The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 20

Saint Francis of Assisi

BAREFOOTED in the snow, bareheaded in the rain, Saint Francis wandered up and down the world smiling for the great love that was in his heart.

And because it grew from love the smile of Saint Francis was a wonderful thing. It opened the hearts of men and coaxed the secrets of their thoughts. It led human folk whithersoever Saint Francis willed. It drew the beasts to his side and the birds to nestle in his bosom. It was like a magic charm.

Great princes knew his smile and they obeyed its command to be generous and good. The sick and sorrowful knew his smile. It meant healing and comfort. Then they rose and blessed God in the name of Saint Francis. The wretched beggars in the streets of Assisi knew it. To them the smile of "the Lord's own beggar" meant help and sympathy. Like them he was poor and homeless, often ill and hungry. They wondered that he could smile. But he said, "It does not become a servant of God to have an air of melancholy and a face full of trouble." So they also tried to smile, poor fellows. But how different it was!

The little lambs to whom he gave his special protection and care knew the smile of Saint Francis. Once he met two woolly lambkins who were being carried to market. He never had any money, but taking off his cloak, which was all he had to part with, he gave it to buy their lives. And he carried the lambs home in his bosom.

The wilder beasts beyond the mountains, the fierce wolves and shy foxes of Syria and Spain whom he met in his wanderings knew Saint Francis. Here was a brother who was not afraid of them and whom they could trust in return, a brother who understood and sympathized. The birds in the trees knew also, and his coming was the signal of peace. Then they sang with Francis, but he was the sweetest singer of them all.

Besides these living things the green fields of Italy, the trees, the meadows, the brooks, the flowers all knew the smile of Saint Francis. It meant to them many things which only a poet can tell. But Francis understood, for he was a poet.

Upon all alike his face of love beamed tenderly. For Saint Francis of Assisi was a little brother of the whole great world and of all created things. Not only did his heart warm to Brother Sheep and Sister Bees, to his Brother Fish and his little Sisters the Doves, but he called the Sun and Wind his brothers and the Moon and Water his sisters. Of all the saints about whom the legends tell, Francis was the gentlest and most loving. And if

"He prayeth best who loveth best All things both great and small,"

the prayers of Saint Francis must have been very dear to Him who "made and loveth all."

* * * * *

There was none so poor as Francis. Not a penny did he have, not a penny would he touch. Let them be given to those who could not smile, he said. His food he begged from door to door, broken crusts for a single poor meal; more he would not take. His sleeping place was the floor or the haymow, the ruined church, whatever lodging chance gave him. Oftenest he slept upon the bare ground with a stone for his pillow. He wanted to be poor because Christ was poor, and he was trying to live like his Master.

In his coarse brown gown, tied about the waist with a rope, without hat or shoes he wandered singing, smiling. The love which beamed from him like radiance from a star shone back from every pair of eyes which looked into his own. For all the world loved Francis in the time of the Crusades. And even to-day, seven hundred years since that dear beggar passed cheerily up and down the rough Italian roads,--even to-day there are many who love him like a lost elder brother.

Saint Francis preached to all lessons of charity and peace. His were simple words, for he had not the wisdom of many books. But he knew the book of the human heart from cover to cover. His words were like fire, they warmed and wakened. No one could resist the entreaty and the love that was in them. So thousands joined the Society of Little Brothers of which he was the founder, and became his helpers in works of charity and holiness.

His church was out of doors in the beautiful world that he loved, in mountain, field, or forest, wherever he happened to be wandering. Sometimes he preached by the candle-light of stars. Often the cloistering trees along the roadside made his chapel, and the blue sky was the only roof between him and heaven. Often his choir was of the brother birds in the branches and his congregation a group of brother beasts. For he preached to them also who, though they spoke a different language, were yet children of his Father. And in his little talks to them he always showed the courtesy which one brother owes another.

