|St. Francis of Assisi
Although Francis still joined at times in the
noisy revels of his former comrades, his changed demeanour plainly showed that his heart
was no longer with them; a yearning for the life of the spirit had already possessed it.
His companions twitted Francis on his absent-mindedness and asked if he were minded to be
married. "Yes", he replied, "I am about to take a wife of surpassing
fairness." She was no other than Lady Poverty whom Dante and Giotto have wedded to
his name, and whom even now he had begun to love. After a short period of uncertainty he began to seek
in prayer and solitude the answer to his call; he had already given up his frivolous
attire and wasteful ways. One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis
unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive object filled
him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural
aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had.
About the same time Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome. Pained at the miserly offerings he
saw at the tomb of St. Peter, he emptied his purse thereon. Then, as if to put his
fastidious nature to the test, he exchanged clothes with a tattered mendicant and stood
for the rest of the day fasting among the horde of beggars at the door of the basilica.
Not long after his return to Assisi, whilst Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix
in the forsaken wayside chapel of St. Damian's below the town, he heard a voice saying:
"Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."
Taking this behest literally, as referring to the ruinous church wherein he knelt, Francis
went to his father's shop, impulsively bundled together a load of coloured drapery, and
mounting his horse hastened to Foligno, then a mart of some importance, and there sold
both horse and stuff to procure the money needful for the restoration of St. Damian's.
When, however, the poor priest who officiated there refused to receive the gold thus
gotten, Francis flung it from him disdainfully. The elder Bernardone, a most niggardly
man, was incensed beyond measure at his son's conduct, and Francis, to avert his father's
wrath, hid himself in a cave near St. Damian's for a whole month. When he emerged from
this place of concealment and returned to the town, emaciated with hunger and squalid with
dirt, Francis was followed by a hooting rabble, pelted with mud and stones, and otherwise
mocked as a madman. Finally, he was dragged home by his father, beaten, bound, and locked
in a dark closet. Freed by his mother during Bernardone's absence, Francis returned at
once to St. Damian's, where he found a shelter with the officiating priest, but he was
soon cited before the city consuls by his father. The latter, not content with having
recovered the scattered gold from St. Damian's, sought also to force his son to forego his
inheritance. This Francis was only too eager to do; he declared, however, that since he
had entered the service of God he was no longer under civil jurisdiction. Having therefore
been taken before the bishop, Francis stripped
himself of the very clothes he wore, and gave them to his father, saying: "Hitherto I
have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only 'Our Father who art in
Heaven.'" Then and there, as Dante sings, were solemnized Francis's nuptials with his
beloved spouse, the Lady Poverty, under which name, in the mystical language afterwards so
familiar to him, he comprehended the total surrender of all worldly goods, honours, and
privileges. And now Francis wandered forth into the hills behind Assisi, improvising hymns
of praise as he went. "I am the herald of the great King", he declared in answer
to some robbers, who thereupon despoiled him of all he had and threw him scornfully in a
snow drift. Naked and half frozen, Francis crawled to a neighbouring monastery and there
worked for a time as a scullion. At Gubbio, whither he went next, Francis obtained from a
friend the cloak, girdle, and staff of a pilgrim as an alms. Returning to Assisi, he
traversed the city begging stones for the restoration of St. Damian's. These he carried to
the old chapel, set in place himself, and so at length rebuilt it. In the same way Francis
afterwards restored two other deserted chapels, St. Peter's, some distance from the city,
and St. Mary of the Angels, in the plain below it, at a spot called the Porziuncola.
Meantime he redoubled his zeal in works of charity, more especially in nursing the lepers.