Before His Conversion
Lesson One—A Man Held in Benediction
Lesson: In 1260, thirty-four years after the death of Saint Francis, the Franciscan Order held a general chapter in Narbonne. At that time, the Minister General was Saint Bonaventure, who has subsequently come to be known as the “Seraphic Doctor of the Church.” At that general chapter, the chapter members asked Saint Bonaventure to write a new “Life of Saint Francis,” which would be used as the official and only biography of their beloved founder. Saint Bonaventure completed this work and formally presented it to the friars at the general chapter of Pisa in 1263.
Saint Bonaventure begins his biography of Saint Francis by stating, “There was a man in the city of Assisi, by name Francis, whose memory is blessed…” This opening sentence of the “Life of Saint Francis” offers a lot to ponder as we begin our lessons and reflections on this holy man of God.
Saint Bonaventure was only five years old when Francis died in 1226. Even though Bonaventure did not become a Franciscan until 1243, seventeen years after Francis’s death, he came to know Francis well. He listened to many lectures on Saint Francis, studied the Franciscan Rule, listened to stories, conversed with his companions, visited his hermitages, and saw the effect that this humble and poor man had upon the people of his time. Perhaps it was this last experience that led him to begin his biography of Francis with those words, “…whose memory is blessed.”
Why was the mere memory of Saint Francis “blessed”? Why, when people spoke of him, were they excited, inspired, and drawn to God? What was it that enabled this man of poverty and simplicity to spark not only the conversion of a nation, but an entire world?
Even in our day and age, some 800 years later, Saint Francis is still one of the most beloved saints of our Church. His “memory” still inspires, evokes zeal, offers hope, and offers us a model for holiness.
Saint Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor of the Church, did not know Francis personally, but he knew the memory of Saint Francis. He knew him through his works and the experiences of his first followers.
Reflection: Consider your own life and the effect that you will, or will not, one day have upon the memory of others. What will they say about you? Will your life continue to inspire and offer hope long after you physically leave this world? What legacy will you leave behind?
As you begin these lessons and reflections on the life of Saint Francis, be open to the possibilities God has set before you. Saint Francis’s memory is not a “blessed” one because he sought to do great things. Rather, he is blessed because he sought to do the small, “insignificant” and humble things God called him to do with great love. First and foremost, he sought to serve the will of God every day of his life with absolute fervor and resolve. You, too, must seek to live the holy will of God, even in the smallest and most humble of ways throughout your life. If you do this, the memories you leave behind will live on as benediction for generations to come.
Saint Francis, you left a blessed memory in the minds of your first followers, and you continue to bless the people of today by the witness of your life. Pray for me, that I may also seek to be an instrument of true inspiration for all who know me today and for many years to come. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Two—An Untamed Personality
Lesson: Great saints are not born saints; they choose to become saints. Such is the case of young Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, nicknamed “Francesco” (The Frenchman) by his father. From his youth, Francis had a magnetic and worldly personality. He loved to tell jokes, act with spontaneity, indulge in worldly vanities, dress luxuriously, sing boisterously, drink excessively with friends, and be the life of the party. Many thought he was destined for greatness, just not the greatness he ultimately achieved as a saint.
There was also a kind and naturally pleasant side to Francis. He was generous, rather than greedy, amid his worldly indulgence. He always cared about the poor, even as he enjoyed the “good” things of life. Perhaps it was especially this natural goodness, mixed with a flair for the vanities of life, that added to his magnetic personality.
Francis could have been very successful following in his father’s footsteps as a wealthy and respected merchant. He had the talent to do so had he desired that path of life. His father sought societal status by working hard to grow his business, but this form of status was not Francis’s ambition. Instead, he simply wanted to love life and enjoy its pleasures without the burden of the hard work of the family business. He found much greater pleasure in his social life and flamboyant lifestyle. Fun, honor, charm, and laughter were much more important to Francis than hard work.
Reflection: Some saints were remarkably holy from their childhood, such as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Many others embraced the world before turning fully to the Lord. Saint Francis was one of the latter souls.