Once, on returning from a journey beyond the sea, he was traveling through the Venetian country, when he heard a great congregation of birds singing among the bushes. And he said to his companion, "Our sisters, the birds, are praising their Maker. Let us then go into their midst and sing." So they did this, and the birds did not fly away but continued to sing so loudly that the brothers could not hear each other. Then Saint Francis turned to the birds and said politely, "Sisters, cease your song until we have rendered our bounden praise to God." So the birds were still until the brothers had finished their psalm. But after that when it was again their turn the birds went on with their song.

* * * * *

At another time when he was preaching in the town of Alvia among the hills, the swallows flew about and twittered so loudly that the people could not hear Saint Francis' voice. The birds did not mean to be rude, however. So he turned to the swallows and saluted them courteously. "My sisters," he said, "it is now time that I should speak. Since you have had your say, listen now in your turn to the word of God and be silent till the sermon is finished." And again the birds obeyed the smile and the voice of him who loved them. Though whether they understood the grown-up sermon that followed, I cannot tell.

But this is the little sermon which he made one day for a congregation of birds who sat around him in the bushes listening.

"Brother Birds, greatly are ye bound to praise the Creator who clotheth you with feathers and giveth you wings to fly with and a purer air to breathe; and who careth for you who have so little care for yourselves."

It was not a long sermon, so the birds could not have grown tired or sleepy, and I am sure they understood every word. So after he had given them his blessing he let them go, and they went singing as he had bidden them.

* * * * *

Saint Francis preached the lessons of peace; he would not have cruelty or bloodshed among his human friends. And he also taught his beasts to be kind. He loved best the gentle lambs, one of which was almost always with him, and in his sermons he would point to them to show men what their lives should be. But there is a story told of the lesson he taught a wolf that shows what power the Saint had over the fiercer animals. There are many stories of wolves whom the saints made tame. But this wolf of Saint Francis was the most terrible of them all.

This huge and savage wolf had been causing great horror to the people of Gubbio. For in the night he not only stole sheep and cows from the farms, but he came and carried off men also for his dinner. So that people were afraid to go out of the town for fear of being gobbled up.

Now Saint Francis came. And he said, "I will go out and seek this wolf." But the townsfolk begged him not to go, for the good man was dear to them and they feared never to see him again. However, he was resolved and went forth from the gate.

He had gone but a little way when out rushed the wolf to meet him, with his mouth wide open, roaring horribly. Then Saint Francis made the sign of the cross and said gently:--

"Come hither, Brother Wolf. I command thee in Christ's behalf that thou do no evil to me nor to any one." And wonderful to say! The wolf grew tame and came like a lamb to lie at Saint Francis' feet.

Then Francis went on to rebuke him, saying that he deserved to be hung for his many sins, being a robber and a wicked murderer of men and beasts.

"But I wish, Brother Wolf," he said, "to make peace between thee and men; therefore vex them no more and they will pardon thee all thy past offenses, and neither dogs nor men will chase thee any more."

At this the wolf wagged his tail and bowed his head to show he understood. And putting his right paw in the hand of Saint Francis he promised never again to steal nor slay. Then like a gentle dog he followed the holy man to the market-place of the town, where great crowds of people had gathered to see what Saint Francis would do with the great beast, their enemy, for they thought he was to be punished. But Francis rose and said to them:--

"Hearken, dear brethren: Brother Wolf who is here before you has promised me that he will make peace with you and will never injure you in any way, if ye promise to give him day by day what is needful for his dinner. And I will be surety for him." Thereupon with a great shout all the people promised to give him his daily food. Again the wolf wagged his tail, flapped his long ears, bowed his head, and gave his paw to Saint Francis to show that he would keep his word. All the people saw him do this. And then there were shouts of wonder you may be sure, and great rejoicing because Saint Francis had saved them from this cruel beast, and had made a gentle friend of their dreaded enemy.

