Being St. Francis by Valerie Martin

Scenes from the discomfiting life of Francis of Assisi

by Valerie Martin

A genuine first-hand religious experience ... is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its days of in-wardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and the stone the prophets in their turn.

-- William James
The Varieties of Religious Experience


WHEN Saint Francis -- San Francesco -- lay dying, he asked to be moved from the bishop's residence in Assisi to the chapel at the Portiuncula, a distance of about two miles outside the city walls. As they passed the city gates, he bid the friars carrying him to set him down on the road so that he might say a final farewell to the place of his birth. "This town," he began, "has the worst reputation in the whole region as the home of every kind of rogue and scoundrel." Then he begged God to bless the place and to make it the home of all who sincerely honored his name.

"So he is happy here, in the place they have made for him. Despite his illness,his blindness, the constant pain in his head, he is singing as cheerfully as a morning lark." An additional excerpt from Valerie Martin's Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis.

According to a contemporary brochure put out by the commune's busy tourist
agency, Assisi is a city that cannot just be "seen"; it must be "experienced" as
a place, perhaps the place, where "the spirit of St. Francis pervades all."
Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors, art lovers, tourists, and pilgrims
from all over the world flock to see the famous basilica where the saint is
buried. The narrow streets in which Francesco begged for bread are lined with
hundreds of shops selling all manner of atrocious trinkets and some of the worst
food to be found in Italy, at prices as breathtaking as the view from the Rocca
Maggiore, the late-medieval fortress that glowers over the prosperous, crowded
town. The spirit that pervades these streets is the same one that whistled down
the stone staircases and across the Piazza del Commune in Francesco's lifetime,
the same spirit that drove him straight into the outspread arms of Jesus Christ:
the cold, relentless, insatiable, furious spirit of commerce.

Francesco di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi, toward the end of 1181, to a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica, who may or may not have been French. He had an ordinary childhood, helping his father at his
business and attending the church school near his house, where he was an unremarkable student. He grew to be a lively young man, fond of music and parties, given to romantic tales, dreams of knighthood, fantastical treasure quests, but also to prayer in solitary chapels. During one such occasion, at the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, God spoke to him from a crucifix, bidding him to repair the church. Francesco took some bolts of cloth from his father's warehouse, sold them, and delivered the money to the priest who lived there to pay for the repair of the chapel. Pietro, enraged by his son's extravagance,brought a complaint against him, which was resolved in the public square of Assisi. When the bishop gave Francesco the money and advised him to return to his father what was his, Francesco declared, "My Lord Bishop, not only will I gladly give back the money which is my father's, but also my clothes." He stripped off his clothes, placed the money on them, and standing naked before the bishop, his father, and all present, announced, "Listen, all of you, and mark my words. Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but because I am resolved to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will say, 'Our Father who art in heaven,' and not 'Father Pietro Bernardone.'" The crowd wept in sympathy, and the bishop covered the naked and rebellious youth
with his own cloak.

Francesco then took refuge in the poor church, where he devoted himself to
making repairs; he begged for food and oil on the streets of Assisi. His former
neighbors mocked him and drove him away, but one rich young man, Bernardo of Quintavalle, impressed by Francesco's sincerity and evident contentment in his new life, decided to join him. Together the two men gave away all of Bernardo's money and possessions to the poor.

More followers joined them. When they numbered twelve, the group walked to Rome
to ask the Pope to approve a rule by which they might live as liegemen of the
Church. After a dream in which he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing and
Francesco holding it up, the Pope, Innocent III, gave them an oral and very
conditional approval.

Francesco's brotherhood, the Fratres Minores, grew rapidly. Within a few years the original twelve had grown to 5,000 (in comparison, the Dominican order, the Friars Preachers, as they were known, founded at roughly the same time, had fewer than fifty friars by 1220). They met each year during the feast of Pentecost for chapter meetings at the Portiuncula, a wooded area owned by local Benedictine monks and leased to the friars for one basket of fish a year. At these meetings Francesco delivered various admonitions; the friars were assigned to different regions; the custos, or caretakers, and ministers were appointed; and problems of administration were addressed. Between meetings the mission of the fratres was to wander homeless over the world, preaching repentance, begging for their food, offering themselves as servants to all. This, they believed, was the way the early Apostles had lived, the way Jesus had adjured all his followers to live -- giving the world an example of virtue, loving poverty, making no preparations for the next meal or the next bed, but leaving everything to God.

