Handful of Stars


21. Francis D'assisi's Text


Oscar Wilde declares that, since Christ went to the cross, the world has produced only one genuine Christian, and his name is Francis d'Assisi. Certainly he is the one saint whom all the churches have agreed to canonize; the most vividly Christlike man who has ever submitted his character to the scrutiny of public criticism. His life, as Green says in his Short History of the English People, his life falls like a stream of light athwart the darkness of the mediæval ages. Matthew Arnold speaks of him as a figure of most magical potency and sweetness and charm. Francis called men back to Christ and brought Christ back to men. 'All Europe woke with a start,' Sabatier affirms, 'and whatever was best in humanity leaped to follow his footsteps.'


A blithe saint was Francis. He loved to laugh; he loved to sing; and he loved to hear the music of laughter and of song as it rippled from the lips of others. Every description that has come down to us lays stress on the sunshine that played about his lofty forehead and open countenance. The days came when, though still in the heyday of early manhood, his handsome figure was gaunt and wasted; his fine face furrowed with suffering and care; his virile strength exhausted by ceaseless toil, wearisome journeyings, and exacting ministries of many kinds. But, emaciated and worn, his face never for a moment lost its radiance. He greeted life with a cheer and took leave of it with a smile.

His youth was a frolic; his very sins were pleasant sins. His winsomeness drew to him the noblest youths and fairest maidens of Assisi. The lithe and graceful figure of Francis, with his dark, eloquent but sparkling eyes, his wealthy shock of jet black hair, his soft, rich, sonorous voice and his gay but faultless attire, was the soul and center of every youthful revel. He was, as Sir James Stephen says, foremost in every feat of arms, first in every triumph of scholarship, and the gayest figure in every festival. 'The brightest eyes in Assisi, dazzled by so many graces, and the most reverend brows there, acknowledging such early wisdom, were alike bent with admiration towards him; and all conspired to sustain his father's confidence that, in his person, the family name would rival the proudest and most splendid in Italy's illustrious past.' His bewitching personality, his rollicking gaiety, his brooding thoughtfulness, his dauntless courage and his courtly ways swept all men off their feet; he had but to lead and they instinctively followed; he commanded and they unquestionably obeyed. He was nick-named the Flower of Assisi. He loved to be happy and to make others happy. 'Yet,' as one Roman Catholic biographer remarks, 'he did not yet know where true happiness was to be found.' He was twenty-four when he made that sensational discovery. He found the source of true happiness in the last place in the world in which he would have thought of looking for it. He found it at the Cross! And, in perfect consistency with his youthful conduct, he spent the rest of his days--he died at forty-four--in pointing men to the Crucified. As a youth he had done his best to radiate laughter and song among all the young people of Assisi; it was therefore characteristic of him that, having discovered the fountain-head of all abiding satisfaction, he should make it the supreme object of his maturer years to share his sublime secret with the whole wide world.


London was a village in the time of Francis d'Assisi, and the baying of the wolves was the only sound heard in the forests that then covered the sites of our great modern cities. Whilst King John was signing Magna Carta, Francis was at Rome seeking recognition for his brotherhood of friars. It was the age of the Crusaders and the Troubadours. Yet, as I read the moving record of his great spiritual experience, I forget that I have invaded a period in which English history had scarcely begun. Francis has his affinities in every land and in every age. Francis died four hundred years before John Bunyan was born; yet, as I read Bunyan's description of Christian at the Cross, I seem to be perusing afresh the story of the conversion of Francis. The language fits exactly. Strike out the word 'Christian,' and substitute the word 'Francis,' and the passage could be transferred bodily from the Pilgrim's Progress to the Life of Francis d'Assisi.

The conversion of Francis occurred five hundred years before Dr. Watts wrote his noble hymn, 'When I survey the wondrous Cross'; yet, without knowing the words, Francis sang that song in his heart over and over and over again.

The conversion of Francis was effected six hundred years before the conversion of Mr. Spurgeon. Yet that conversion in the ruined church of St. Damian's in Italy is the very counterpart of that later conversion in the little chapel at Artillery Street, Colchester.

'Look!' cried the preacher at Colchester, 'look to Jesus! Look to Jesus!' 'I looked,' says Mr. Spurgeon; 'I looked and was saved!'

'Francis looked to the Crucified,' says his biographer. 'It was a look of faith; a look of love; a look that had all his soul in it; a look which did not attempt to analyze, but which was content to receive. He looked, and, looking, entered into life.'