So after this the wolf lived two years at Gubbio and went about from door to door humbly begging his food like Saint Francis himself. He never harmed any one, not even the little children who teased and pulled him about. But all the people loved him and gave him what he liked to eat; and not even a dog would bark at his heels or growl at the friend of Saint Francis. So he lived to a good old age. And when after two years Brother Wolf died because he was so old, the citizens were very sorrowful. For not only did they miss the soft pat-pat of his steps passing through the city, but they grieved for the sorrow of Saint Francis in losing a kindly friend,--Saint Francis of whose saintliness and power the humble beast had been a daily reminder.

* * * * *

Francis could not bear to see a little brother in trouble or pain, and this the beasts knew very well. He would not willingly tread upon an insect, but would step aside and gently bid the Brother Worm depart in peace. The fish which a fisherman gave him he restored to the water, where it played about his boat and would not leave him till he bade it go.

Once again in the village of Gubbio a live baby hare was brought him as a present, for his breakfast. But when Francis saw the frightened look of the little creature held in the arms of one of the brothers, his heart ached with sympathy.

"Little Brother Leveret, come to me," he said. "Why hast thou let thyself be taken?" And the little fellow as if understanding the invitation jumped out of the friar's arms and ran to Francis, hiding in the folds of his gown. But when Francis took it out and set it free, very politely giving it permission to depart instead of staying to make a breakfast, it would not go. Again and again it returned nestling to its new-found friend, as if guessing that here at least it would be safe forever. But at last tenderly Saint Francis sent the good brother away with it into the wood, where it was safe once more among its little bob-tailed brothers and sisters.

* * * * *

Now after a life spent like Christ's in works of poverty, charity, and love, Saint Francis came at last to have one spot in the world which he could call his own. It was neither a church nor a convent, a cottage nor even a cell. It was only a bare and lonely mountain top where wild beasts lived and wild birds had a home. This retreat in the wilderness was the gift which Orlando, a rich nobleman, chose to make Saint Francis. And it was a precious gift indeed, sorely needed by the Lord's weary beggar. For he was worn with wandering; he was ill and weak, and his gentle eyes were growing dim so that he could not go along the winding ways. But he was happy still.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi

So one warm September day he went with some of his chosen brethren to take possession of their new home. They left the villages, the farms, and at last even the scattered shepherds' huts far below and behind them, and came into the quiet of the Italian hills. They climbed and climbed over the rocks and along the ravines, till they came in sight of the bald summit where Francis was to dwell. And here in happy weariness he paused to rest under an oak-tree and look about upon the beautiful scene.

But suddenly the air was filled with music, a chorus of trills and quavers and carols of the wildest joy. Then the air grew dark with whirring wings. The birds of the mountain were coming from everywhere to welcome home their brother. They flew to him by hundreds, perching on his head and shoulders; and when every other spot was covered they twittered into the hood of his brown mantle. The brothers stood about, wondering greatly, although they had seen Saint Francis in some such plight before. But the peasant who led the ass which had brought Saint Francis so far stood like one turned to stone, unable to believe his eyes. Here was a miracle the like of which he had never dreamed.

But Saint Francis was filled with gladness. "Dearest brethren," he said, "I think it must be pleasant to our Lord that we should dwell in this solitary place, since our brothers and sisters the birds are so glad of our coming."

And indeed, how could they help being glad of his coming, the dear, kind Saint? And how they hovered around the shelter of branches which the brethren built for him under a beech-tree on the very mountain top! One can picture them at morning, noon, and night joining in his songs of praise, or keeping polite silence while the holy man talked with God.

Many wonderful things happened upon the Monte Alverno while Saint Francis dwelt there. But none were more wonderful than the great love of Francis himself; his love which was so big and so wide that it wrapped the whole round world, binding all creatures more closely in a common brotherhood.

So that every man and every bird and every beast that lives ought to love the name of that dear Saint, their childlike, simple, happy little brother, Saint Francis of Assisi.