A Rich Young Man on the Road

IN the morning, when he leaves Foligno, on the last leg of his journey from Rome to Assisi, Francesco's horse plods along at a steady pace, requiring neither guidance nor urging. Francesco is in no hurry, for his home has none of the charms of the adventure he brings to a close with his return. Everyone will want to hear about what he has seen; even his father will listen to his descriptions of Rome, the city of wonders, of the towers and bridges, the palace of the Laterano, and all the rines and sacred relics he visited. But he will not mention the event that most fired his imagination, because anyone who hears of it will say it was a shameful, foolish exploit, the folly of a wealthy and useless young man who hasn't the sense to appreciate his position. Suppose, his father would exclaim, just suppose some neighbor from Assisi had recognized him.

How could he hold his head up in the town?

Something has been coming to him now for some time. He cannot be sure what it is or when it began, but he can feel it moving toward him, gathering momentum. His dreams are full of triumph; voices speak to him and counsel him, showing him scenes of great glory and making a promise: All this will be yours. But when he is awake, there are no triumphs, though he is free to indulge himself in whatever pursuits and amusements his father's money can buy. Nothing obstructs him; no one contradicts him. When he made up his mind to visit the holy places in Rome, he met with no objections. His mother provided him with a pouch full of bread and sweets, and his father encouraged him to take the better of their horses; both parents were anxious that his clothes be the finest and that he carry enough silver to make proper offerings at the shrines.

His horse shakes his head, as if to remind Francesco that he has at least some small obligations as a rider, and he comes to himself with a start. It is a spring day of stunning perfection; the air is cool and fresh, the sky overhead as blue as the mantle of the Holy Virgin, and on either side of the road the fields stretch away pleasantly, olive trees on one side, grain on the other, bordered by ranks of cypress and pine. There are contingents of chaffinches chirping in the dusty leaves of the olive trees, and swallows whirling overhead in undulating formations, like fallen leaves twisting and turning in a stream. He passes two peasants digging mud by the side of the road and another leading a reluctant goat by a bit of dirty rope. They glance at him as he goes by, a rich young man, carefree, and they give terse responses to his friendly salutations. The goat gives a strangled cry, struggling at the end of his rope while his owner curses and threatens him. Francesco looks away, wounded, as he always is by displays of pointless ferocity. He has seen too many the past few days in Rome, where men and beasts are crowded together and tempers flare at the most innocent remark. At the Basilica of San Pietro he saw two men fighting on the very steps, and later, when he came out, there was such a quantity of blood,
though no sign of the combatants, that he thought one had surely killed the other. And it was there, as he stood looking around nervously, that a voice called out to him from the shadows of the vestibule, and the peculiar and wonderful adventure began.

"Have you given it all to the thieving priests?" the voice inquired. "Or is there a coin to spare for those that may truly have need of it?"

Francesco stepped away from the blood soaking into the paving stones and approached the man -- if he was a man, for all he could see of him was one bare foot, so swollen and bruised that it looked more like a rotten vegetable than human flesh. "I have not given it all," he said, stepping in under the arch. He could see nothing, for the bright daylight had dazzled his eyes and now the shadows confounded them, but he heard the harsh laughter of several men. One of them said, "Here is the last honest man in the world," and another responded,

"It proves what I have been telling you, that the Judgment Day is near, for here
is the new Christ among us to prove it."

"And the Pope is the Antichrist," the first speaker declared. Francesco gazed
down at them as his eyes became accustomed to the dark. There were three of
them; two were old fellows, or so they appeared. The third, the one who had
announced the imminence of the Judgment Day, was a youth of perhaps Francesco's
age with thick blond hair, scarcely any beard, and an open, ingenuous
expression. He looked Francesco up and down with a bold, rapacious eye. "Now,
that's a fine cloak such as only a nobleman could afford," he observed.

"I am not a nobleman," Francesco replied. "But my father is a cloth merchant."

The young man got to his feet awkwardly, pressing his hands against the wall behind him. When he was halfway up, he hopped forward onto his one good leg. The other was stunted and shriveled. He could put his weight on this leg long enough to make a quick step; he crossed the space with a rolling, out-of-kilter gait,and then propped himself against the wall. "Wouldn't I look a prince in such a cloak as that?" he said, smiling up into Francesco's face. His lower right teeth were missing, and when he smiled, his lower lip fell in over the gap.