Francis’s indulgent lifestyle as a youth should especially be a reminder that there is hope for all who still run after the attractions and vanities of the world. Deep down, everyone wants happiness. The problem is that we are often misguided in our attempts to find that happiness. Some seek to fulfill it through financial success, others through worldly esteem, and still others through pleasures of the flesh. And though these forms of “success” and pleasure might not always be sinful in every way, they are never the source of fulfillment and happiness in life.
Reflect upon that which you desire and run after as a source of happiness. What dreams are you chasing? How have you allowed yourself to be misguided by the vanities of the world? What false promise of happiness have you believed? As you ponder this, allow the missteps of Francesco of Assisi to remind you that nothing will satisfy you, except for the perfect will of God.
Dear Saint Francis, during your early life, you sought many false and fleeting pleasures. You were ambitious for the many fun things in life. However, the emptiness of this fleeting life left you searching for more. Pray for me, especially when I turn to those passing pleasures that never fully satisfy. May I follow your path of ultimately turning to the only thing that gives satisfaction in life: the will of God. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Three—A Generous Spirit
Lesson: One day, when Francis was working with his father selling cloth, a poor beggar entered their shop to beg for alms. In the past, Francis had been generous with poor beggars, but this time he threw the man out of the shop at his father’s direction.
Shortly after sending the poor man away, Francis regretted his actions and ran after the man, giving him a generous number of coins. The man was grateful. With this incident, Francis vowed to never refuse anyone in need again.
While, at this time, Francis had not yet fully given himself over to the love of God and neighbor, he had begun to discover a generous spirit within his heart. Though he loved the good and easy life, he also found that he could not resist being generous to those in need. In this natural “weakness,” God’s love became strong.
Reflection: Because we are all sinners, we easily tend toward selfishness, but deep down within each of us is the presence of God calling us to love. Sometimes we allow that spiritual desire to remain deep down, hidden and clouded by sin. The goal must be to discover that which God places in our hearts to allow His hidden grace to become manifest and transform our lives.
When you look into your own heart, what do you see? What has God placed within you that is waiting to be discovered and fulfilled? Look beyond that which is sinful to discover the presence of God and His holy will. Perhaps, like Saint Francis, you will discover a deep love for the poor. Or perhaps God will manifest His love in you through a love of prayer, a desire to serve others, care for your family, or some other unique charism of love. Don’t ignore that which God places within you. Seek to let it become manifest in your life so that the will of God will be fulfilled in you.
Saint Francis, you had a natural compassion for those who were poor and in need. Though you struggled with being selfish at times, your compassion ultimately won out and led you to a radical generosity to those you daily encountered. Pray for me, that I may allow God’s grace to work on my human nature and transform the many good desires I have. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Four—“Glory and Honor”
Lesson: At the time of Francis’s birth, the town of Assisi was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire and was governed by the nobility. The nobles were landowners, which up until that time was the measure of wealth, power, and the highest social class. However, Francis’s family, as well as others in Assisi, were merchants. Francis’s father sold cloth for a profit and measured his wealth not in land but coins. This form of wealth was new and was a cause of disunity between the merchant class and the landowning nobility.
In the year 1203 or 1204, when Francis was in his late teenage years, he joined a group of fellow citizens who stormed the great castle overlooking the city of Assisi, driving the nobility out of Assisi and into the neighboring town of Perugia as exiles. Perugia was under papal control, whereas Assisi had been under the emperor. But the citizens of Assisi desired their independence from both.
When Francis was about 20 years old, civil war had been intermittently raging between the two rival towns. During one of the battles, Francis joined the fight. His father gave him a horse and dressed him in fine armor, sending him on his way. The battle was over a small piece of land bordering the two towns, but Francis had selfish motivations for the battle. He dreamt of the “glory and honor” that came with being a great knight. Francis and his father knew that if Francis could be victorious in this battle, he might eventually be able to join other more important battles and obtain the glory of knighthood. If Francis became a knight, the social status of his entire family would be elevated, and they would all enjoy greater honor and societal recognition, which was something that he and his father both greatly desired. Though Francis’s desire was more for himself, his father’s desire was for a means to a greater status for his entire family.
