Saint Francis was born around 1181 in Assisi to a wealthy cloth merchant and a very religious French mother who originally named him after John the Baptist. She prayed he’d become a religious leader like John. His father having just returned from France renamed him Francis. Francis spent his youth fashioning himself after the troubadours. He sang, drank, and courted women. In his passion to be a knight he joined a group of knights and rode off to fight a neighboring city of Perugia. He was captured and spent a year in a wet dark dungeon where many died.He may have contracted tuberculosis of the bone at this time. He was freed, arrived home, and almost died. Instead he had visions of God. He returned to being a troubadour but began giving more and more money away to beggars culminating in giving away a great deal of money and cloth that his father had given him for a business transaction to a priest to help rebuild a church. His irate father dragged him to the local priest and the priest exhorted him to obey his father. Which prompted Francis to take off all his clothes to give back to his father saying that his only Father was in heaven. The priest accepted Francis’ proclamation and clothed him.
Francis lived the life of a beggar and received more and more visions. His spiritual journey led him to wed himself to Lady Poverty and he began to eat only that which he had been given. He wore a simple brown robe and if given a coat would wear it until he found someone in need. He would find caves to pray in and go on prolonged fasts.
Saint Francis began to see Christ in every thing and felt kinship with everything in the world even Sister Death. Everything was of Christ. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wolf, Sister Water, Brother Fire. As a child he was terrified of leprosy and in his visions of Christ he actually kissed a leper on the mouth. He would administer to lepers and it is thought he contracted leprosy later in life.
His life began to be one of going from village to village preaching. He felt everyone received Christ’s love and began the practice of greeting people with “good day.” He wrote songs in the native Italian dialect and wanted songs that were for the people and began singing songs and exhorted people to come to Christ and be redeemed. He called himself the Clown of God or a Troubadour of God. He practiced abject humility and would ask his followers to walk on top of him for his sins. He did not acknowledge class. He’s considered the first Italian poet since he felt songs should be written in the language of the people. Francis began attracting followers who lived the extreme life of poverty that he laid out. Nothing could be owned. Food had to come from begging. Reading was suspect. He was proclaiming a vital relationship to Christ.
He went to Rome to ask permission to organize a lay order. He was given one after the numbers of his followers grew. He met a young woman Clare who believed in his teaching so strongly she begged to become one of his followers. He helped her set up an order of nuns. Their order was cloistered. It was said that Clair hardly ever left the main room which housed the nuns. They would write letters to each other for the rest of Francis’ life seeing each other only a small number of times by Francis’ decision. Clare also fasted a great deal, but later in life she began to see it as destructive in the extreme and worked to limit the fasting of her followers.
Francis attempted two trips to the Middle East to convert the heathen. On one his boat was unseaworthy and he had to go back. On the second trip he was appalled at how the Christian soldiers behaved. He was able to work his way into the enemy Sutltan’s palace and engage him in intense discussions about God. He said he’d be willing to undergo a test of fire to show the Sultan the fierceness of his belief in the Christian God. The sultan liked him so much and was so impressed that he wouldn’t let Francis go through the ordeal. Francis left with the sultan’s good wishes and asked that Francis would pray for spiritual guidance for him. Francis left the Middle East disheartened with the behavior of the Christians, an admiration for the Sultan, and probably picked up malaria at this time.
He returned to find that his order had been taken over and modified. It was a dark time for him in which he had to write and modify some of his wishes for his Order. The Pope and others felt he had been too strict. At this time he picked up an eye disease. He was ordered by the Pope to have a treatment for the disease which did no good and then ordered by the new the head of his order who Francis had promised to obey to undergo another treatment.. The treatment proscribed by the latter was to have hot pokers placed on both temples. This treatment combined with all of his fasting and illness led to his early death in his mid forties.
Today many may think Francis’ practices were extreme, but they have to be seen in the context of his age. The Church at that time was bloated with wealth and greed. So Francis saw poverty as the antidote to get back to the spiritual life. Because Francis both so loved the world and so valued everything in it yet had taken the vow of poverty he helped create a shift in the Catholic Church. Before his life the church was fixated on the spiritual life which came after death while many in the Church lived a life of extreme wealth. Because of Francis the Catholic religion began to open the door to the natural world and more value came for the living of the life in this world and supporting the life in this world.