"For the love of God," one of the old men said, "give us a coin if you won't give us the cloak."

Francesco turned to look at the speaker, narrowing his eyes to make him out in the shadows, crouched beside his friend, who rubbed his face with his palms and echoed, "Yes, give us a coin, for the love of God."

"For the love of God," Francesco said.

He looked into the eyes of the ragged young man who imagined no greater glory than to have such a cloak as his. "Will you trade your clothes for mine?" he said. In reply the youth gave a hoot of delight. The old men cackled together;

there was an odd business. "Will you let me sit here with you?" Francesco continued, as he pulled off his cloak, his doublet, his leather girdle. The
young man began stripping off his rags, which took no time at all, because he wore only a short sackcloth tunic and a pair of filthy breeches embroidered with holes. "I will have to take my other clothes back when I go," Francesco explained, examining the contents of his purse, "but I will leave you my cloak
and all but two of these coins; I will need that much for my journey home."

"Giuseppe is right," one of the old men remarked. "This proves that God's
judgment is nigh on this world."

Francesco laughed. Half-naked, he bent over to pull off his leggings. Giuseppe
had already donned his shirt. "And will you share your food with me?" Francesco
asked. This sent them all into a riot of laughter. "Oh, yes," they agreed.
Giuseppe slid down the wall to the stones, clutching his new cloak, which he had
bundled in his arms like a baby. "You are welcome to everything we have," he
announced, with the casual grace and courtesy of a lord offering hospitality to
some bedraggled traveler.

Francesco stayed with them all day, and the people who saw him took him for one
of the beggars. What was this sensation, so delicious and unexpected, when a
passing lady paused to look down at him with a haughty yet pitying eye? As he
stretched out his hand to her, she turned away, drawing her heavy skirt in
close, lest he should touch it. Did she thank heaven that no son of hers would
ever be found in such disgraceful circumstances? And what would she say if she
knew that this importuning beggar was a sham, deserving neither charity nor
pity, for he had a horse, a purse, and fine clothes, and would return in a day
or two to his father's comfortable house, where a servant would greet him at the

When evening came, two more men joined the group, and they all sat down in the
street to share the food they had begged. It was poor stuff, black bread and a
little grain, which they made into a porridge, for one of them owned an iron
pot, and another had begged some sticks of firewood. Francesco listened to their
lively conversation, full of profanity and derision for the vanity of the world.
Though he was wealthy, they included him, as if he, too, did not know when he
would find a meal again. After they had eaten, he changed back into his own
clothes and laughed with them over the miracle of his transformation. Yet he
felt an aching, premonitory sadness as the crisp linen settled across his
shoulders; it was as though he were putting on a costume that would deceive only
a fool, for a wise man would see at once that it did not suit him, that it must
belong to some other man, an elegant, stylish young man, and that Francesco was
an impostor in his own clothes. He folded his cloak and laid it in Giuseppe's
lap, accepting his enthusiastic blessing and the boisterous farewells of the
others, who promised him their hospitality whenever he should return. Then,
bowing and waving as they repeatedly called his name, he wandered out into the
dark streets alone.

Now he is himself again, but not himself; something has changed, and the world
looks different because of it. He has acquired, among other novelties, a memory
he will not share. His horse carries him back over the same road he traveled
before. His senses are open; he is prey to sudden and conflicting emotions. He
sees himself from the outside, and he is not entirely gratified by what he sees.

The Leper

HIS back is stiff and sore from days of riding and from the long rounds of the
shrines. He shrugs his shoulders, attempting to shake out the soreness, and
rolls his head in a slow circle, easing the knotted muscles in his neck. As he
does this, his horse starts, making a panicked sidestep that nearly unseats him.
He catches up the reins as he lifts himself out of the saddle and then, when he
drops back into his seat, he loosens his knees, gripping the horse's flanks with
his calves. He knows as he goes through these automatic calming responses that
there is something in the road just ahead, something that was not there a moment
ago. The horse comes to a standstill in a cloud of dust that rises to his knees,
and he stands working his head back and forth against the bit. Francesco rests a
hand on his mane and says his name softly, reassuringly, as he looks down past
the foaming lips to see what has so terrified this normally sedate and reliable

The leper stands in the middle of the road, perfectly still. One hand rests on
the bell cord around his neck, the other hangs limply at his side. He is dressed
in a filthy garment, patched together from bits of sacking and undyed wool,
which hangs loosely on his emaciated body. He regards Francesco and his horse
steadily, his head slightly turned and his chin lifted, the better to see them,
for his disease has eaten away half his face and he has only one eye.