You can take the sentences from the Life of Francis and transfer them to the Life of Spurgeon, or vice versa, and they will fit their new environment with the most perfect historical accuracy.


As, with your face towards Spello, you follow the windings of the Via Francesca, you will find the little church of St. Damian's on the slope of the hill outside the city walls. It is reached by a few minutes' walk over a stony path, shaded with olive-trees, amid odors of lavender and rosemary. 'Standing on the top of a hillock, the entire plain is visible through a curtain of cypresses and pines which seem to be trying to hide the humble hermitage and set up an ideal barrier between it and the world.' Francis was particularly fond of this wooded walk and of the sanctuary to which it led. In pensive moments, when it was more than usually evident to him that, with all his merriment, he had not yet discovered the fountain of true gladness, he turned his face this way.

The crucifix at St. Damian's--which is still preserved in the sacristy of Santa Chiara--has features peculiarly its own. It differs from other images of the kind: 'In most of the sanctuaries of the twelfth century, the Crucified One, frightfully lacerated, with bleeding wounds, appears to seek to inspire only grief and compunction; that of St. Damian, on the contrary, has an expression of unutterable calm and gentleness; instead of closing the eyelids in eternal surrender to the weight of suffering, it looks down in self-forgetfulness, and its pure, clear gaze says, not "See how I suffer!" but "Come unto Me!"'

That, at any rate, is what it said to Francis on that memorable day. With an empty and a hungry heart he kneeled before it. 'O Lord Jesus,' he cried, 'shed Thy light upon the darkness of my mind!' And then an extraordinary thing happened. The Saviour to whom he prayed was no longer an inanimate image; but a living Person! 'An answer seemed to come from the tender eyes that looked down on him from the Cross,' says Canon Adderley. 'Jesus heard his cry, and Francis accepted the dear Lord as his Saviour and Master. A real spiritual union took place between him and his Divine Lord. He took Him for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death and after death, for ever.' 'This vision marks,' Sabatier says, 'the final triumph of Francis. His union with Christ is consummated; from this time he can exclaim with the mystics of every age, "My beloved is mine and I am His." From that day the remembrance of the Crucified One, the thought of the love which had triumphed in immolating itself, became the very center of his religious life, the soul of his soul. For the first time, Francis had been brought into direct, personal, intimate contact with Jesus Christ.' 'It was,' Canon Adderley says again, 'no mere intellectual acceptance of a theological proposition, but an actual self-committal to the Person of Jesus; no mere sentimental feeling of pity for the sufferings of Christ, or of comfort in the thought that, through those sufferings, he could secure a place in a future heaven, but a real, brave assumption of the Cross, an entering into the fellowship of the Passion of Christ, a determination to suffer with Him and to spend and be spent in His service.'

Francis never forgot that moment. His whole soul overflowed with the intensity of his affection for his Saviour. To the end of his days he could never think of the Cross without tears; yet he never knew whether those tears were prompted by admiration, pity, or desire.

When he arose and left the little sanctuary, he felt, as Bunyan's pilgrim felt, that he had lost his load, and lost it for ever.

But he felt that he had assumed another. He had taken up the Cross. He had devoted himself to its service. 'God forbid,' he cried, 'that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.' When, five centuries later, Isaac Watts surveyed the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died, his contemplation led to the same resolve:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

And so, once more, without knowing the words, Francis sang in his soul that song of consecration.

'I looked and looked and looked again!' say Francis and Spurgeon, six centuries apart.

'It was very surprising to me that the sight of the Cross should thus ease me of my burden!' say Francis and Bunyan, with four centuries between.

'Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the death of Christ my God!' cry Francis and Isaac Watts, undivided by a chasm of five hundred years.

In the presence of the Cross all the lands are united and all the ages seem as one.


'God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.' In the one cross Francis saw--as Paul did--three crucifixions.

He saw on the Cross his Lord crucified for him.

He saw on the Cross the world crucified to him.

He saw on the Cross himself crucified to the world.

