Francis gets under way again, accompanied by Brother Leo. Once Francis would have walked but his condition, after a rigorous life and the suffering he was now enduring from the stigmata, meant that he had to ride on a donkey, and the donkey’s owner came to look after man and beast.
Jesus had walked through Palestine for three years before he took to riding on a donkey as he came to Jerusalem for the last time. I am sure we are meant to see the parallel with Francis’ last journey to Assisi. He, too, knew that he was riding to his death.
Image from Strasbourg Cathedral.
Saint Francis departed Città di Castello, to go unto Santa Maria degli Angeli with Friar Leo, and with a good man, who lent him his little ass, whereupon Saint Francis rode.
Now, it came to pass that, by reason of the bad roads and the great cold, they journeyed all day without being able to reach any place where they might lodge; so being constrained by the darkness and by the bad weather, they took shelter beneath the brow of a hollow rock, to avoid the snow and the night which was coming on. And, being in this evil case and also badly clad, the good man, to whom the ass belonged, could not sleep by reason of the cold; wherefore he began to murmur gently within himself and to weep; and almost did he blame Saint Francis, who had brought him into such a place. Then Saint Francis, perceiving this, had compassion upon him, and, in fervour of spirit, stretched out his hand and touched him.
O marvellous thing! as soon as he had touched him with that hand of his, enkindled and pierced by the fire of the Seraph, all the cold left him; and so much heat entered into him, both within and without, that he seemed to be hard by the mouth of a burning furnace; whence being presently comforted in soul and body he fell asleep; and, according to that which he said, he slept more sweetly that night, among rocks and snow until morning, than he had ever slept in his own bed.
Cross in cave at Zakopane, Poland; Greyfriars’ chapel, Canterbury.
Saint Francis caused the book of the Gospels to be brought unto him; for God had put it in his mind that, by the opening of the book of the Gospels three times, that which it was the will of God to do unto him should be revealed. And, when the book was brought unto him, St. Francis betook himself to prayer; and, when he had finished his prayer, he caused the book to be opened three times by the hand of Friar Leo, in the name of the Most Holy Trinity; and, as it pleased the Divine Providence, in those three times ever there appeared before him the Passion of Christ.
The next day came, to wit the day of the most Holy Cross, and St. Francis, betimes in the morning, or ever it was day, betook himself to prayer before the entrance of his cell, and turning his face towards the East, prayed after this manner: “O my Lord Jesus Christ, two graces do I beseech Thee to grant me before I die: the first, that, during my lifetime, I may feel in my soul and in my body, so far as may be possible, that pain which Thou, sweet Lord, didst suffer in the hour of Thy most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, so far as may be possible, that exceeding love, whereby Thou, Son of God, wast enkindled to willingly bear such passion for us sinners”.
And, when he had continued long time in this prayer, he knew that God would hear him, and that, as far as was possible for a mere creature, so far would it be granted to him to feel the aforesaid things. Having this promise, St. Francis began to contemplate with very great devotion the Passion of Christ and His infinite charity.
We were celebrating the Season of Creation during September, so these posts are about a month later than the events they record.
Then Friar Leo, obedient, stood still and waited for him, with such fear that, as he afterwards told his companions, he would rather, at that moment, that the earth had swallowed him up than wait for Saint Francis, who he thought was angered with him; because with very great diligence he took heed not to offend his fatherhood, lest, through fault of his, Saint Francis should deprive him of his company.
When he had come up to him, Saint Francis asked him: “Who art thou?” and Friar Leo, all trembling, replied: “My father, I am Friar Leo”; and Saint Francis said unto him: “Wherefore didst thou come hither, friar little sheep? Did I not tell thee not to come and watch me? For holy obedience, tell me whether thou sawest or heardest aught.” Friar Leo replied: “Father, I heard thee speak and say many times: ‘Who art Thou, my most sweet God? What am I, most vile worm and Thine unprofitable servant?'” And then Friar Leo, kneeling down before St. Francis, confessed himself guilty of disobedience, in that he had done contrary to his commandment, and besought his pardon with many tears. And thereafter he prayed him devoutly that he would explain those words which he had heard, and would tell him those which he had not understood.
Then, seeing that to the humble Friar Leo God had revealed or granted to hear and to see certain things, by reason of his simplicity and purity, Saint Francis condescended to reveal and to explain unto him that which he asked; and he spake as follows: “Know, friar little sheep of Jesus Christ, that when I was saying those words which thou heardest, then were shown unto me two lights for my soul; the one of knowledge and understanding of my own self, the other of knowledge and understanding of the Creator. When I said: ‘Who art thou, O my most sweet God?’ then I was in a light of contemplation wherein I saw the abyss of the infinite goodness and wisdom and power of God; and when I said: ‘What am I?’ I was in a light of contemplation in the which I beheld the depth of my baseness and misery; and therefore I said: ‘Who art Thou, Lord of infinite goodness and wisdom, that deignest to visit me, that am a vile worm and abominable?’
