Saint Francis of Assisi – Guided By Visions

Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most unique, if not extraordinary, people in the history of Christianity. This especially applies to his sense of spirituality. Saint Francis is also a life directed by visions and prophetic dreams. The spirituality of St. Francis stood in stark contrast to how the Church was perceived during his life time. When one considers the background and history of the man who would become St. Francis, his spiritual evolution is even more interesting. He was born wealthy; he was a warrior and a prisoner of war; a poet; and was never a priest.

Saint Francis of Assisi was born 1181 in Italy. His real name was Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone and he was nicknamed ‘Francesco’ by his wealthy, merchant father (possibly because Francis was born in France to a French mother). saint francis history Some say Francis got his nickname due to his appreciation of French culture. As a young man, he would live a carefree life drinking and partying. He also developed a fascination with the troubadours (bands of men and women who traveled the country entertaining crowds with poetry, song and wearing outlandish clothing … think of them as the ‘rock stars’ of the times). Dreaming of being a heroic knight in shining armor, Francis had no desire to follow his father’s path of being a clothing merchant. Francis learned horsemanship, archery and hand-to-hand combat. When war broke out between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, Francis would join the military as a privileged officer. Soon he would learn the harsher realities of life.

Coming Back From War A Changed Man

After surviving a battle in which most of his men were slathered, Francis was taken prison and held for ransom. It would take over a year for his wealthy father to negotiate his release. Francis returned beaten and in ill health. He was a changed man after experiencing the atrocities of war. It took considerable time for Francis to recover. During that time he was reclusive and was known to go into the hills to one of the many remote churches and shrines that had fallen into disrepair to pray and ask for guidance. He seemed to love being out in nature over being within the safety of the city. Feeling fully recovered, Francis decided to join the papal military forces in an effort to serve the Church in the best capacity he know. However, in route to join those forces Francis had a vision (or perhaps a dream) where a voice tells him to return to Assisi and await the call for another kind of knighthood. And, so, Francis returns to Assisi.

Returning the abandoned churches and chapels that dotted the hills surrounding Assisi, Francis began to care for poor and neglected, including lepers. One day while deep in prayer at the ruined chapel of San Damiano near the city gates of Assisi, Francis heard the crucifix above the altar speak to him: "Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is well-nigh in ruins.". In an effort to obey, Francis immediately went to his father’s shop and took some of his father’s fabrics (without his father’s permission) and rode to the nearby town of Foligno.

After selling the fabrics, and selling his horse, Francis returned to the chapel of San Damiano and attempted to give the money to priest for rebuilding the chapel. The priest, however, considering the money was acquired through the theft, refused to take it. Angrily, Francis threw the money away. Francis’ father was furious with his son’s behavior and requested the civil authorities take action. Francis refused to comply with civil summons to explain himself. Finally, Francis’ father had him ordered before the bishop. Without a word, Francis stripped off his clothing and said, "Until now I have called you my father on earth. But henceforth I can truly say: Our Father who art in heaven.". The surprised bishop quickly tossed a old cloak around Francis. Francis turned and left for the wooded silence of Mount Subasio above Assisi. Renouncing family and embracing poverty, Francis began his path towards new spiritual order.

Saint Francis And A New Spiritual Approach

Eventually, Francis did rebuild the church at San Damiano. Then, he turned his attention to the little chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels on the plain below Assisi. There, during a mass, he heard the Gospel According to Matthew (10:7, 9–11) read to the small congregation. “And as you go, preach the message, ‘The kingdom is at hand!’…Take no gold, nor silver, nor money in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or villa you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.”. It was an epiphany for Francis. He left his shoes and staff, donned a tunic and went to preach the Gospel wherever there were those who would listen … including the birds and beasts of the field.

