28 January 2006

Who is the Richest Man in Assisi?

[Editors note: There was originally a post before this, but in the wisdom of time did not find that one to be all that important or engaging. This was the second post, so I promoted it become the first post since it just makes sense that way. I left a note where the original content of this post begins, which I wanted to save since it I wrote it shortly after first learning about St. Francis' story.]
Who is the richest man in Assisi? My blog title is partly an allusion to a parable on financial wisdom by George S. Clason: "The Richest Man in Babylon." I read it years ago in high school, at a time when I devoured just about anything related to personal finance and investing, and even free-lanced a series of articles on the book. Babylon is one of the world's earliest civilizations. They pioneered beer brewing, which I consider as good a benchmark of civilized activity as any. The simple Babylonian economy allows the author to use simple concepts that a layperson can use to better understand today's more complex financial world.

Which brings us to St. Francis, growing up in 12th Century Italy, when international trade, corporate structures, and a rising middle-class were forming the earliest budding seeds of today's modern economy. Francis' father, Pietro Bernadone, was a garment merchant and regarded as the wealthiest man in Assisi. Probably no Medici, to be sure, but up there on the food chain regardless. And since Francis would inherit his father's business and fortune, I call him the "richest man in Assisi."

Of course, not just for that reason -- for if anyone wrestled with God, Francis wrestled. And eventually things came to a head as Francis fell in love with Lady Poverty, coming to view the family business and wealth as pesky mistresses he wanted nothing to do with. In renouncing his natural father's inheritance, he declared, "From now on, I shall only say 'Our Father, who art in heaven,'" embracing his bishop without a stitch of clothes on (imagine that happening today! Assisi apparently didn't have any lawyers :) Thus, Francis exchanged an earthly inheritance for an eternal one, and dying some years later on a cold dirt floor -- naked again, save for a blanket -- it is not Pietro we remember 800 years later, but this man whom thousands of Franciscans emulate around the world, who is often regarded as the most Christ-like of saints, who personally loved his neighbor, whether he find him to be a sickly leper or the Sultan of Egypt.

Many of the issues Francis faced are still relevant today. He is one of the most famous saints, yet one of least known. I regard him as my patron saint, as Francis of Assisi is the Confirmation name I chose on April 15, 2006. And this blog is essentially my thoughts on faith and modern life in light of my esteem for St. Francis.

[Below is the original content of this post, sharing my brief version of Francis' biography when I just learned about him.]

Speaking of books, one of the Franciscans who lives at St. Anthony's gave me a book titled Francis: The Journey and the Dream by Murray Bodo. I guess you'd describe it as a creative account of St. Francis' life. Instead of just telling the facts about his life, it speculates more about his struggles discerning God's will in the face of rejection by relatives and friends. It should make for good meditation.

Having everything he could care for, Francis reveled in the pleasures of life and tended not to be very studious at school. Even those he exhibited sharp business skills, making him the natural candidate to inherit the family business and surely surpass his father in wealth, his dream was to be a knight. He enthusiastically enrolled with an army fighting for Pope Innocent III and was two days into the journey to battle, but God...

A voice in the night instructed Francis to return home and ponder a little more the vision God had given him. No doubt this was frustrating. At some time or another, we have all felt confident of God's will for our lives only to learn that wasn't it at all. But this vision was mysterious if it didn't mean fighting as a knight. In Murray Bodo's description of this vision, Francis "was led into the great hall of a dazzling Palace, where a radiant Princess-Bride held court. The walls were covered with shields and trophies of battles won. And when he asked aloud who the Lord of the castle was, a voice sang out: 'It's the high court of Francis Bernardone and his followers.'" God instructed Francis to abandon the military and return home, where he would be told what to do.

While Francis continued to party with his old friends, God had drawn his heart to a higher calling. While riding on horseback one day, he suddenly came upon a repulsive leper. At first, he retreated in disgust, but he couldn't pass him by. Instead, he dismounted the house and embraced the leper, then gave him all his money. Surely, failing to embrace this poor leper would have been a failure to embrace Christ himself. Indeed, it was in the crumbling chapel of St. Damien that Francis heard Christ speak from the cross, commanding him, "Go, rebuild my church, which you can see has fallen into ruins."

In his saintly zeal, Francis started the work of rebuilding this chapel. It was literally falling apart, after all. He immediately went and sold some of his father's inventory of cloth and one of his horses to raise money for the church. Naturally, his father was angry, and Francis escaped to a cave for a month to avoid him. Upon returning to the city, a crowd pelted Francis with mud and stones, mocking him as a madman. Pietro forced him home, beat him, and locked him bounded in a dark closet.

While the gold was recovered since the priest at St. Damien refused to accept it, Pietro also wanted Francis to forgoe his inheritence. Brought before the bishop, Francis -- who was once destined in the world's eyes to inherit all the wealth Assisi could offer -- stripped himself of his clothes and handed them to this father, declaring, "I have called you my father on earth. From now on, I desire to say only 'Our Father, who art in heaven."

Francis continued working on the restoration of St. Damien's and two abandoned chapels near Assisi, begging for stones and personally putting them in place, while also caring for the lepers. Apparently he didn't leave much room for interpretation when God's Word seemed to speak directly to him. After hearing the Gospel message of Jesus instructing the disciples to carry no gold or silver, shoes, nor a staff for the journey, but to go out preaching repentance and announcing the Kingdom of God, Francis rid himself of what little he still owned. Now he wore merely a coarse, brown tunic tied around him with a knotted rope -- the clothing of the poorest peasants. Out in the countryside, he preached penance, brotherly love, and peace. Francis soon began attracting followers who shed everything they owned to take up a life of service and preaching the Gospel.

This movement, eventually developing into the Franciscan Order, did rebuild the Church -- not so much physically, but spiritually. In the midst of widespread corruption within the Church hierarchy, God used Francis to inspire Christians to lives of sacrificial love for God and neighbor. And that mysterious vision of shields and trophies wasn't for earthly battles won as a knight, but for the thousands of souls delivered from darkness by Francis and his followers.

In addition to the ordes, he was an active missionary travelling even as far as personally visiting the Sultan of Egypt during the midst of the Crusades. Francis also started the tradition of building Nativity scenes and was the first person to receive the stigmata. He died naked on the bare ground of a hut, covered only by a borrowed cloth, but had gained the favor of God and even the same citizens of Assisi who once stoned him as a madman. Therefore, I call him the richest man in Assisi.

1 comment:

Sean said...

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Thanks for something new.