And in that flame which thou sawest was God; who in that form spake with me, even as of old He spake unto Moses. And, among other things which He said unto me, He asked me to give Him three gifts; and I made answer: ‘Lord, I am all Thine; Thou knowest well that I have nothing beside the habit and the cord and the breeches, and even these three things are Thine; what then can I offer or give unto Thy majesty?’ Then God said unto me: ‘Search in thy bosom, and give Me that which thou findest therein’. I searched and found a ball of gold; and I offered it to God; and thus did I three times, even as God three times commanded me; and thereafter I kneeled me down three times and blessed and thanked God who had given me wherewith to offer Him. And straightway, it was given me to understand that these three offerings signified holy obedience, highest poverty and most resplendent chastity; the which God, through His grace, hath permitted me to observe so perfectly that my conscience accuseth me of nothing.
And as thou sawest me put my hands in my bosom and offer to God those three virtues symbolised by those three balls of gold, which God had placed in my bosom; so hath God given me such virtue in my soul that, for all the benefits and all the graces which He hath granted me of His most holy goodness, I ever praise and magnify Him with heart and mouth. These are the words which thou heardest when I thrice lifted up my hands, as thou sawest. But look to it, friar little sheep, that thou watch me no more; but return to thy cell with the blessing of God, and do thou have diligent care of me; because, a few days from now, God will do such great and marvellous things upon this mountain that all the world shall wonder thereat; for He will do certain new things, the which He hath never done unto any creature in this world.”
And, when he had spoken these words, he caused the book of the Gospels to be brought unto him; for God had put it in his mind that, by the opening of the book of the Gospels three times, that which it was the will of God to do unto him should be revealed.
We have not read from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis for months, perhaps because we have been nearing the end of the book. Let’s make up for that by starting the account of the imprinting of the Stigmata. Francis at this time is living solitary a little way from the rest of the order. Brother Leo is his chief point of contact with his brethren; he used to recite the office with Francis – if Francis responded to his salutation …
Coming to the third reflection on the seraphic vision and the imprinting of the most holy Stigmata; as the time of the feast of the most holy Cross drew near, (14 September), one night Brother Leo went to the wonted place and at the wonted hour for to say Matins with Saint Francis, and when he said Domine, labia mea aperies* from the bridge-head as was his wont, Saint Francis made no answer. Brother Leo did not go back again, as Saint Francis had given him commandment; but with a good and holy intention, he crossed the bridge and entered softly into his cell, and not finding him, he thought that he might be praying somewhere in the wood; wherefore he came out again, and by the light of the moon went softly searching through the wood. At last he heard the voice of Saint Francis, and, drawing near, saw him on his knees in prayer, with face and hands raised up to Heaven; and in fervour of spirit he was saying: “Who art thou, O most sweet my God? What am I, most vile worm and Thine unprofitable servant?” And these words he said again and again, and spake no word beside.
Brother Leo, marvelling thereat, lifted up his eyes unto heaven, and as he looked, he saw coming down from heaven a torch of flame exceeding beautiful and bright, which, descending, rested on the head of Saint Francis; and out of the flame there came a voice that spake with Saint Francis, but Brother Leo could not understand the words. Hearing this, and deeming himself unworthy to stand so close to the holy place where that wondrous apparition was revealed, and fearing moreover to offend Saint Francis and disturb him in his contemplation, if perchance he should perceive him, he softly drew back, and standing afar off, waited to see the end: and gazing with eyes fixed, he saw Saint Francis stretch out his hands three times to the flame: and after a long space of time he saw the flame return to heaven.
Gladdened by the vision, he softly turned away to go to his cell again. And as he was going softly, deeming himself unseen, Saint Francis was aware of him by the rustling of the leaves beneath his feet, and bade him wait for him, and not to move.
* The first words of Morning Prayer (Matins): Lord, open my lips (and my mouth will declare thy praise.)
How Saint Francis set forth unto Brother Leo a fair dream that he had seen
It befell on a time that Saint Francis was grievously sick and Brother Leo did him service; the said Brother Leo, whilst praying close to Saint Francis, was rapt in ecstasy, and borne in spirit to a mighty river, broad and rushing furiously. And as he stood there for to see who crossed over it, he beheld certain brothers enter into the river, with loads upon their backs; the which were straightway thrown down by the force of the stream and were drowned; but certain others went as far as a third of the way over; others, as far as the middle of the stream; some nearly to the other bank; but in the end they all fell down and were drowned.
Seeing this, Brother Leo had exceeding great compassion on them: and meanwhile lo! there came suddenly a great multitude of brothers that had on their backs no load or burden of any kind and the light of holy poverty shone upon them; and they entered into the stream and passed over without any peril; and when he had seen this, Brother Leo came back to himself again. Then Saint Francis perceiving in spirit that Brother Leo had seen a vision, called him unto him and questioned him concerning what he had seen: and whenas Brother Leo had told him all the vision in order, quoth Saint Francis: That which thou hast seen is true. The great river is this world; the brothers that were drowned in the river are they that remained not true to their profession of the gospel life, and chief above all to that of the deepest poverty; but they that without peril passed over are those brothers that neither seek nor possess in this world aught that is earthly or carnal, but being temperate in clothing and in food, are content therewith, following Christ naked upon the cross; and with gladness and right good will do they bear the burden and sweet yoke of Christ and of most holy obedience; wherefore they pass with ease from this temporal life to life eternal.
We are saving Post L (50) of this series until Christmas day, where it belongs.