for himself. He journeyed to the Crusaders at Damietta, and earnestly courting martyrdom, went at the most imminent risk to convert the Sultan, accompanied by but a single brother,—offering, if the Sultan would embrace the faith, to walk through fire. And then his long, but sweet and humble austerities began to do their natural work. No one can with impunity violate the clear indications of nature. Though scarcely past middle age, he fell into grievous sickness. Then came his last hour. Prostrate on ashes, on the bare earth, naked, till one in pity covered him with a garment, in great suffering, yet in exceeding peace, he died, saying to his brethren almost with his last words, " I have done my part: may Christ teach you to do yours".
My brethren, that life of the cross was very richly fruitful ; fruitful in proportion to its transcendent self-denial. St. Francis of Assisi was " a living epistle known and read by all men." His order, in that very century, produced among its brethren lives so powerful and so famous as those of St. Bonaventura and St. Thomas of Aquinam; among its Tertiaries lives so noble and so saintly as those of St. Louis of France and St. Elizabeth of Hungary. St. Francis furnished one more instance of the truth that " the grandest revolutions in the history of the universe have been accomplished by its beggars, and, as the world thought, its fools. . . . Let a man, in any age, go forth with the fire of God in him, and the force he wields, the mastery he wins, the new life he quickens, pours silent contempt on gold. The richest in such seasons are those who give most, not those who have most. It fills the Beatitudes with a wonderful meaning, and shows the sorrows and straits of poverty overflowed by the riches and joys of God" (J. Baldwin Brown).
For with all his sorrows and privations, Francis, too, like Antony, like Benedict, was happy. We see it in the pleasant anecdotes of his tender love for animals, of his innocent delight in the beauties of nature. Yes, he was very happy; and the legends of the harp which played for him unbidden music, and the water which became for him like heavenly wine, are but symbols of this inward joy.
One thing assuredly we all can learn from St. Francis of Assisi and his truest followers. It is to live lives more simple, less luxurious, more contented with a little, less absorbed in earthly interests. We can learn from him, and from the happiness and influence which God granted him, the spirit of that lesson which he had learnt from the example of Christ—the lesson, namely, to increase our possessions by limiting our desires; to sit more loose to worldly luxuries and worldly ambitions. True riches are health, and a pure heart, and love of Christ, and love to man, and perfect trust in the sustaining providence of God, and a cheerful spirit, and a noble charity.
Saintly Workers, p. 122.