In the 13th century the Catholic Church in Rome was enormously powerful and wealthy. What Saint Francis preached, his whole approach to spirituality, was perceived as antitheses to the church. Here was a man renouncing wealth and taking vows of poverty; who was caring for the poor, sick and down trodden; showing a respect for nature; and who had no interest in politics. More, Saint Francis was going to the people and preaching the gospel to all who would listen. People were expected to go to church and salvation was the job of the priests, not layman. This put Saint Francis dangerously close to being declared a heretic. In 1209 With 11 followers (called ‘friars’ which translates as brothers), Saint Francis traveled to Rome to ask Pope Innocent III for permission to found a new religious order. This would show his obedience to the Church and allow his ministry to continue without fear of the Inquisition.

Pope Innocent III was not inclined to grant Francis permission to establish a new religious order on par with the Dominicans, Augustinians and so forth. Especially given that Francis stood in stark contrast to the Church at this time with his itinerate preaching and his embrace of nature (more on this topic Saint Francis: The Environmental Saint. Pope Innocent III met with Francis and was unimpressed with this ex-warrior, nature loving, barefoot country preacher who was not even educated to be a priest. For the moment, the Pope refused to give Francis his blessing to found a new order. Then, Pope Innocent III had a dream. In this dream he saw Saint Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome and therefore the home of all Christendom). The next day he endorse Francis’ order, on April 16, 1210, the official founding of the Franciscan Order began. This would protect Francis and his followers from being called heretics while they traveled, preached the Gospel and administer to those in need of spiritual or material needs.

The popularity of Saint Francis and the new order of Franciscans grew rapidly. In fact, the Franciscan order grew at an unheard of rate compared to other religious orders. Soon Francis organized a second order for women which would become known as the ‘Poor Clares’ (named after noblewoman Chiara Offreduccio who was an early follower of St. Francis). Francis gave these women a religious habit, or dress, like his own. In time this group would become recognized by the Church as the Order of Saint Clare. What was clear was that Saint Francis intended was to push the Church back toward the simple fundamental teaching of Christ: Love one another, put God before wealth. Franciscan monks and friars were expected to imitate the life of Christ literally which included embracing poverty and caring for the poor and sick. This made Saint Francis and his order a spiritual light for the common people. The underprivileged now had a champion within the Church.

Saint Francis only lived to the age of 45, yet in his short life he brought about impressive changes in the Church with his brand of simple spirituality. He would help found two new religious orders; travel to meet the Sultan of Egypt in an effort to stop the endless wars, the Crusades; he put forth the concept that anyone should be able to pray to God in their own language instead of Latin (something rather commonly accepted nowadays); and he introduced the idea that nature was not of itself inherently evil and that nature and nature’s creatures should also be loved and protected, making Saint Francis perhaps the first environmentalist. He also left behind a body of spiritual writing and prayers that are still revered and studied today.

Near the end of his days, Saint Francis received his final vision. Recorded by a Brother Leo, who was with Francis, it was written that Saint Francis "saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ". After this vision Saint Francis became the first definite account of the phenomenon of stigmata. Stigmata is where one suffers the five wounds of Christ while nailed to a cross. Stigmata causes one to bleed from wounds to the hands and feet as if nailed to a cross plus a wound on one’s side (where a Roman soldier used a spear to wound Jesus). Saint Francis would suffer from stigmata up until his death two years later.

The 13th century was a harsh and brutal time in European history, especially for the common human being. The Catholic Church at that time did not tolerated any challenge to it’s authority.

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The Popes who headed the church had no problem using the Inquisition and brutal force to ensure the Church’s authority. For a man to survive a war, illness and poverty is in itself impressive. Add to that list the founding a new brand of spirituality which went back to Christ’s admonishment to "love thy brother as thy self" – include women to your spiritual vision – admit you have been guided by visions and dreams but you are not a priest or any sort of religious authority – establish a new, spiritual approach to nature – embrace poverty as a way of life – and do all of this without the 13th priesthood declaring you a heretic or worse – then you have to say, yes, this man Francis must have been some sort of Saint … by anyone’s religious standards.

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