From that hour Francis knew nothing among men save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Laying aside the gay clothing of which he was so fond, he donned a peasant's cloak and tied it at the waist with a piece of cord--the garb that afterwards became the habit of the Franciscan Order. He then set out to initiate the greatest religious revival and the greatest missionary movement of the mediæval ages--the enterprise that paved the way for the Renaissance and the Reformation. Beginning at his native town, he journeyed through the classic cities of Italy, unfolding to all sorts and conditions of men the wonders of the Cross. Although the hideous sight and loathsome smell of leprosy had always filled him with unconquerable disgust, he gladly ministered to the lepers, in the hope that, by so doing, he might impart to them the infinite consolations of the Cross. Worn as he soon became, he set out to tramp from land to land in order that he might proclaim through Europe and Asia the matchless message of the Cross. In his walks through the lonely woods he loved to proclaim to the very birds the story of the Cross. It is another link with Bunyan. Bunyan felt that he should like to tell the crows on the ploughed fields the story of his soul's salvation; but Francis actually did it. He would sit down in the forest: wait until the oaks and beeches and elms about him were filled with sparrows and finches and wrens; and then tell of the dying love of Him who made them. And, as they flew away, he loved to fancy that they formed themselves into a cross-shaped cloud above him, and that the songs that they sang were the rapt expression of their adoring worship. In his long journeyings he was often compelled to subsist on roots and nuts and berries. Meeting a kindred spirit in the woods he one day suggested that they should commune together. His companion looked about him in bewilderment. But Francis pointed to a rock. 'See!' he said, 'the rock shall be our altar; the berries shall be our bread; the water in the hollow of the rock shall be our wine!' It took very little to turn the thoughts of Francis to the Cross; he easily lifted his soul into communion with the Crucified. Whenever and wherever Francis opened his lips, the Cross was always his theme. 'He poured into my heart the sweetness of Christ!' said his most eminent convert, and thousands could have said the same. Feeling the magnitude of his task and the meagerness of his powers, he called upon his converts to assist him, and sent them out, two by two, to tell of the ineffable grace of the Cross. In humanness and common sense he founded his famous Order. His followers were to respect domestic ties; they were to regard all work as honorable, and to return an equivalent in labor for all that they received. They were to husband their own powers; to regard their bodies as sacred, and on no account to exhaust their energies in needless vigils and fastings. The grey friars soon became familiar figures in every town in Europe. They endured every conceivable privation and dared every form of danger in order that, like their founder, they might tell of the deathless love of the Cross.

Francis himself did not live long to lead them; but in death as in life his eyes were on the Cross. Fifty of his disciples knelt around his bed at the last. He begged them to read to him the 19th chapter of John's gospel--the record of the Crucifixion. 'In living or in dying,' he said, 'God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!'


Francis d'Assisi and Matthew Arnold appear to have little or nothing in common. Francis was emotional, mystical, seraphic; Arnold was cultured, cold, and critical. Yet Francis threw an extraordinary spell over the scholarly mind of Arnold, and, dissimilar as were their lives, in death they were not divided.

'O my Lord Jesus,' prayed Francis, 'I beseech Thee, grant me two graces before I die; the first, that I may feel in my soul and in my body, as far as may be, the pain that Thou, sweet Lord, didst bear in the hours of Thy most bitter passion; the second, that I may feel in my heart, as far as may be, that exceeding love wherewith Thou, O Son of God, didst willingly endure such agony for us sinners.'

His prayer was answered. As the sun was setting on a lovely autumn evening, he passed away, sharing the anguish, yet glorying in the triumph of the Cross. The song of the birds to whom he had so often preached flooded the air with the melody he loved so well.

On another beautiful evening, nearly seven centuries later, Matthew Arnold passed suddenly away. It was a Sunday, and he was spending it with his brother-in-law at Liverpool. In the morning they went to Sefton Park Church. Dr. John Watson (Ian Maclaren) preached on The Shadow of the Cross. He used an illustration borrowed from the records of the Riviera earthquake. In one village, he said, everything was overthrown but the huge way-side crucifix, and to it the people, feeling the very ground shuddering beneath their feet, rushed for shelter and protection. After the sermon, most of the members of the congregation remained for the Communion; but Arnold went home. As he came down to lunch, a servant heard him singing softly:

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

In the afternoon he went for a walk with his relatives. He had, he told them, seldom been so deeply impressed by a sermon as by Dr. Watson's. He particularly mentioned the story of the Riviera crucifix. 'Yes,' he said, earnestly, 'the Cross remains, and, in the straits of the soul, makes its ancient appeal.' An hour later his heart had ceased to beat.

'God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross!' cried Francis.

'The Cross remains, and, in the straits of the soul, makes its ancient appeal!' exclaims Matthew Arnold.

For the Cross, as Francis discovered that great day, is the true source of all abiding happiness; the Cross is the stairway that Jacob saw, leading up from earth to heaven; the Cross has a charm for men of every clime and every time; it is the boast of the redeemed; the rock of ages; the hope of this world and the glory of the world to come.