Reflection: Oftentimes, we all dream of “glory and honor.” We long to accomplish heroic feats and to receive recognition from others. Societal status, prestige, wealth, and honors are very seductive. In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with status, prestige, wealth, and honor. But when they become our focus and we allow ourselves to be seduced by these worldly desires, we will never be able to achieve the true honor and glory God desires for us.
True honor is found in sanctity, holiness, and union with the will of God. True honor is found in living sacrificially, in union with, and in imitation of Jesus Himself. The greatest “status” we can ever achieve is to become one who sacrifices all for the love of God and neighbor. When we seek selfish honor, we live like fools, relying upon the opinions of others as the measure of our worth.
Reflect, today, upon how concerned you are with the opinions of the world. Do you allow worldly glory, honor, wealth, and status to determine your value and dignity? Or do you humbly seek to lower yourself, laying down your life out of love for others, seeking only the pure and holy will of God for your life, no matter what it is? Allow the mistaken, youthful selfishness of Francis of Assisi to keep you from making the same mistake that he made.
Saint Francis, early in your life you desired worldly glory and honor. You sought to do great things in order to be recognized for that societal greatness. But God had plans for you beyond your imagination. He sought to bestow upon you true greatness flowing from a life of sacrificial love, humility, and poverty. Pray for me, that I may seek only those things that bring about the glory and honor of God and His perfect will. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Five—Joy in Imprisonment
Lesson: The battle that Francis fought against Perugia did not go as hoped. Many of the soldiers from Assisi were slaughtered on the battlefield. But Francis, clothed in fine armor and riding a horse, was taken captive under the presumption that the Perugians would be able to obtain a nice ransom for his life. Thus, Francis and the other knights from Assisi were imprisoned for a year.
While in prison, the knights were grumpy, angry, and miserable. One particular knight was especially unbearable and was shunned by all the other knights. However, even though Francis was beaten, ridiculed, endured countless cold nights, and fell in and out of serious illness, he took particular interest in this unhappy knight and relentlessly sought his friendship.
Throughout their year-long imprisonment, Francis surprised, and even eventually impressed, his fellow prisoners by his jovial personality and joyful endurance of the misery. Francis’s naturally happy disposition was not lost to the chains and suffering. He sang, joked, and continually sought to lighten the mood. Though Francis did not yet have a deep faith in God, he did have his natural charisma and positive outlook on life. After a year of imprisonment, Assisi pledged allegiance to the pope, and Francis’s father paid the ransom necessary to set him free.
Reflection: Grace is a gift from God to help us endure suffering in life. But even before grace is given, God has given us another gift: the gift of our human nature. Our fallen and sinful human nature is still good, and there are many natural gifts we can use to endure whatever befalls us in life.
Francis was naturally jovial, and he allowed this natural gift to become a source of joy during his year of severe suffering. He lifted the spirits of others, even though they initially ridiculed and mocked him. He was not defeated in spirit but remained victorious through it all.
Reflect upon the natural gifts God has given to you. Perhaps you are not naturally jovial like Francis was, but you do have natural gifts. And though natural gifts do not compare to the greater gift of divine grace, our natural gifts are, nonetheless, from God. Reflect upon the ways that you can use those gifts in life, especially in the more difficult moments you endure. And if you allow grace to build upon your human nature, your strength will be magnified beyond belief.
Saint Francis, your natural gifts were of great value to you and the other soldiers during your long year of imprisonment and suffering. Pray for me, that I may allow the gifts that I have been given to become a foundation for the love of others and the fulfillment of the holy will of God. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Six—The Effects of Battle, Illness, and Prison
Lesson: While in prison, Francis became severely ill. Some speculate that he contracted malaria and tuberculosis. There were many days that his fellow prisoners thought he would die.
Once released, Francis recovered slowly under the tender care of his mother who nursed him back to full health. But his illness and imprisonment changed him. Though he suffered physically, his greatest suffering was more mental and emotional.
In today’s language, one might say he was depressed, in shock, or suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. His memory of the battle, the brutality of the prison guards, and the cold and gloomy surroundings of the prison left him struggling for months. He spent most of his time in his bedroom, alone and quiet. His father was impatient with him, wanting him to get back to work at the family business.
Reflection: Like all of us, Francis was susceptible to the anguish of mental and emotional suffering. What he endured in the bloody battle and his year-long imprisonment was not easily forgotten. He needed time to heal and recover from the toll it took on him.