Francesco does not speak. He cannot move. They face each other on the road, and
the bright sun pours down great quantities of light over them, so there are no
shadows anywhere, nothing to soften or dim the harsh reality of this encounter,
and nowhere to hide from the necessity of playing it out. The leper's eye drills
into Francesco. From childhood he has had a horror of lepers, and he has always
avoided the lazaretto at the foot of Mount Subasio, where they sometimes
congregate in the road, rattling their wooden bells and calling out for alms. He
dreams of the foul stench rising from their rotting flesh, their grotesque
faces, their phlegmy, guttural voices. He wakes sweating and shouting for help.

He glances back down the road and into the neat ranks of the olive trees. All is
uncommonly empty and still. Even the birds, twittering only a moment ago, have
been silenced.

He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. He could throw down his last coin
to the leper as he passes. His horse lifts one hoof and paws the hard dirt. It
is time to go on, to go home. As Francesco drops his hand to the reins, his eyes
fall on his own well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not
wearing gloves, which is odd, because he and his kind are required always to
wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required always to
wear and ring their bells to warn unwary travelers of their approach.

Again Francesco looks down on the solitary figure of the leper, who has not
moved. His hand is wrapped around the cord, his head arrested at an angle. He is
like a statue, lifeless and weather-beaten, and Francesco has the sudden sense
that he has been standing there, in his path, forever.

Something has been coming toward him, or he has been coming to something; he has
known this for some time, and he has bent his energy in the direction of finding
out what it might be. This was the reason for his pilgrimage to Rome. At the
shrines he had recited the requisite prayers; gazed upon the relics, the bones,
the bits of hair and cloth, the vials of blood and tears; and proferred the
proper offerings. But he had not felt the burden of his sins lifted, and this
spiritual restlessness drove him on. Only when he was with the beggars in the
vestibule of the basilica had he felt some respite from this condition of tense
and urgent expectancy.

He is in the grip of it again as he swings one leg over the saddle and drops to
the ground beside his horse. The stillness of the world makes every sound acute
-- the clinking of the bridle chain as he leads the animal to a green patch
nearby, the sound of grass tearing, and then the big jaws grinding. Francesco
runs his hands through his hair, bats the dust from the front of his surcoat,
and turns to face the man, who is there waiting for him.

The leper watches him with interest. His blasted face is bathed in sunlight; the
black hole that was his eye has a steely sheen, and a few moist drops on his
scab-encrusted lips glitter like precious stones. He moves at last, releasing
his cord and extending his hand slowly, palm up, before him.

This supplicating gesture releases Francesco, for it dictates the countergesture,
which he realizes he longs to make. Without hesitation he strides across the
distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if
stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, extracts the
thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he
has ever before been to one of these unfortunate beings, and the familiar
reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it
down. He can hear the rasp of the leper's breath, rattling and wet. The battle
between Francesco's will and his innate reluctance overmasters him: he misses a
step, recovers, and then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which
is hardly recognizable as a hand but is, rather, a lumpish, misshapen thing, the
fingers so swollen and callused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh
as black and hard as an animal's rough paw.

Carefully Francesco places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and
white. For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that
will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands
that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back. It was only
so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow;
he has found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire.
Tenderly he takes the leper's hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once
his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness that pours over his tongue,
burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. These tears moisten
the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound
of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing
toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this
moment -- this moment he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might
not live through it.

He reaches up, clinging to the leper's tunic, for the wind is so strong and cold
that he fears he cannot stand against it. Behind him the horse lifts its head
from grazing and lets out a long, impatient whinny, but Francesco does not hear
it. He is there in the road, rising to his feet, and the leper assists him,
holding him by the shoulders. Then the two men clutch each other, their faces
pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down and the air is
hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip
about; their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life.

