All-highest, Almighty Good Lord,
to you be praise, glory, and honour
and every blessing;
To you alone are they due,
and no man is worthy to speak your name.
And so we begin a story.
Of course, any big story is really just a collection of smaller stories. Sometimes it’s best to tell the stories in a line, laid out like train tracks toward a sure destination. But sometimes it’s best to gather those stories together like a bright bunch of little flowers, letting your nose decide which to admire next. My story, the story of Francis and me, is not a story of train tracks (though I did ride a train a few times). It’s more like a bouquet.
For now, however, I’ll begin at the beginning. Or at least, a beginning.
Francis was in prison again. His cell was cramped, and he couldn’t stand. He sat crouched on the ground, his left hand resting its fingers in the steel rods of his tiny cage. He prayed, and prayed, as tears ran from his eyes onto the hem of his robe. For the second time in his life, he was in prison. He was not yet 25. He couldn’t help but be reminded of the first time he was thrown into a cold cell.
War was a popular pastime for the people of his city, and Francis had enthusiastically enlisted to fight against the evil forces of the neighbouring town of Perugia. His first day in glorious battle did not bode well for him, however. He was captured, and cast into prison with several other men.
The cell was dank, and the scent of men who were more dead than alive filled its darkness. Each day, he breathed in sickness, filth, disease. Illness came to him as surely as did despair. He crouched in the cold as a fever took hold of his mind and body. Shivering with sweat, his sickness became his prison within a prison, and his thoughts seemed to be carried like captives into an inner cavern, black and bottomless and eternal. Here there was no light, only waves of red sickness behind his closed eyes. Here there was only eternity, and he fell into it like Jonah into the bottomless deep. His youthful dreams of glory, of conquests, or riches, now lurked like black, monstrous shapes in the depths, waiting to swallow him up.
Each day was darkness, and this, in its own way, was a mercy, because he could not count them. He began to pray as only a man in complete despair can pray: “God… oh Jesus… oh God…” and his prayer would become one, one strange and shapeless form, with his sickness, his fever, his eternity.
But something else began to form in his fever. A seed was planted in the emptiness. Light entered into darkness. His prayers began to take shape, for he began to believe that maybe Someone was hearing them. His sickness remained, weakening his body with each passing hour. His mind could be overtaken with feverish visions and confusion. But something in his spirit grew stronger, or at least sustained itself against the darkness. Hope had come into his despair. Light had come into his darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.
It would be over a year until he would be released. There were certain advantages to being from the family of the burgeoning middle class of Assisi. Francis’s father, Pietro, was no nobleman, but he had done very well for himself as a cloth merchant. He paid his son’s ransom, and Francis came home. Here he would remain for another year as he lay in bed, his prison fever with him still. Slowly, he recovered, but he would never again be completely whole and healthy, and sickness would follow him for the rest of his days.
As his health returned, so too did his ideas of glory. Certainly he had experienced something of the Divine in his prison, in his sickness, but he was young, and God and glory were all but the same. To fight for the one was surely to fight for the other.
The fourth Crusade was set to begin, with popes, counts, and kings readying an army to invade Egypt. Francis insisted he was well enough to fight, and set out to join a company of men in southern Italy. He was only a day’s journey from Assisi when he turned back. The people of Assisi whispered of supposed visions from God. Most began to conclude that his imprisonment and sickness had taken more than his health: it had taken his mind as well. He no longer attended the parties over which he had once been crowned “king”. He spent his days riding the plains beneath the town, and was even known to willingly visit a leper colony. He stopped wearing the trendy clothing so readily available to him, and began to wear instead a field worker’s robe. Their suspicions about his mental health were confirmed when he began to talk of hearing Jesus speak to him in the ruins of old San Damiano. He said that Jesus had told him to rebuild his church.
As any good young son on a mission from God would do, he began by selling his father’s stuff. His father was infuriated. Francis’s insisting that it was Jesus who had asked this of him did not help.
“You disrespect your father!” Pietro screamed. “You humiliate him! You steal from him! How is this the will of God??” Pietro was wild with anger, and the man named for the Rock of the Church fell hard upon his son. His fists fell blow upon blow upon his child as tears lined both their faces. Francis, the young man who had once had dreams of glorious battle, lay passively beneath his father’s rage.
“You will respect me! You will respect your father! You will respect your father!!”
There was a small closet with a small iron gate in the house. Pietro dragged his only son across the floor and threw him inside. He slammed shut the door and locked it.
“There you will stay until you learn what your God says about honouring your father! Until then I have no son!” Pietro walked away, weeping with rage.
For the second time in his young life, Francis was in prison. But it was in prison that his soul had been awakened to the Divine, and this prison was no different. He prayed. He prayed not for himself, however, but for his father, entrapped in his wealth and caged in his poverty. He prayed for his mother. He prayed at last for his own soul. He prayed for forgiveness for his pride, his impiety, his holy arrogance.
If in his first imprisonment a seed had been planted, this second prison would be the womb in which a new man was formed.
Three days later, he was born again. He stood naked before God and his father, handing the last remnants of his worldly identity back to his earthly patriarch. His father had dragged him to the doorstep of the church, demanding justice. This Pietro received in a form he never could have imagined. His son returned to him every cent he had taken, and with the money he returned his clothes, and his sonship.
“I love you, father, but unless a man hates his father and mother for the sake of Christ, he can never walk in the footsteps of Jesus. I return to you my sonship. I have no father now but my Father in Heaven.”
Eight hundred and six years later, I would stand before that cramped cell in wonder. My fingers would gently follow the edges of the brick, reflecting on my own misunderstandings and conflicts with my earthly father. Here, from conflict and imprisonment, a man was born. He would change the world, he would change my life, because somewhere between his first prison and his second, his soul had been awakened to something great, something Good, something worthy of his love, his riches, his poverty, his pain. To this Divine Good alone, this source of all goodness, Francis pledged his life, his praise, and his honour. Though no man is worthy to speak the name of this Almighty Good, he bowed low and taught us instead to call him Lord, to call him Father.
It was from this Father that Francis would learn his sonship, and from this Father that Francis would learn his brotherhood to all creation. Eight hundred years later, I would begin to learn mine.