One might think that a saint should be able to “bounce back” immediately. Well, even though that might be true if one were perfect in every way, Francis was not yet a saint. He had not yet been transformed completely in Christ. As a result, he had to work through his struggles like all of us do.
Reflect upon the struggles and sufferings you have endured in life that you still need to “bounce back” from. What experience holds you bound? What occupies your thoughts and leaves you depressed or confused? Perhaps the loss of a loved one has left you with a deep wound. Or family dysfunction has led to anger and despair. Perhaps some other traumatic experience has left you distant and hurting. Time, grace, and the truth of Christ will heal. But healing will not happen overnight. Sure, if you were already perfect in every virtue, then you would be able to heal quickly and completely. But few in this life are perfect in every virtue. If you are among the many who still lack perfection, then hold onto the hope that God can help you heal. Walk the path toward that healing and do not stop. In time, your suffering will become a source of your greatest strength and will help you to blossom into the saint God wants you to become.
Saint Francis, you endured much, especially on a mental and emotional level. But in that suffering, hope was born, and you continued to move forward toward the healing that God had in store for you. Pray for me, that I may also allow God to heal me of all that burdens me. May these struggles become the source of God’s healing in my life. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Seven—The Lord or the World?
Lesson: Early in the year 1205, about a year after Francis was released from prison, while he was still enduring the psychological effects of his experience, his recovery was helped by a newfound excitement over an invitation he received to return to battle. This time, a wealthy warlord named Walter of Brienne was gathering troops to conquer lands in southern Italy that had been taken from the papacy unlawfully. Since this battle was a crusade for the Holy Father himself, Francis and his father saw this as an ideal opportunity for Francis to take one giant step toward becoming a knight and, thus, raise the social status of his entire family by obtaining that military dignity.
In preparation for this new battle, Francis’s father provided him with a new horse, fine armor, and a sword. However, as he embarked upon his journey, Francis had two successive dreams. First, he dreamt that he was brought into a large hall full of armor and swords all marked with a cross. When he asked what they were for, he heard a voice say that they were for him and his soldiers. Upon awakening, Francis was unable to interpret the dream but presumed it meant that he would become a great knight.
In a second dream, Francis heard a voice ask him, “Who can do more for you? The master or the servant? The rich man or poor man?” Francis quickly answered, “The rich master!” The voice then asked, “Then why do you leave the Lord for the servant and the God of infinite riches for the poor mortal?” When Francis inquired further from the voice, he was told to return to Assisi because God was giving him a great mission of a spiritual nature. Upon waking, Francis knew what he was to do. He turned around and began to return home to Assisi to further discern how he would best serve the infinite Lord of all and fulfill this new mission.
Reflection: Francis was faced with a pivotal decision. He deeply desired glory and honor, but this second dream was clear. God had a great spiritual mission for him to fulfill. Most people, upon receiving such a mission, would greatly struggle with the idea of radically abandoning all they had previously hoped for. But Francis did not hesitate.
God used his desire for greatness to motivate Francis to do great things for Him. For Francis, greatness was the goal, but he was not inflexibly tied to his immature ideas of greatness. Once God gave him a new direction, he quickly abandoned all to embrace the beginnings of his new vocation.
God wants true greatness, true glory, and true honor for each one of us. And each one of us desires that within our hearts. What’s important is to choose God’s vision of greatness over the world’s. The greatness, glory, and honor offered by the world are of little or no value when they are compared to the greatness, glory, and honor of the will of God. Francis seemed to understand this fact when God spoke to him. He immediately made the right and radical choice.
Reflect upon the ways that God is calling you to greatness. How is it that God wants you to be honored and share in His glory for all eternity? Do not hesitate to choose His will over the false and seductive promises of the world. Follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis, and you will be eternally grateful you did.
Saint Francis, you were faced with a decision. Should you choose the glory of the world or the glory that the infinite God had in mind for you? You chose the will of God even though you did not know where that would ultimately lead. Pray for me, that I may also choose God above all things. May I hear His gentle voice calling me and leading me, and may I respond with great generosity and trust. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.