In Hiding

HE can hear their voices, angry and exultant, over the terrified cries of their
prisoners, like the shouts of butchers one to another when they are herding
squealing, struggling pigs into the slaughtering pen. These captors are neither
men nor beasts; in spite of their hairy backs, black horns, brutish snouts, and
birds' feet, they stand upright and brandish in their large human hands the
tools of their trade: lashes; slashing hooks; glowing, red-hot irons. One digs
his talons into the neck of a naked man who writhes beneath him, his face
swollen and blue, his body drawn up in an impossible arc. The man's mouth is
opened wide in a howl, for his captor has forced a thick rod between his
buttocks and is bearing down hard upon it. Behind these two a woman has fallen
to her knees as she struggles to release her shoulder from the jaws of another
demon. The creature's thick reptilian tail is wrapped around her torso, holding
her fast against his thighs. He mocks her suffering, pointing out her
destination: a black tube with teeth, like the mouth of an enormous serpent,
down which two of his fellows have thrown another victim -- whether male or
female is uncertain, because only the legs and feet are visible. The feet are
curiously flexed. All but two of the prisoners are naked: a man in rich garb,
carrying a sack across his shoulders and entering the awful scene through a
flaming gate at one side, and another man crawling on the ground near the
serpent's mouth, naked but for the bishop's miter still firmly in place on his
head, his torso wrapped tightly in the coiled tail of another demon. The bishop
is gazing at another man, who has a demon crouched on his stomach. The creature
is positioned so that his buttocks are poised just over his victim's face; his
sharp talons are sunk in the man's genitals. The sufferer's mouth is held open
by an iron device, and his eyes are rolled back in agony and horror. From the
demon's anus flows a stream of gold coins, filling the open mouth, choking the
man with gold.

Francesco lets out a soft huff of amusement as he examines this last image. He
looks up from the dark and lurid sufferings of the damned to the bright sunlit
window next to him, but he does not notice the limpidity of the light that
illuminates the book and the table he is bending over, because he hears the
sound of footsteps on the gravel outside. Hurriedly he crosses the room and
drops down into an open recess in the floor, a space so narrow and shallow that
he has to curl himself in a ball to fit into it. He reaches up to slide the flat
stone that serves as a lid for this, his own personal hell, into place, closing
his eyes tight against the dirt that always showers down when the stone's edge
lodges in the earth.

The door has opened, the intruder has paused, and then the footsteps come
purposefully to the hiding place. Two sharp raps bring down a fresh shower of
dirt. Francesco pushes against the stone, lifting it, while his friend grabs the
edge and pulls it back across the floor. Francesco sits up in his hole and rubs
the dirt from his eyes.

"Your father has not relented," the old priest says. "He knows you are in hiding
hereabouts, and he has sworn to find you if he has to pay the entire guard."

"He won't have to pay anyone," Francesco says flatly.

The priest throws up his hands. "What will you do?"

"I'm going to Assisi," Francesco says. "He will find me in the street easily

Ingrate, Thief, Scoundrel

INSIDE the gates of Assisi two boys, returning from the forest, each burdened by
a large dead hare, push past Francesco, and he is so weak that he staggers into
the wall. Their heads come up like those of young wolves alerted by the misstep
of a sheep, their eyes fix coldly upon him, and their nostrils quiver, testing
the air, deciphering the scent of vulnerability and fear. "Idiot," one observes
to the other. Francesco rights himself and continues up the street, holding the
skirt of his tunic so that he will not trip on it. The boys fall into step
behind him. Each is half his size but has twice his strength. "You know who this
is," one says to the other. "This is the son of Pietro Bernardone, the one who
has robbed his father and disgraced his name." Francesco plods on, his eyes on
the paving stones rising ahead of him.

"Why have you come back, madman?" one of the boys taunts him. "Do you think your
father will welcome you?" The other steps up quickly, overtaking Francesco and
dancing out ahead of him, brandishing his hare. He squeezes his nose with his
free hand and whines, "God, how he stinks."

"He stinks of his friends at the lazaretto," his companion offers. "He is
searching for his new love among the lepers." At this Francesco looks briefly
over his shoulder, his expression a mixture of exhaustion, fever, and irony. The
boy feels the hot black arrow of this regard as a momentary hesitation,
instantly banished by the arrival of a boisterous trio clattering down the steps
from San Giorgio. They are just released from school and wild from a morning of
Latin declensions, intent now on merriment or mischief, whichever comes easiest.
At once they spy Francesco and his persecutors and rush forward to join in the
game, shouting imprecations -- "Idiot," "Swine," "Thief," "Madman." Circling
Francesco, they pluck at his sleeves, bump him hard with their hips and elbows,
mock his efforts to keep his footing and to continue on his way. His resistance
is feeble and he does not protest, which excites their contempt. They speak for
him, grinning and winking at one another, "Oh, do not push me so, my dear
Giorgio." "Matteo, why are you so rough with me?" The racket brings women to the
upper windows along the street. "It is Pietro Bernardone's son," one observes to
another. Like a feather riding on the air, this phrase is borne away along the
streets, fluttering across the piazza at San Giorgio, sucked into the narrow
passageway and puffed out across the marketplace, where the stalls are closing
for the day. Old women, trudging homeward with their baskets half empty --
summer is over, and already there is little to buy but turnips, apples, and
quinces -- lift their sharp faces to hear the news: "Pietro's son, Francesco,
has come back."

As Francesco makes his way through the town, the mocking entourage thickens
around him, and he can scarcely see what is ahead. The children pick up stones
and clods of dirt, which they pitch at him, shouting with delight when they hit
their mark. He plods on, indifferent to all provocation; but when they pass the
ancient columns of Minerva's temple, the press in front of him suddenly parts,
and he is faced with a sight that weakens his knees, though not his resolve. His
father rushes toward him, bellowing, cursing, calling on God and on all his
neighbors to witness his disgrace and his fury. His face is bright red, his eyes
bulge in their sockets, his lips are pulled back over his teeth like an enraged
dog's. Francesco stands his ground, but at the last, as his father charges down
on him, he throws up his hands to protect his face.

"Ingrate!" Pietro shouts, grabbing his son by the hair. "Thief! Scoundrel!" He
knocks Francesco to his knees with a backhanded blow and then jerks him up and
slaps him across the ear. Francesco does not struggle or cry out. He has been
living in a hole for a month, refining his courage for this confrontation, and
though the father has superior strength, the son's will has been formed as
igneous rock is formed, under pressure, and it is unyielding.

The crowd now takes the side of youth against age, and chides Pietro for his
anger. This criticism stings him, and he protests vociferously. How could they
know what he has been through day after day, with this good-for-nothing boy who
claims he has God's blessing to steal from his own father? He grips Francesco by
the elbow and pulls him forward so roughly that he feels the sinew pop at
Francesco's shoulder, but he will not be stopped now. If his son resists, he
will take his arm right out of the socket. Francesco reels, his eyes roll back
in his head, and he stumbles forward, endeavoring to keep up. Pietro rains down
curses on his son, on his neighbors, on his town, on the world, on God himself,
who has cursed him with the infamy of an ungrateful son.

The Friar and the Pope

THEY have arrived at the Lateran palace, a city within the city, and have made
their way through the outer courts and inner vestibules to the great hall where
the Lord Pope receives the never-ending tributes and entreaties of the horde
that constitutes Jesus Christ's Church on earth. Clerics and prelates,
secretaries and legates, lords and guildsmen, each in the costume suitable to
his condition and rank, occupy themselves with the ceremonies required to
command for even one moment the sublime attention of His Holiness. Bishop Guido
guides Francesco and his brothers through the crowd, exchanging a word with a
guard here and a secretary there, until they stand before a pair of doors as
tall as trees, which open before them ponderously and with an impressive
creaking of hinges, like the long-unopened gates of Paradise. They are herded
inside by the bishop and passed along by a series of papal functionaries. The
Lord Pope, seated at the far end of the great room on his high throne, leans
forward to watch their approach. The babble of conversation does not entirely
cease, but the volume drops appreciably as all eyes are gradually drawn to this
ragged, uncouth, unwashed collection of bumpkins, whose bare feet slap the
polished marble floors. Their small, dark, bright-eyed leader steps out ahead of
them, his eagerness so barely contained that he seems to execute a bizarre new
dance step as he charges forward. The Pope sends Cardinal Giovanni, who stands
at his side, an incredulous and skeptical look: This is his discovery? This
shabby, inelegant creature fresh from the sty? This is his idea of what the
Church will require if it is to stem the flood of heresy and dissension that is
washing down from the north? Truly, God's wonders have not ceased.

When Francesco reaches the foot of the steps leading to the Pope's throne, his
progress is checked by a terse command from a guard. He looks up to Cardinal
Giovanni, who nods at him distantly. He sweeps back the skirt of his patched and
unsightly tunic as if it were the robe of an emperor and inclines his head and
shoulders in a lordly bow. He can hear the cardinal's introduction: "Here is our
Brother Francesco di Pietro Bernardone of Assisi, whom I have examined, and who
begs the ear of Your Holiness." Francesco keeps his head down but raises his
eyes and looks directly into the Lord Pope's opaque and chilly scrutiny. The
Pope's golden corona is studded with jewels, and it rises like the dome of a
gleaming beehive high above his head. The rigid collar of his cope is so high
that it obscures the lower part of his face, so he appears to be a small mound
of gold, brocade, and jewels from which peer steadily two heavy-lidded,
skeptical eyes above a long aquiline nose. As Francesco stares, uncertain
whether to speak, genuflect, or back cautiously away, the folds of the cope
rustle, and a small, pale hand appears, the index finger extended, pointing at
him. Then the finger crooks once in a summoning gesture. He casts an anxious
look at the cardinal, who lifts his chin, reinforcing the Pope's command.
Eagerly Francesco climbs the wide steps to the foot of the papal throne.

Francesco stands before the Lord Pope, nodding his head at something the
cardinal is saying. Pope Innocent listens, his neck bent forward beneath the
weight of his corona, his shoulders drooping beneath the weight of his robes.
His gaze wanders from the cardinal to Francesco and then out to the brothers,
huddled together nervously like dull sheep liable to panic and run off a cliff
if their shepherd isn't quick about his business. He looks back at the shepherd
in question, a dreamy fellow at best, full of enthusiasm, lacking judgment,
doubtless barely literate, though Bishop Guido and Cardinal Giovanni have
assured His Holiness that these penitents do much good in their district,
nursing the poor and even the lepers, repairing churches, preaching repentance
and, more important, respect for the Holy See. How much harm could they do if
sanctioned, and how much more if refused? He presses his eyelids with his
fingertips, listening to the cardinal, who seems determined to keep his protoge
from speaking for himself.

The brothers have begun to feel more at ease and to look around curiously.
Brother Egidio, gazing up into the gloom, makes a discovery, which he brings to
the attention of Brother Angelo. Up there, on the capital of that column, can he
see it? Angelo cranes his neck; he doesn't see anything. Then, as Egidio raises
his arm to point, Angelo does see it. But what is it? Is it a sparrow or a wren?
The bird hops from one marble leaf to another and then takes off in the
direction of the doors. It is a sparrow. They follow its dizzy flight as it
sails through the cloudy upper atmosphere of the room.

"It seems to me that your way of life is too hard," the Pope comments at last,
addressing himself pointedly to Francesco, who smiles as if he expected just
this objection, though he says not a word to refute it. Straightway the cardinal
offers his unsolicited opinion, which is that it might cause painful and
unnecessary misunderstandings among the laity if the Holy Father should decree
that the way of life recommended in the Gospels is too difficult for a Christian
to undertake. This is not, the Pope concedes, an insignificant point. And as he
considers it, his gaze wanders again to the brothers huddled out there in the
aisle -- surely an unpromising lot. One of them is rubbing his eyes with two
fists, like a sleepy child, and two others stand apart, gazing up at the ceiling
with their mouths ajar, like simpletons in a field making fantastic pictures out
of the clouds.


THE shadows have lengthened, and the night birds have begun their plaintive
chorus. Brother Leone lights the lamp, adjusts the flame, and returns to his
occupation, cutting long strips from a square of white wool. Francesco sits next
to him on a stone, his hands resting palms up in his lap. Leone's method is to
cut the edge and then rip the strips away. The repeated complaint of the tearing
cloth is the only sound in the dim cell. Francesco dabs at his eye with the
sleeve of his robe.

It is always worst on Saturday, because Francesco refuses to have his bandages
changed on Friday, the day when the Lord Christ suffered on the cross. Leone has
removed the cloths from his hands and feet without much difficulty, but they
both know that the wound in his side is the most painful to clean, because it
bleeds more copiously than the others. So they leave it for last. Leone lays out
his strips, takes one up, and kneels at Francesco's feet. Because the nailhead
protrudes from the flesh, he lays the strip beneath the iron, passing the cloth
around the foot until it is level with the hard black disk. He does this
carefully, gently. Moving the nail is excruciating to Francesco, though he never
complains, only draws his breath in sharply.

When he has finished with Francesco's feet and hands, Leone helps him pull his
tunic over his head, so that he can change the wide bandage that wraps his
torso. Francesco groans as he lifts his arms, and Leone winces, apologizing for
the pain. Francesco's fingers flutter around the waist of his breeches, touching
the edge of the bandage. Leone bends over to inspect it. The blood has soaked
through and dried.

Leone has confessed to Brother Rufino the anxiety in his heart when he thinks of
his own sinful nature and how unworthy he is to serve so holy a man, yet he is
convinced that only through the grace of Father Francesco has his poor soul any
hope of salvation. God has chosen Francesco as his instrument to save many souls
that would otherwise be damned, and Leone's most fervent prayer is that through
no merit of his own but through his devotion to Francesco he will be one of that
select company of the redeemed. Yet even as he nourishes that hope, he knows
that he has no right to it, because he is so sinful and plagued by temptations.

Now, as he studies the bloodstained bandage, he feels a welling up of emotions:
fear, pity, devotion, heart-smiting love. For a moment he does not move, and
Francesco asks, "What is it, brother lamb of Christ?"

Leone shivers, drawing away. "It's dry," he says. "But when I unwrap it, it will
open again."

Francesco straightens his spine and opens his arms out from his sides as if he
were praying, and perhaps he is. Leone unfastens the end of the bandage and
slowly pulls away the outer layer. It comes loose easily, but with the next
layer he feels a slight resistance, and Francesco's knitted brow tells him what
he already knows. "Forgive me, Father," Leone says, pulling the cloth free with
a quick jerk. Francesco bites his lower lip without speaking. There is one layer
to go, and it will be the most painful. Leone brings the loose part of the
bandage just to the edge of the wound, and then pulls it lightly to find the
deepest part. Francesco's face has gone white, but he does not flinch. Instead
he raises one hand and lays it on Leone's chest, just over his heart. "My dear
son," he says softly.

Leone looks down at the bandaged hand pressing gently against his chest. The
wonder of the moment overcomes him. Francesco's hand is like a burning sword
plunged into his heart, inflaming him with such passionate devotion that his
vision blurs and he gasps for air. How is it possible that he is here, tending
the miraculous wounds of this new Christ, who is also his dearest friend and
companion, his brother, father, and mother, who inspired him, when they were
both young and in love with Lady Poverty, to follow him on a great adventure of
the soul? They have walked a thousand miles in this quest, only to come to this
cell, where Francesco touches Leone's heart with the hand that bears the proof
that he is the most dearly loved of all those who serve the Lord Christ, because
of all the saints only he has been chosen to share in Jesus Christ's own

"Francesco," Leone says, leaning into the hand that presses, that holds, his
heart, and meeting his beloved's eyes, which, though they can scarcely see him,
still pour forgiveness, love, and perfect understanding over him like warm rain.
Brother Leone is swooning. He fears he will be destroyed by the power of this
love. Yet his hands are still engaged in their task. With a cry of terror
commingled with joy, he pulls sharply at the cloth, freeing it from the wounded
flesh. As he loses consciousness, he sees the blood gushing forth, and it seems
to him that his whole body and his soul are bathed and refreshed in this blood,
which is shed for him, and which he cannot deserve.


SOME see the stigmata as the crowning achievement of Francesco's life, signaling his complete identification, and hence union, with his beloved Jesus Christ. Others suggest that there was an element of despair in the miracle -- that Francesco saw himself as crucified by the unrest and infighting in the great movement he had founded. His contemporaries, though they had never heard of such a thing before, seem to have accepted it as well within the realm of possibility, and even in keeping with what they understood to be the nature of God's continual interference in the world of men. Francesco had, in their view, been singled out and marked by Jesus as his own. It proved what everyone already suspected -- that he was a living saint. Two years later, in October of 1226, Francesco died peacefully at Assisi, revered by all, his devoted friars gathered around him. He was forty-five years old.

Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever (1999). Her article in this issue is taken from herbiography Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis