A detailed summary of
To show mercy
The conversion of Francis according to the Testament
by Pietro Maranesi OFM Cap
Facere misericordiam. La conversione di Francesco secondo il Testamento in Frate Franceso rivista di cultura Francescana 69 nuova serie (2003) 91-125
Prepared by Gary Devery OFM Cap
English translations for Franciscan sources are mainly from fraciscantradition.org especially using the three volume series, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (FA:ED), edited by Regis Armstrong, OFM Cap., Wayne Hellmann, OFM Conv., and William J Short, OFM, published between 1999-2001 and in Clare of Assisi: Early Documents (CA:ED), edited by Regis Armstrong, OFM Cap., and published in 2006.
Table of Contents
- I. The Lord gave me, Brother Francis…
- II. To begin doing penance
- III. And what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness… and I left the world
- IV. Conclusion
If one had to give an immediate answer to the question of what the turning point in Francis’ conversion was, one would most probably point to some of the marvellous episodes recounted by the biographers, such as the overwhelming and miraculous experience he had before the crucifix at San Damiano. Perhaps Francis, who was ill and close to death, may have been asked by some of his brothers what was the decisive event in his encounter with the Lord. His answer was very precise as well as surprising:
1The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. 2And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. 3And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.
In the rereading that the biographers give of the events of Francis’ conversion, the encounter with the lepers certainly does not occupy the central and decisive position that it had for Francis himself. In their texts the episode is presented primarily as an example of ascetic exercise made of humiliation and self-loathing, preparatory to the encounter with the will of God and the change of life placed instead in the episode of the hearing of the Gospel of the sending of the twelve apostles and especially in the apparition of the crucifix at San Damiano. Alongside setting aside the event of the lepers, there is a second operation carried out by the biographies, represented by the transformation in an epic direction, so to speak, of that event: the initial account of a period spent by Francis among the lepers (Testament, 1 Celano), is progressively replaced by the heroic-epic and marvellous episode of Francis kissing the leper (2 Celano, Bonaventure).
The encounter with the lepers, both for the decisive value for his life assigned to it by Francis, and for the historical characteristic that distinguish his account from from the hagiographic stereotypes of biographies, the brief narrative passage that opens the Testament is certainly an essential reference point in understanding the particular elements that characterise the vocation of Francis and his subsequent choices.
The reading that we intend to do of this famous text is in itself modest, because it simply seeks to address the apparent simplicity of the dictation of Francis to highlight a hypothesis of internal dynamics that seems to characterise the narrative. It will be a bit like trying to open a seed to understand the vital force present inside and hidden by its rough and simple covering. In the interesting pages dedicated by G. Miccoli to the strategic value of the Testament for the understanding of the Christian proposal of Francis, the author, dealing briefly with the account of the conversion, gives the following judgement of the event: “It is a question of an overall existential experience, without residues, so to speak, that invests the intellectual and emotional sphere, and that, being concretely realised, expresses and fixes the new values, the new criteria of judgement and behaviour antithetical to the current ones”. What happened during the time Francis spent among the lepers? And why was it so decisive and transforming for his life? What novelty did it produce in the way of thinking and feeling of the young Francis? By reading carefully the formulation used by Francis in recounting the event, it is possible to offer an ample, though certainly not exhaustive, solution to these questions.
Many authors have referred to the initial three verses of the Testament, dealing with the conversion of Francis and the criteria of life that emerged from that moment. However, it does not seem that a precise interpretation of the internal dynamics present in the formulation of the text itself has been proposed, a lack to be lamented also in the commentaries on the Testament, which have almost always been animated, above all, by spiritual interests, thereby losing the textual tension that runs through the short account. On the contrary, we would like to focus on the narrative structure and the words used by Francis in his account in order to grasp the decisive value assigned by the Saint to that event.
The examination of the three verses will be developed by following the three parts that seem to structure the textual fabric according to a typical scansion of a narrative process: the presentation of the two protagonists of the account, the description of the initial situation then upset by an unexpected event, and the positive conclusion of the facts that bring about a radical change in the life of one of the two protagonists.
At the beginning of his account the Saint places two protagonists: the Lord and Brother Francis: the Lord is the main actor who directs and determines the unfolding of events, while Francis is the actor who is involved in the unfolding of the history not only by allowing himself to be absorbed and managed by the flow of events, but also by responding and adhering to them through successive and repeated personal positions. In the close relationship between the two characters at the beginning of the Testament, the central element of the facts narrated by Francis is anticipated, seen and interpreted as events of his encounter with God.
At the beginning of the account is the Lord who “gave to [Francis] thus to begin doing penance”. It is God, who takes the initiative with Francis. However, it remains to be understood what Francis means by “gave me”, that is, what is the figure of God hidden behind this verb. In practice it will be necessary to give an interpretative solution to the apparent neutrality and ambiguity of the verb “gave”: is the God who addresses Francis the one who obliges and commands the young man to do something, and in this case to begin to do penance, or, on the contrary, is God the one who grants and gifts him the initiative of beginning to do penance? Two hypotheses and interpretative possibilities with obvious repercussions and consequences on the image of God and his way of acting in the life of Francis. Let us leave aside for now what we will read immediately afterwards, where Francis explains what “thus to begin to do penance” actually meant for him; in order to have a preliminary clue to guide the choice between the two possible translations, it is sufficient to dwell for now on the use made of the verb “dedit/gave” in the rest of the Testament. Linguistically, the expression “gave” certainly reveals Francis’ lexical poverty, a simplicity that not only characterises the whole Testament but constitutes one of the proofs of authenticity of the text. Of the 11 times that the verb occurs in the writings of Francis, 5 are in the Testament and in all cases there is the same linguistic use: “The Lord gave me: such faith in churches…, such faith in priests, … brothers,… to speak and write the Rule and these words simply and purely”. In all cases we are dealing with a gift, a gift made by God to Francis, a benign generosity of God’s initiative. It is within this semantic field that the initial expression must also be placed: the kindness and generosity of the Lord granted, permitted, gave to me brother Francis to begin to do penance.
This opening interpretation of the verb “gave” brings out a kind of initial contradiction between the gift nature of God’s intervention and the object then given, identified with “penance”. Why does Francis qualify the “to begin doing penance” as a “concession” of God? How can penance be defined as a gift and not instead as a burdensome imposition or as a preparatory gesture in order to be worthy of receiving a gift? The answer to this fundamental question, which is closely connected with the core of Francis’ account, will come from the reading of the following text, in which the Saint recounts what “to begin doing penance” consisted of. For now, it is sufficient to qualify the first protagonist of the account as the one who is moved by benignity and the desire to grant, to give something to Francis.
The second protagonist of this account is Brother Francis. The Saint frequently uses his name at the beginning or at the end of his writings: “frater Franciscus”, a use that undoubtedly denotes a strong and precise self-awareness. However, before outlining the characteristics of this self-awareness, it is necessary to establish the origin of this name, because it is from there that it will receive its characteristics. In this regard, the opening of the Testament comes to our aid: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis”: the Lord has called me by name to make a precise history with me, He has granted me, revealed to me, made me understand, working wonders and above all granting me a consciousness of myself born from His relating to me. This could be the translation of the strategic and oft-repeated use of his name: the self-awareness of a man who has a name not because he “made a name for himself” as men tried to do when they built the tower of Babel, but because someone called him by that name.
This theological origin of the name is reflected in the content of Francis’ self-awareness. A glance at his writings, and in particular at the Testament, reveals two directions that, if at first they seem contrary to each other, on closer inspection they will be complementary in the characterisation of Francis’ personality born of his encounter with God. He is the “little brother Francis”, as he repeats twice at the end of the Testament (v. 39 and 41), to which he adds, in the second usage, the qualification “servant”. The same qualifications recur in the other writings in which he uses his name: at the beginning of the Letter to all the custodians Francis presents himself as “your servant and little one”, qualifications replaced in the second draft by the adjective “least”; the same happens in the second draft of the Letter to the faithful which opens with the terms “servant and subject” and closes by the qualification “lesser servant”; In the Letter to the rulers of the peoples, Francis adds to “little servant” another adjective “looked-down-upon”; the widest list of derogatory terms joined by Francis to his name is present in the Letter to the whole Order where he describes himself as: “a worthless and weak man, your very little servant” or even “a useless man and an unworthy creature of the Lord God”. It is significant, however, that the qualifications of humility and minority recur precisely in those writings in which he addresses different and disparate categories of people with a strong and clear awareness of his charismatic task to be carried out for them, exhorting them to read, to have read to them, to observe and keep his words. His consciousness as a humble servant is not opposed to the awareness of the importance of his mandate based on the certainty that “The Lord gave me… the Lord Himself led me… the Most High revealed to me”. The double tension of “brother Francis” witnessed in his writings continues in the latter writings of Francis. He is the one who looks back and delivers to his brothers his “remembrance, admonition, exhortation and testament”. He is the little and servant brother Francis, the one who gave himself up in total obedience to “the general minister of this fraternity and the other guardian whom it pleases him to give me”, but he is also the Francis conscious of his mandate, both charismatic and directive, for the fraternity to which without hesitation and more than once he addresses himself forcefully demanding obedience: “I strictly command all the brothers through obedience”, a formula that returns four more times, expressed again both in the first person (v. 38: “I strictly command all my cleric and lay brothers, through obedience”) and in the impersonal form (v. 32,33: “be strictly bound by obedience”; v. 35: “be bound through obedience”). The man to whom God had addressed himself several times by calling him by name, Francis, is the one who, having experienced the gratuitousness and benevolence of God, is conscious of his being poor and a servant because what he has recieved does not belong to him, but he is only its servant; on the other hand he is conscious of being responsible for what he has received, of having to defend what the Lord had given him in order to give it authentically and faithfully to others.
We have already seen that the “penance” of which Francis speaks as the decisive event of his existence should be placed in the semantic context of “gift”: the Lord gave him the gift of beginning to do penance. However, without the explanation that Francis adds, such an interpretation based only on the use of the verb “gave me” would ultimately prove too fragile and insufficient. The words that follow, with which Francis makes explicit what the “thus to begin doing penance” meant, undoubtedly constitute the fundamental text not only of the whole account of the conversion, but also of the entire Testament, because the existential dynamic established in that event will be prolonged in the successive events of Francis’ existence, giving them the same rhythm and the same characteristics of the “doing penance”. In the initial account there is a “to begin” of what will constitute the basic structure and logic of the existence of the Saint.
The account that begins the “doing penance” and therefore clarifies what Francis means by “penance”, is structured in two narrative moments: the description of the condition prior to the event “for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers” and the turning point marked by a new fact: “And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them”.
In the presentation made by the first biographers of the spiritual condition of the life of the young Francis there is a kind of oscillation between a dissolute young man and a young man full of good qualities. This biographical ambiguity best confirms a general impression that one receives from reading the brief description given by Francis of his life: ” for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers”. The verification and the consequence of being “in sin” is found by Francis in his inability to endure the sight of lepers, such a relationship reveals in Francis the absence of a moralistic vision of sin, where at the centre is placed the law of God broken by particular morally reprehensible acts: “because I was in sin, I offended the majesty of God”. Francis, on the other hand, arrives at the perception of being in sin by noting the consequences that a certain lifestyle had on his life, the existential dimension constitutes the starting point in judging sin, seen and felt as a diminution of life deriving from a way of feeling and setting one’s existence far from God. “Beyond all fragility and inconsistency, the true “being in sin” is the rejection of this Presence, it is the denial of the heart’s greatest and deepest thirst “.
The reading of the two moments in Francis’ description of his situation before God’s intervention will help to verify and clarify what has been stated here in a preliminary way. Without wanting to enter into the detailed but not always concordant accounts of the first biographies regarding the moral situation of the young Francis, I believe that the best and most effective explanation of what the Saint meant by the statement “when I was in sin” is found in a passage of the second Admonition where there is a description of what sin is:
For that person eats of the tree of the knowledge of good who makes his will his own and, in this way, exalts himself over the good things the Lord says and does in him. And so, through the suggestion of the devil and the transgression of the command, it became the apple of the knowledge of evil.
For Francis, therefore, being in sin has its fundamental root identified in the appropriation of one’s own will, where every desire and tension is directed towards himself in a movement of (undue) appropriation and self-centred exaltation, with the consequent disavowal and refusal of the link to and dependence on God as the ultimate meaning of one’s existence. If one wanted to use an image to translate this situation, one could say that in the mental setting of self-centred appropriation of one’s own existence, man tries to become the “uni-verso”, that is, the one, the centre, towards which everything else must be directed. Concomitant with this movement of “undue appropriation” of one’s own existence is also the break with one’s neighbour seen as a competitor:
Therefore, whoever envies his brother the good that the Lord says or does in him incurs a sin of blasphemy because he envies the Most High Himself Who says and does every good thing.
The sin of envy arises from the same attitude of self-centredness, in that one is unable to praise God for the good he has done in others, but would have liked to have it for oneself, thus also falling into blasphemy against God. It is important to note, however, that according to the two passages of the Admonitions a self-centred view of life is not only present in a “dissolute” man who makes enjoyment his principle of life, but also in one who uses the good things received from God, such as good character dispositions, to exalt himself for the good he succeeds in doing or falls into envy-depression for the good done by others. “I was in sin because I was living a self-centred existence”, in this context where concrete moral choices become in some way secondary or rather, they are nothing more than the manifestative fruit of the self-centred mindset; it is this that needs to be changed in order to transform even the particular choices. The movement that will take place in Francis through conversion will be, as we will see in detail later, precisely the shifting of the centre of his existence; that centre around which everything else revolves will no longer be Francis, but the poor and, through them, God; a movement that will give a new order to things and a new taste to reality. Effective and concise is the Italian translation of the text of the Legend of the Three Companions in which the hagiographic source, after recounting the slow process of change that took place in the way of feeling of the young man, notes by saying: “Ab illa itaque hora coepit sibi vilescere [From that very hour he began to consider himself of little value]”, the Italian version reverses the literal meaning of the phrase: ” “E da quell’ora smise di adorare se stesso [And from that hour he stopped adoring himself]”. Such was the state of sin: worshipping oneself, making one’s own person the object of all desire in a continuous and anxious search for one’s own glory.
That the primary meaning of the affirmation “when I was in sin” concerned above all this existential attitude of appropriation of one’s own will is confirmed and clarified by the continuation of the text: “it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers”. Of extreme interest is the consequential relationship in which Francis places his being in sin and his not being able to bear lepers. The definitive understanding of his self-centred mindset is not grasped by Francis starting from the comparison with an external law, the divine one, placed as an objective measure to detect his missing “state”; the judgement given by Francis on himself was born from an experience that in itself had no relation with a moral law: in the disturbance instinctively felt at the sight of lepers, the young man from Assisi recognised his “being in sin”. In his mindset, anything that denied the pursuit of his own will and glory could not enter. The lepers, with their physical and social condition, concretely and symbolically represented the negation of a self-centred reading of existence and of every desire for self-adoration. If we wanted to attempt a metaphorical interpretation of the role played by the lepers in this recognition of “being in sin”, we could say that in their encounter Francis saw his life project fail: in his attempt to be the “uni-verso” of everything, the centre towards which everything must be turned, the lepers constituted a slice of reality, the most tragic and desperate, which could not be placed in this adoring procession of Francis. He who would have wanted to be the centre, the “uni-verso”, could not only not welcome but not even look at the lepers. He who wanted to be the be all and end all, lost part of the reality that was judged bitter and unacceptable and therefore not lovable. It could be said that Francis’ self-centred mindset prevented him from composing the Canticle of the Creatures: because I was in sin, I could not welcome, love and sing all that surrounded me, even poverty, pain and death, even lepers. He, who wanted to be the centre of everything, was instead a poor man, because he was in sin.
This close relationship between being in sin and, consequently, not being able to see lepers highlights, as mentioned in passing, the absence in Francis of a moralistic approach in his view of sin. Before being an offence of God, “being in sin” has for Francis first of all an existential consequence, that is, it has repercussions on the quality of his life, impoverished by an attitude of life, by a self-centred mental approach whose fruits were bitterness in the encounter with his own world. The evaluation made by Francis in the connection between being in sin and the bitterness felt with the lepers reveals, therefore, a reading of sin in relation to man and his need-desire to live his existence to the full, and not primarily in relation to an extrinsic and objective moral law. It is precisely from this existential and not moralistic connotation of sin that the need and search for liberation can arise in man; the existential bitterness that arises from being in sin represents the real possibility for a newness of life, for a willingness to make new choices through which to try to regain that sweetness to which man aspires by natural desire. Not so much from repentance for having offended God, but first and foremost (only) from the disturbance engendered by existential bitterness can be born in man a true desire for liberation which, however, will not be in Francis the fruit of a conquest, but the consequence of a gift.
The liberation from the existential bitterness resulting from a self-centred way of life came about for Francis in “doing penance”. What this gift from God to Francis meant in concrete terms is summarised in the brief text that follows: “And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them”. Here too it is necessary simply to follow the development of the text and its connections, from the analysis of which will emerge the definitive meaning of “doing penance” as a gift and as a liberation from the bitterness of sin.
Let us first make some general remarks on the syntactic characteristics of the short and simple text. The compositional structure of the passage is bipartite, where we find two main sentences linked by an “and” which coordinates two subjects and two verbs in perfect symmetry: “God led me among them and I showed mercy to them”; it is this equal and coordinated relationship between the two situations described in the two sentences which constituted for Francis the “to begin doing penance”.
The action of God
“And the Lord Himself led me among them”: this statement, so poor in chronological and topographical information, constitutes a first concrete and factual specification of what was said at the beginning: “The Lord gave me”. The concession, the gift given by God to Francis is identified in the physical and then mental movement from Assisi to the valley below where the lepers were staying. Before underlining the “led me” as a specification of God’s action on Francis, I believe that it is necessary to note the “Himself” which reinforces the subject of the event: what happened in the life of Francis can only be explained by putting in place the “ipse Dominus [Lord Himself]”. However, only in two cases does Francis give such a strong emphasis to the direct character of God’s action: “the Lord Himself” and no one else was able to realise what happened. In the second sentence in which Francis uses the reinforcing “Himself”, the desire to accentuate the exclusive character of the presence of God in order to explain what happened is well shown: ” no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me…” (v. 14b). The advice and solutions he had received from others had not succeeded in resolving his serious doubts about the way of life he should lead; the clarification and the answer came to him directly from God himself, and this is the only way to explain the absolute novelty of his way of life, which was written in brief words and then confirmed by the pope. The same happened when he went among the lepers: only by appealing to Him can Francis explain the concrete manner of his conversion. In fact, only the powerful hand of the Lord could have enabled the young Francis to make that move, not so much physical as mental: from the city, the environment of power and wealth, to the poverty of the valley, the place of refuge of the outcasts. It could be said that Francis is “dis-tratto” [distracted: drawn away]” from his “uni-verso” [universe: only towards oneself] to be led to where there was the very negation of his self-centredness, a journey towards the margins of his world, towards that slice of reality instinctively rejected by the young son of the merchant Pietro di Bernardone. The encounter with and the stay among the lepers referred directly and exclusively to the “Lord Himself” and to His power that had placed Francis in a new situation until a few moments before unthinkable and impossible to his mental universe.
The response of Francis
“And I showed mercy to them”: the incredible action of God needs to be accompanied by a conscious and free “I” to confirm and adhere to the paradoxical movement impressed on the events by the divine power. “The Lord and I”: the two protagonists related in an equal and concomitant relationship in which the free and unexpected initiative of God needs a free and generous adhesion of the man Francis. The response of adherence that gushed forth from the young man from Assisi can be compared to the extension of the itinerary willed by God: having come among the lepers he showed mercy to them, that is, he did not interrupt that movement of approach, but radicalized it by giving these “wretches” his “heart” (miseri-cordia). And it is precisely this process of gift that Francis identifies, in the structure of his narrative, with the “doing penance”: I began to do penance because I began to show/do mercy with the lepers. It follows then that the clarification of the synthetic concept of “facere misericordiam/showing (doing) mercy” will also lead to a better and more definitive understanding of “facere poenitentiam/doing penance”.
In order to attempt an opening of the central concept of mercy from the “concise essentiality” with which Francis describes the period he spent among the lepers, it is not sufficient to investigate the patristic sources from which he probably drew in his use of the expression “facere misericordiam”, but it is also necessary to reread the passages in which Francis employs the term in his writings in order to understand its implications and nuances.
Excursus: “facere misericordiam/to show mercy” in the writings of Francis
The use of the term “mercy” in the 24 times it occurs in Francis’ texts can be distinguished in two areas, corresponding to the two subjects to which this attitude relates: God and man. Ten times mercy is attributed to God as one of his peculiar characteristics; the central text in this regard is the Office of the Passion, where eight times, through the use of different biblical passages, the mercy of God is described and exalted; In addition, there is the passage in the Expositio in Pater noster in which Francis invokes God’s mercy in the request “forgive us our trespasses”; the last text in which divine mercy is used is in the XXIII chapter of the Regola non bollata, where it is exalted as the source of our salvation.
In the other area of use, mercy is presented as an attitude that man must possess in his relationship with his neighbour. It is in this context that the Testament expression “showing mercy” is placed. In the reading of the 14 passages – scattered in five of Francis’ letters – in which the term occurs, we will try to trace and outline the constitutive elements of the Saint’s use of the term “mercy”, so as to reconstruct in some way the semantic field within which the Testament passage lies.
The first text we would like to start from is the second Letter to the Faithful, where the term recurs in two contexts that are in some way parallel. The virtue of mercy is exhorted above all to those who have “received the power of judging others”, that is to say the priests to whom, as mentioned earlier, everyone must confess “all our sins” in order to be able to receive with dignity “the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In exhorting priests Francis wants to offer them a precise criterion by which they can best exercise their “power of judging”: “pass judgement with mercy, as they would wish to receive mercy from the Lord. For judgement will be without mercy for those who have not shown mercy”. In practice, mercy is to convey to others those feelings and care that we would like to receive ourselves.
The use of this principle in evaluating and exercising mercy returns in an even clearer and more definitive way in the second passage of the letter, when the Saint, interrupting for a moment the series of moral exhortations to all the faithful introduced by “let us”, addresses the brother who is a minister, “instead, let the one to whom obedience has been entrusted and who is considered the greater be the lesser and the servant of the other brothers”. For Francis, the service that this brother is called to perform for others, and in particular for those who have committed a crime, must be marked by a particular and, one might say, unique characteristic:
And let him have and show mercy to each of his brothers as he would want them to do to him were he in a similar position. Let him not become angry at the fault of a brother but, with all patience and humility, let him admonish and support him.
The only thing required by Francis of the brother in charge in a fraternity is “showing mercy”, a principle clarified through the use of a sure and precise criterion: let him act with others as he himself would wish to be treated “in a similar position”. What Francis then adds constitutes a double specification, the first negative, the second positive, of what “showing mercy” means: the brother in charge of obedience should not fall into anger because of the sin of the other, but should welcome it using patience, humility and “let him admonish and support him”. In this way Francis establishes a series of negative and positive attitudes related to mercy: on the one hand anger and on the other patience and humility. These terminological relationships will be enriched in subsequent texts.
The fact that the mercy requested by Francis from his “superiors” represents not only a pious exhortation, but a true “juridical” criterion to be used to regulate and resolve the serious cases of sinful friars is testified by a text of great Franciscan value, namely in the Letter to a minister, in which Francis applies to a concrete case what we have seen above, still formulated in general form.
To the anguish of the minister in not knowing what to do about a brother who is probably obstinate in a situation of sin, Francis responds by placing “mercy” at the centre:
And if you have done this, I wish to know in this way if you love the Lord and me, His servant and yours: that there is not any brother in the world who has sinned—however much he could have sinned—who, after he has looked into your eyes, would ever depart without your mercy, if he is looking for mercy. And if he were not looking for mercy, you would ask him if he wants mercy. And if he would sin a thousand times before your eyes, love him more than me so that you may draw him to the Lord; and always be merciful with brothers such as these.
In Francis’ words we can hear again the twofold exhortation succinctly formulated in the text of the Letter to the Faithful, in which the ministers were invited not to be overcome by anger, but to allow themselves to be guided by patience and humility. In our text, the Saint re-proposes these virtues linked to mercy by referring to the humble and patient strength that the minister must express with his gaze: attract him to you with your eyes and if he does not notice the “mercy of your eyes” do not let him go, but help him to interpret well what you have shown him with your gaze, asking him if he wants to receive mercy. The patient humility and humble patience manifested physically in the external attitudes had to translate the total willingness of the minister to place himself at the service of his brother: only with these feelings could the minister not only resolve his problems of fraternity, but above all fulfil his fundamental mandate: “so that you may draw him to the Lord”. It is clear that here Francis proposes a paradoxical way of acting: inverting every logic of coexistence, Francis replaces justice with mercy in which the one who is called to a humble and patient path of spoliation is not the sinful brother but the minister; in some way Francis asks the minister to embrace the sinner by placing himself at his service and thus attracting him to himself and to God. Undoubtedly here one can hear the equally paradoxical suggestion based on mercy, given by Francis to the friars of Monte Casale in order to solve the serious problem of the thieves who infested that area and made continual incursions even into their friary: bring to the robbers “some good bread and good wine” and after having prepared a feast “while they are eating, humbly and joyfully wait on them”, this “upended” way of acting could turn the situation around: convert your heart towards the robbers and they will convert to you and to the Lord.
The solution suggested to the minister is also an opportunity for Francis, as we read at the beginning of the second part of the letter, to take up what he had already treated in a vague way in the Regola non bollata to develop a precise outline of a solution to the case “If any one of the brothers, at the instigation of the enemy, shall have sinned mortally”, a hypothesis to be taken up and regulated in a future chapter of Pentecost. In this second part too, mercy stands out as the basic attitude in dealing with the whole question. Rather than being interested in determining the obligations to be imposed on the brothers who have sinned, who are simply commanded by obedience to present themselves “to his guardian”, Francis is above all concerned to establish what the behaviour of both the community and the minister should be towards the brother in moral difficulty. First of all, all the brothers “show great mercy to him”, seeking to protect the good name of the brother and act with tact and delicacy towards him. His mandate obliges him to provide for him “mercy”, applying the golden rule already seen in the Letter to the faithful: to act with him as he would like to be treated “were he in a similar situation”; and the canonical penance that the priests must impose on him is only one: “Go and sin no more”. In the proposal made by Francis to regulate juridically the moral deviations in the fraternity – an issue that is perhaps increasingly frequent among his brothers – the most important aspect and on which in practice the solution of the problem depends is the attitude of those who are faced with the sinner brother, to whom the Saint gives them the key word that must guide every concrete choice: “mercy”, that is, relating to the wretched with the heart.
The synoptic comparison between the second part of the Letter to a Minister and chapter VII of the Regola bollata clearly shows the continuity between the two texts, where the passage of the letter constituted the basis from which the definitive legal text dealing with the question “The penance to be imposed on the brothers who sin” was drawn. Apart from the beginning of the chapter in which the same words of the letter are taken up “If any brother, at the instigation of the enemy, sins mortally” and the two sides in dealing with the issue (what sinful brothers and ministers must do), the same solutions are found in the chapter of the Rule. What is particularly striking is the strategic position of the key word, mercy, as the basic attitude to be adopted by the ministers:
If these ministers are priests, with a heart full of mercy let them impose on him a penance; but, if the ministers are not priests, let them have it imposed by others who are priests of the Order, as in the sight of God appears to them more expedient. They must be careful not to be angry or disturbed at the sin of another, for anger and disturbance impede charity in themselves and in others.
Although with a more orderly and formal juridical elaboration, in the text we find the general solution that Francis had sketched in the text of the Letter to a Minister; with a diversity of approach: while in that text mercy was specified with the suggestion of concrete and positive attitudes marked by delicacy and concern for the sinful friar, in the text of the Rule the ministers are exhorted through more general and abstract concepts, contrasting it in particular to “anger” and “disturbance” as opposite terms of reference to specify its nature.
Paying close attention to the terms placed in relation to mercy in the writings of Francis examined so far, it would seem possible to identify two different couples: in the Letter to the Faithful, mercy was linked to patience and humility, in the seventh chapter of the Rule it is opposed to anger and disturbance; placing the two pairs of terms together would obtain the general points of reference that were in fact at work in the paradoxical way of acting suggested by Francis to the anonymous minister.
This hypothesis of a semantic outline traced by the two pairs of terms around mercy finds confirmation and further expansion in the last text of the Saint in which mercy occurs, that is, in a passage from the XXVII Admonition, where Francis proposes a series of six pairs of virtues opposed to a corresponding series of vices. I would like to mention the second and last series of them, where we find both the confirmation of the two couples previously identified and the insertion of a new term directly related to mercy.
Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor disturbance (v. 2).
Where there is a heart full of mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor hardness of heart (v. 6).
In the first series are paired the two virtues and the two vices that had been identified in the Letter to the Faithful (patience and humility) and in the Rule (anger and disturbance); one could say that in v. 2 Francis gives order to a linguistic instinct of his in placing “patience” almost always together with “humility” to contrast them in different cases with anger and disturbance. There are two contexts in which the pair of virtues is contrasted with the pair of vices. The first is the one we have already seen, that is, in relation to the sin of others and their weakness, in relation to which we must not be overcome by anger but remain patient and humble, that is, in showing mercy. The second is in relation to oneself when unjustly deprived of something that belongs to oneself, in which case one must exercise the two virtues against the temptation of anger and disturbance. Although in our verse 2 of the Admonition the contrast between the two pairs can be applied to both of them, nevertheless, if we take advantage of the proximity with v. 6, where we find the term mercy, we could try to deepen their relationship by placing them in relation to the first sense of use that we have encountered in the Letter to all the Faithful and in the Rule.
In order to attempt this relationship between the two verses of the twenty-seventh Admonition, it is necessary first of all to establish the structural and semantic links between the four terms of verse 6, namely mercy-discernment/excess-hardness; their clarification will have a decisive influence on the elucidation of the term “mercy”. Whereas in v. 2 the two virtues and the two vices (“patience and humility” – “anger and disturbance”) form a double synonymic diphthong where, consequently, each of the two virtues has its counterpart in both vices (where there is patience there is neither anger nor disturbance, as is the case where there is humility which drives out both anger and disturbance), In the second series, on the other hand, there seems to be a chiastic relationship between the four terms, where between the two concomitant terms (“mercy-discernment”/”excess-hardness”) there is no direct semantic link, and instead a contrasting relationship emerges between the two extreme terms and the middle ones, that is, on the one hand “mercy-hardness” and on the other “discernment-excess”. Against the opinion of Jansen who denies, without a convincing explanation, the presence in v. 6 of a chiasmus of the type A-B/B1-A1, supporting instead the parallel relation of A-B/A1-B1, the chiastic figure seems also confirmed by their use in other texts of Francis. It is quite evident that the “discernment-excess” pair belongs to the same semantic field. It is more difficult to demonstrate the parallel between “mercy” and “hardness” starting from the writings of the saint of Assisi, because our passage is the only case in which the term “hardness” occurs. However, in the first Admonition we have a text in which there is a term close to “hardness” and which is implicitly linked to “mercy”:
Therefore: children, how long will you be hard of heart? Why do you not know the truth and believe in the Son of God? Behold, each day He humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He Himself comes to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of a priest.
Hardness of heart, that is, “induratio” can be dissolved by the amazement at seeing the “humilitas” of the Son of God, that is, by that feeling and virtue which we have seen linked to “mercy”; it is clear then that the latter can be opposed by Francis to “hardness of heart”. From this contrasting relationship between “mercy” and “hardness” derives an expansion of the terminology of mercy: if this virtue is opposed to the vice of “hardness” then it will be synonymous with “tenderness”. Mercy and tenderness: Francis somehow knows the synonymy of the two terms referring to the same human attitude, an equality of meaning attested also by the Bible where the Hebrew word rahamim is translated both as mercy and tenderness. This broadening of terminology can be used to summarise, through two “physical” images, the semantic intersection between the two virtues and the two vices associated with mercy, which are neatly placed side by side in v. 2 of the XXVII Admonition: “patience” and “humility” are born of tenderness of heart, while “anger” and “disturbance” are the fruit of its hardening. The spiritual and juridical exhortation proposed by Francis to the ministers to relate to the other brothers “with mercy” and to “show them mercy” inviting them to patience and humility, means using with others and specifically with the poor, with those who have sinned, the most precious and intimate part of one’s own person: tenderness, the heart, affective closeness, “caritas”.
“Showing mercy” to lepers
The lengthy examination of the various texts in which the term mercy occurs provides the more general semantic context within which the Testament statement is placed: “And I showed mercy to them”. This summary of the period spent with the lepers, while not providing precise and only circumstantial information, contains the fundamental core of that initial and primary experience that transformed the Saint’s existence. The heart of the young Francis, who had made himself the centre of the world, in a stubborn and continuous search for his own glory, goes out of himself to meet the wretched through a path made of humility and patience. Francis is led by a series of contingencies and events that he kept silent aboutin their specificity, but summed up theologically by putting into play the action of God himself: “the Lord Himself led me among them”, towards those who had always triggered in him a reaction of hardening of heart and disgust. In that context he felt that he had to respond with tenderness, with closeness of heart, with becoming part of them; he perceived by grace that he was called to turn his gaze away from himself as the absolute centre of his will, to direct it with love and attention towards the lepers. A radical transformation of his “uni-verso” therefore takes place in Francis: from feeling and wanting to be the one, the centre, towards which everything else had to be directed, he accepts to become one who goes towards others with humility and patience to give them something very precious: his heart.
Having determined the general characteristics of the mercy used by Francis with the lepers, one can then attempt some conclusive considerations on the “doing penance” identified and realised for Francis with the “showing mercy”.
If the penance to which Francis was led by God was realised in his going among the lepers through the merciful dynamics mentioned above, then one must conclude that the “doing penance” has in itself the evangelical meaning of “metanoia”, of conversion, of moving the heart and the gaze from the self to the other, reordering life according to a new general point of reference. Leaving aside for the moment the specification of the object towards which Francis carried out his “conversion”, it is therefore necessary to recognise in the history of Francis the centrality occupied by movement, by physical and mental displacement in his doing penance, characteristics that have their most precise translation in the term “conversion”. Although Francis never uses the term “conversion” to qualify the initial moment of his existential turning point, it is in fact the process with the lepers in which everything “was turned into sweetness” is linked to it, a conceptual link that also becomes terminological in an exceptional witness of the whole history of Francis, namely, St Clare who more than once uses the expression “conversion” referring to the initial moment of Francis’ vocation.
If we now want to grasp a first connotation, the one that in some way gives way to the rest, of the merciful conversion to the lepers, we must say that it was not primarily religious but social, bearing in mind only what Francis says. The anxious concern to seek one’s own will was not interrupted thanks to a particular and upsetting experience of God, as could have been the hearing of the voice on the road to Spoleto or the event of the Crucifix at San Damiano, but as a consequence of a social encounter, that is, when the young Francis turned his heart and his person to the wretched people who lived outside the city, who opened new anthropological and religious horizons for him. In his narrative, devoid of any reference to religious events, Francis offers us a precise order of events: in the first and fundamental place is man in his suffering and marginalisation, from which a renewal for all the other spheres, including the religious, will be born. To invert this narrative order, in order to reaffirm the religious moment as a presupposition for the merciful encounter with man, would mean losing the absolute particularity of the history of Francis who found in man and in showing mercy towards his misery the radical revelation of God. It was not the voice heard on the road to Spoleto or the face seen on the Crucifix of San Damiano that opened the way for him to the voices and faces of the lepers, but the reverse: by directing the gaze of mercy on their misery he discovered all the rest that he could not see in his self-centredness.
At the same time, it should be added that the characterisation of the social encounter with the lepers read anew by Francis as a “showing mercy to them” means that going among them was not the result of a special socio-political or religious elaboration of the question of “poverty” or “marginalisation”, consequently carrying out a “conversion to poverty” as a social protest or religious response of a Christomimetic type. In going among the lepers, having mercy on them, Francis wanted first and foremost and simply to enter their world with his heart, to share their destiny without pretending to find or give socio-religious answers; by giving his heart to the poor he entered their condition, accepting to be infected physically and socially by their marginalization; not the social or religious choice of poverty moved Francis, but the merciful solidarity with the poor lived in the willingness to become one of them: this was his absolute novelty that turned his world upside down and gave him new criteria of values solidified in words such as minority, simplicity, humility, poverty and fraternity.
Doing penance as a “merciful conversion to the wretched” also excludes the ascetic interpretation given by the first biographers in their identification of “doing penance” with “despised himself completely”; in this case the experience with the lepers would have been nothing more than a new form of taking care of himself: moved by an ascetic-mystical-punitive desire, Francis would have sought in the lepers once again his person and his fulfilment precisely through the attempt to deny it; his heart and his gaze would not have implemented a movement of “conversion-penance”, that is, he would not have interrupted his self-centredness. On the contrary, the movement of mercy in which the divine gift of penance is realised means a radical exit from oneself – forgetting for a moment one’s own person even in its spiritual and ascetical needs – in order to take care of and concern oneself with the heart, that is to say with humility and patience, with others who would never have been able to repay him with not only economic but also religious advantages. Such is the conversion given to him by the “showing mercy” to the lepers: a movement of absolute gratuitousness in which Francis leaves his world to give himself heart and body to the wretched, a movement of spoliation from which springs, to Francis’ great surprise, an incredible and unexpected gift: the renewal of his existence.
The nature of the gift that we have already seen transpiring from the initial words in which Francis characterises the “doing penance – being changed” as a concession from God is clearly and definitively confirmed by the double conclusion of the narrative in v. 3:
And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.
Being led by God among the lepers and having used mercy with them produced in the life of Francis, according to his account, a double novelty, related to two levels or moments of his existence: in the way of experiencing life (“what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body”) and, consequently, in the concrete choices in relation to the world (“and afterwards I delayed a little and left the world”).
However, before dealing with these two levels on which the newness brought about by the conversion has repercussions, attention should be paid to the expression that opens the final verse of Francis’ account: “And when I left them…”. Above it was already noted that there is only a “concise essentiality” of historic detail given by Francis in the account and here in this brief incision is one of the few that we can draw from the Testament narrative, from which it is possible to deduce that the experience with the lepers was not a momentary event but lasted for a period of time, a time in which Francis remained with them and shared their existence. His “conversion”, therefore, was neither sudden nor instantaneous, that is, it did not happen thanks to a heroic act concomitant with a miraculous event as the biographers have recounted in the episode of the kiss to the leper but took place within a temporal process linked to the daily routine of a permanence and a sharing of life.
It is necessary to add a second point, this time concerning the narrative structure marked by “And when I left them…”, which initiates the third and last moment of conversion, that is, the fruits produced by the experience with the lepers. According to Bonaventure’s account, the heroic gesture of kissing the leper, in which Francis wanted to “first conquer himself”, was followed by the transformation of reality: the leper disappeared, showing the “marvellous” underneath his apparent repugnance; from Francis’ scanty account, however, it appears that the misery and repugnance of the lepers remained, nothing changed in that mystery of pain and marginalisation; when Francis departed from them he left the same reality he had found. The lepers remained lepers. The only fundamental change recorded and remembered by Francis did not concern the external reality but his own person, the leper who was healed was his own heart, at the very moment he used the oil of mercy to heal the wounds of others. Francis is no longer the same. This was the miracle given to him by God through penance.
The two existential levels recalled by Francis in describing the newness of life given to him by God through the lepers have already been mentioned above.
A true gift normally has two characteristics: it is unexpected, and it brings joy. The impersonal verbal form used by Francis “was turned” contains within itself a character of astonishment because of the unexpectedness of what happened: going among the lepers accomplished something in his life that not only he had not proposed nor would ever have thought of doing, but it happened independently of Francis, without his planning and to his great surprise. This unforeseen event meant great joy for Francis because the encounter with the lepers freed him from bitterness and gave him the sweetness of life. The unexpectedness and the joy linked to the existential change of life through this penance-conversion event thus confirm in a broad way the gift nature of this initial event: thanks to a powerful and unexpected intervention of God the conversion of his heart towards lepers produced a radical renewal of Francis’ life.
There are three existential areas in which Francis was renewed by the gift of penance: in the way he felt about himself, the world and God.
By going among the lepers for the first time perhaps the young Francis made a journey not in search of himself and his glory, but out of mercy, that is, to give his heart to the miserable. Herein is the miracle: among the lepers he finds for the first time what he was not searching for and could not find when he was the one initiating the laborious search for it. The humble and patient expropriation of himself so as to give himself wholeheartedly to the wretched, to the poor in a movement of tenderness in solidarity makes Francis discover what the logic of life is and where its sweetness is hidden: it is not in conquest, but in the merciful gift of self that Francis finds the peace of his desires; the mercy with the lepers makes Francis find Francis. In some ways one can say that here we are faced with a kind of “Christian humanism”. Both in the point of departure and in the solution of arrival. firstly, there is the person of Francis and his desire-need for quality of life: everything is set in motion not by a moralistic demand (offence of God), but by an existential dissatisfaction marked by bitterness, and reaches its fulfilment not primarily in a reordering of the religious moment (appeasing God) but in a liberation from such bitterness that marks a real human growth and the achievement of personal fulfilment. Doing penance is therefore not the negation of humanity in order to bring out the centrality of God, but the way to one’s own fulfilment through the paradox of the expropriation of oneself, of the merciful gift to the poor, becoming himself a disinherited person. By abandoning his life, Francis discovers the secret of life.
The second area in which the change of life encounter with the lepers is experienced is with world around Francis. The sweetness felt towards that which for Francis had always denied any beauty constitutes the door of access for a reinterpretation of the whole of creation, where sweetness and bitterness, beauty and ugliness no longer exist, but everything is a place of exaltation and encounter with sweetness, therefore even pain and death can be a source of praise. The lepers begin to dictate to Francis the Canticle of Brother Sun.
The last area in which the newness of life derived from the “conversion” towards the lepers is manifested by the discovery of the face of the Lord Jesus. We have a passage from the Letter to the Faithful where in the textual dynamics it is possible to glimpse the Christological aspect experienced by Francis in the experience with the lepers and implicitly contained in the inversion of sentiments he underwent in this encounter:
All those men and women who are not living in penance, who do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who practice vice and sin and walk after the evil concupiscence and the evil desires of their flesh, who do not observe what they have promised to the Lord, and who in their body serve the world through the desires of the flesh, the concerns of the world and the cares of this life: They are held captive by the devil, whose children they are, and whose works they do. They are blind because they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the strong moral call made by Francis, the fundamental term of “living in penance” returns, clearly parallel to “doing penance”, whose dynamics of conversion emerge from its opposition to a self-centred way of life. Of interest are the negative consequences listed by Francis in those who do not live in penance-conversion: “they are blind”. In them Francis finds in some way his own situation when he was in sin, that is, when “it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers”. Even in him there was a state of blindness whose most serious consequence is lamented in the epistolary text: “they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ”. God’s gift to him of penance enabled him to discover in the lepers’ faces the “verum lumen” that illuminates every man: the face of the crucified Lord. The merciful conversion of the eyes of his heart towards the wretched led him far beyond the lepers themselves and brought him face to face with the suffering face of the One who, with the same merciful movement, had himself become a leper. This Christological discovery of the crucified Christ made in the merciful movement of spoliation will be the definitive and absolute proof that the meaning of existence resided in the paradoxical logic given to him through the lepers. Everything changes! Francis’ life could no longer be as it was because his mental universe had been renewed.
“And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world”: There has been much discussion to clarify what Francis meant by qualifying the last development of the gift of penance as “leaving the world”. Certainly “leaving the world” speaks of a newness of life, even in its external forms, in comparison with that lived previously by Francis: after returning from the lepers and before leaving the world, Francis informs us that he “delayed a little” in his house, continuing the life as before but with a heart now irremediably transformed. But this did not last long, and soon Francis had to lay aside his sumptuous clothes as now inadequate to his new way of feeling, to assume a way of life in which he left the logic of society and placed himself on its margins, as he had done by staying with the lepers. However, if “leaving the world” undoubtedly indicates a visibility of a new way of life, it does not seem, however, that this meant a flight from the city or making a precise religious choice. This impression is confirmed not only by the texts of the first hagiographies, but also and above all by the brief but precise biographical notes added by Francis in the Testament when he recalls the salient moments of working out his life. Leaving the world did not coincide with a precise project of religious life. The events that followed his conversion show a Francis who was anything but sure of what to do; on the contrary, his existence would seem to be to live day by day, waiting for events, always interpreted as direct and unexpected interventions of God who opens up new paths and gives new solutions each time. Leaving the world therefore did not mean the choice and the implementation of a precise external form of religious life, recognised as such by the Church of the time.
The final decision that Francis arrives at consequent to the experience with the lepers, which he synthesizes with the exit from the world, does not primarily concern the external visible forms but his mental universe: “living in penance” as the fundamental mode of his existence. Leaving the world, Francis chooses the directional criterion of his choices more than the concrete forms of life, in which he rejects in a definitive way the self-centred logic of the world, to place at the centre the merciful dynamic of the gift of the heart to the miserable, because only from there can true life flow again. To leave the world therefore means first and foremost to have unmasked the blind and lifeless logic of the world, centred on possession, and to have permanently affirmed the new logic of life animated by the merciful gift; leaving the world means abandoning the anxious search for the centre in order to definitively prolong the humble and patient journey towards the margins, there where he had met the Lord of life.
“… and left the world” establishes, consequently, a precise and radical continuity between the experience of the lepers and what will happen later in the life of Francis. Even looking carefully at the close narrative relationship established by Francis in the Testament between the mercy lived with the lepers and the subsequent events, one could consider that the expression “leaving the world” can be understood as the germination of that initial seed that will give life to a great plant: Francis of Assisi. The logic he lived with the lepers started a movement that would never stop. The humble acceptance of the sacramental poverty of the Church, the gift of the brothers with their differences of opinion, the life lived according to the following of the cross then fixed in the Rule constitute successive developments of that vital principle given by God to Francis through the lepers. These events constitute successive stages of a radical and progressive realisation of the exit from the world to go out to meet the Lord already in synthesis and in fullness realised with the lepers. We can say that living in penance-conversion and leaving the world are synonymous, or rather they are the cause and effect of the same logic centred on mercy.
I believe that yet another consideration should be added to these remarks. The experience with the lepers not only represents the seed in which the entire plant is contained, but also the yardstick used by Francis in judging and guiding this uninterrupted exit from the world, that is, in making choices faithful to the way of life experienced with the lepers. The initial event provided Francis in the course of his existence with the hermeneutical criteria to discover the directions to give to his existence and also to unmask the contradictory choices with the new logic given to him by God. There are two particular examples that can illustrate the two sides of this hermeneutic function that probably flowed from that event in the life of Francis.
The beginnings were certainly not easy for Francis, in fact he himself tells us of his insecurity about what to do and what to choose:
And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.
According to the tradition of the Anonymous of Perugia, which is closer to the facts narrated in the Testament than the other tradition represented by Thomas of Celano, Francis heard three Gospel texts in which the experience of going among the lepers was condensed and reproposed: in that pilgrim experience to the sanctuary of the Lord located at the foot of the city of Assisi, Francis had left everything (cf. Mt 19:21) to follow Jesus, embracing the cross of the poverty of the outcast lepers (cf. Mt 16:24) and stripping himself of every wealth that impeded his pilgrim journey (cf. Lk 9:3). In listening to the three Gospel passages concerning the sending of the disciples, this was recognised by Francis as the ideal proposal that came to him from God, not only thanks to an illumination, but also because he found in this the dynamic of the experience he had among the lepers: what he had experienced in that context found its biblical translation in the Gospel proposal of those three texts which had certainly already been heard on other occasions, but which acquired a new meaning after his service among the lepers.
The memory of that foundational event also constituted for Francis the possibility of unmasking choices that he recognised as not being in harmony with the direction indicated to him by God. One thinks in this regard of the famous episode of the Chapter of Mats where Francis refuses every hypothesis put forward by the learned friars and also supported by Cardinal Ugolino to assume a traditional rule, that is, either that of Benedict or that of Augustine, so that the fraternity could “live in an orderly manner “. In the response given by the Saint to justify his refusal one cannot but think of his experience with lepers: ” My brothers! My brothers! God has called me by the way of simplicity and showed me the
way of simplicity”. The way of humility and simplicity of heart, the one in which Francis experienced for the first time when, in the eyes of the world, he was “a new fool in the world “, was manifested to him in a paradigmatic way among the lepers; and this event remained an essential point of reference in judging and rejecting that proposal which did not conform to the direction taken by his life on his journey out of the world.
There is yet another consideration to be made about the new existential position given to Francis by the lepers, a significance that develops from the literary genre of Francis’ last writing. The centrality occupied in the Testament by the lived experience with the lepers was not born simply from a nostalgia for the event, nor from a pure historiographical analysis attempted by Francis on his existence. This last writing of the Saint of Assisi is not a kind of soliloquy composed by a monk who consigns to paper his final thanks to God. The Testament has recipients to whom Francis specifies at the end of the text both the nature of his writing and the aims pursued by it:
And the brothers may not say: “This is another rule.” Because this is a remembrance, admonition, exhortation, and my testament, which I, little brother Francis, make for you, my blessed brothers, that we might observe the Rule we have promised in a more Catholic way.
Francis’ recollection of his life is addressed to his brothers so that it may become for them a point of reference and a stimulus towards a way of life that confirms the vocation revealed to him by God. It is clear then that the contents of this narrative are also strongly linked to the aims pursued. The narrative fabric of his memoirs would have been different if the interlocutors and the purposes of his narrative had been different. From this hermeneutical consideration based precisely on the literary genre of “testament” of the last writing of Francis derives a final evaluation of the role assigned by Francis to the experience lived with the lepers as an event of definitive exit from the world. Recalling that event and placing it at the beginning of his spiritual itinerary, Francis wants to recall, admonish and exhort his brothers not to leave that logic revealed to him by God with the lepers and which had constituted the direction of his original experience with his first companions. Among his brothers a reworking of their identity had been underway for some time. From being a fraternity on the margins of society and its logic of power, living “on the road” with the marginalised beggars or the hired workers to earn their daily bread, they were passing to being an Order more and more organised and progressively placed at the centre of the cultural and religious power of the time. From the centrifugal itinerary of Francis, implemented with his exit from the world towards the margins, the Order was passing to a centripetal tendency. Now judging as pastorally inadequate the choices made at the beginning of the fraternity, the Order wanted in some way to regain the centre of the city. Placing the experience of the lepers at the basis of the newness of life given to him by God, Francis was certainly in dialogue with this evolutionary process. Without wishing to establish whether he was resigned or favourable to the transformation taking place in his fraternity, with the memory of the spiritual dynamics lived with the lepers he reminded his brothers of the fundamental logic that had to guide their choices in order to remain in their penitential vocation, that is, of conversion as an exit from the world to affirm the paradox of the cross. The lepers, therefore, constituted the first and fundamental exhortation and admonition made by Francis to his brothers: through them the Saint reminded his brothers of the essential nature of their call to go out from the centre of the world to place themselves on the margins among the lepers where he had met the Lord.
If the reading we have attempted to make of the opening three verses of the Testament is convincing, then it is easy to understand why Francis places so much value on his experience among the lepers. In that event, not only was he given liberation and the radical renewal of his person, but also the general logic of existence was revealed: he who seeks his life loses it and he who loses his life in mercy finds it.
It is possible to think, therefore, that the lepers would have been a constant memory to which Francis would have often returned in difficult moments, when it was necessary to rediscover the meaning of his existence and maintain a steady course towards that paradoxical path that the Lord had indicated to him. If his fundamental vocation was to live in penance, that is, in conversion to the Lord, the lepers constituted for Francis the paradigmatic memory in which this intuition was fully realised and in which he found the fundamental dynamics to realise it in the successive situations of life. Words such as humility and patience, minority and submission, simplicity and charitable service were born of that event and constantly referred to it.
The memory of the lepers also becomes the first of the exhortations made by Francis to his brothers, to whom he gives with that memory the key to their vocation. In the need to rethink their own life and in the difficulty of understanding well what the concrete forms should be in order to be able to make a gift of it to others, his brothers had to return to the spirit of that event, paradigmatic of the minoritic vocation, and in it find the points of reference of their ideal of life.
- Testament 1-3 (Fontes francescani, a cura di E. Menestò e S. Brufani, Assisi 1995, 227; in the following Ff ). ↑
- Cf. Thomas de Celano, I vita, 17 (Ff 292-293); Thomas de Celano, II vita, 9 (Ff 451-452); Bonaventura, Legenda maior, I 5 (Ff 784); Bonaventura, Legenda minor, I 8 (Ff 971); Iulianus de Spira, Vita sancti Francisci, 12 (Ff 1035); Legenda trium sociorum, 11 (Ff 1383). On the interpretation made by the biographers in an ascetic-penitential sense as a denial of self, disregarding the positive element of the discovery of a newness of life through the experience of lepers, see the analysis of P. Messa, Le fonti patristiche negli scritti di San Francesco, Assisi 1999, 254-263. ↑
- Cf. Thomas de Celano, I vita, 22 (Ff 296-297). ↑
- Cf. Thomas de Celano, II vita, 10 (Ff 452); Bonaventure, Legenda maior, II 1 (Ff 786-787). The biographical marginalisation of the experience with lepers comes to the final developments in iconography, first and foremost in Giotto’s pictorial cycle in the Upper Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, where the painter, following Bonaventure’s account, eliminates all reference to the fact of the lepers. A comparative study of the narrative organisation of the various episodes that make up the youth and, above all, the conversion of Francis, would provide an interesting x-ray of the “spiritual” diversity of the biographies that have been handed down. Such an attempt has only been proposed for the two biographies of Celano by F. de Beer, La conversion de saint François selon Thomas de Celano. Etude comparative des textes relatifs à la conversion en Vita I et Vita II, Paris 1963. ↑
- It would be interesting to develop a textual analysis of the hagiographic organisation of the episode. In the first biographies of 1 Celano and Julian of Speyer, two traditions are placed side by side: that of Francis’ stay among the lepers and that of the kiss to a leper without the addition of his disappearance after the kiss, and between the two traditions both biographers give narrative pre-eminence to the first aspect. Already in the second life of Celano the setting is radically transformed: in first place is the episode of the kiss and the disappearance of the leper, followed by Francis’ going to a leper colony to give each person a kiss and alms. The same approach is taken up and made official in Bonaventure’s account. The hagiographic movement carried out around the episode by the biographies moves towards a mythologising that is more and more accentuated in proportion to how chronologically one moves away from the facts. In my opinion the attempt at a comparative reading made by F. de Beer, La conversion de saint François, 207-210, proves insufficient both because it is limited to the two biographies of Celano and because their reading does not seem capable of showing the internal developments of the text. ↑
- G. Miccoli, Francesco di Assisi. Realtà e memoria di un’esperienza (Einaudi Paperbacks, 217), Torino 1991, 52. ↑
- The first and fundamental study-commentary is that of K. Esser, Das Testament des heiligen Franziskus von Assisi: eine Untersuchung über seine Echtheit und seine Bedeutung (Vorreformationsgeschichtliche Forschungen, 15), Münster 1949 (tr. It.: Il Testamento di san Francesco d’Assisi, Milano 1978), which in some way begins a rereading of the Testament, dedicating particular attention to the historical-critical problems. Thus, with regard to the account of the conversion (pp. 112-118) the author develops critical observations noting first of all the general consonance of the short account with the other biographies regarding the dynamics of the conversion, then develops an extensive analysis on the meaning of “left the world” and finally shows the consonance of the service to the lepers carried out by Francis with the same choice made by other medieval saints. Subsequent commentaries, while developing a more detailed interpretation, seem to be too preoccupied with tracing the internal dynamics that characterise the text, which is then not always read with attention to a correct use of the hagiographic sources taken more as they sound rather than keeping in mind the historical-critical problem. We recall the most recent comments: L. Profili, Francesco pura trasparenza di Cristo. Riflessioni e attualizioni sul testamento di S. Francesco, Roma 19882, 25-58, the broadest and most stimulating commentary even if strongly characterised by a meditative style; F. De Lazzari, Il testamento di S. Francesco, Assisi 1988, 22-52; M. Conti, Il discorso d’addio di san Francesco. Introduzione e commento al Testamento, Rome 2000, 49-65 (on the latter I have already expressed my perplexity in Coll. Franc. 70  542-543). ↑
- Analysing the term “Lord” that opens the Testament L. Profili notes the close relationship in the writings of Francis between the Trinitarian setting and the Christocentrism hidden in the opening words (Francesco pura trasparenza di Cristo, 24-27). ↑
- K. Esser, Das Testament des heiligen Franziskus von Assisi: eine Untersuchung über seine Echtheit und seine Bedeutung, Münster/Westfalen 1949, 86-91. ↑
- An extensive and accurate examination of the personality of Francis that emerges from his writings and in particular from his letters is conducted by L. Lehmann, Der Mensch Franziskus im Licht seiner Briefe, in Wiss. und Weis. 46 (1983) 108-138, in particular see pages 114-119 dedicated first of all to his humility and his being a servant of others and then to his great self-awareness. ↑
- 1 Ep. cust. 1 (Ff 65). ↑
- 2 Ep. cust. 1 (Ff 69). ↑
- 2 Ep. fid. 1 and 87 (Ff 79, 86). ↑
- Ep. rect. 1 (Ff 107). ↑
- Ep. ord. 1 and 47 (Ff 99, 103). ↑
- Thus, for example, at the conclusion of the Letter to all custodians we read: “Let my brother custodians who have received this writing, who have made copies of it and kept it for themselves and for the brothers who have the responsibility of preaching and the care of the brothers, and who have made known and preached about everything contained in it, know that they have God’s blessing as well as my own” (1 Ep cust. 9: Ff 66). Also in the Letter to all the faithful he exhorts the recipients not only to “receive, to put into practice, and to observe” his words (II recital, v. 87, Ff 86), but also “let whoever does not know how to read have them read to them frequently. Because they are spirit and life, they should preserve them together with a holy activity to the end”. (1 Ep. fid. 20: Ff 76). Francis ascribes equal importance to his Letter addressed to the whole Order: “I exhort them to guard what is written in it carefully and to have it observed more diligently according to the pleasure of the all-powerful God, now and forever, as long as the world lasts” (v. 48: Ff 103). A similar conclusion is also found in the Letter to the rulers of the peoples: “Let those who keep this writing with them and observe it know that they will be blessed by the Lord God” (v. 9: Ff 108). ↑
- These expressions have recently led to the development of psychological hypotheses on Francis who is reproached with an overbearing pride and arrogance towards the fraternity: by appealing to a direct and exclusive relationship he had with God, Francis tries to prevent any development within the fraternity and impose his own vision of life (J. Dalarun, Francesco d’Assisi: il potere in questione e la questione del potere. Rifiuto del potere e forme di governo nell’Ordine dei frati Minori [Fonti e ricerche, 13], Milano 1999, 31-49, in particular 42; on the various perplexities raised by the work see my review in Coll. Franc. 70  546-549). ↑
- Test. 34 (Ff 231). ↑
- Ibid., 27 (Ff 230). ↑
- Ibid., 25. ↑
- For a presentation of the description given by I Celano and that of the Three Companions cf. R. Manselli, San Francesco, 47-52. A wider and more accurate reading has recently been conducted by F. Accrocca, I “peccati” del giovane Francesco, in Frate Francesco 68 (2002) 191-210, who concludes that the divergences between the accounts are only apparent: ” The vain young man that Celano’s Life gives us is not dissimilar to the narcissistic young man of the Legend” (210). ↑
- F. De Lazzari, Il Testamento, 26. ↑
- Adm. II 3-4 (Ff 26-27). ↑
- One could therefore speak of a narcissistic situation of Francis: J.M. Charron, Da Narciso a Gesù. La ricerca dell’identità in Francesco d’Assisi, Padova 1995. ↑
- Adm. VIII (Ff 30). ↑
- Leg. trium sociorum, III 8 (Ff 1380). ↑
- Leg. dei tre compagni, III 8 (Fonti Francescane, Assisi 1978, 1072). ↑
- It is necessary to remember that Francis’ gesture is part of a broad religious attention of medieval society towards the “unhealthy”. For a picture of the situation in central-northern Italy see G. De Sandre Gasparini, Lebbrosi e lebbrosari tra misericordia e assistenza nei secoli XII-XIII, in La conversione alla povertà nell’Italia dei secoli XII-XIV. Atti del XXVII convegno storico internazionale. Todi 14-17 October 1990, Spoleto 1991, 239-268, on Francis 259-261. ↑
- Cf. R. Manselli, San Francesco dal dolore degli uomini al Cristo Crocifisso, in Analecta TOR 16 (1983) 194. ↑
- Cf. P. Messa, Le fonti patristiche negli scritti di San Francesco, 246-253. ↑
- In this regard we refer to the study of M. A. Lavilla, La misericordia en san Francisco de Asís, in Selec.Franc. 26 (1997) 261-283, in which some aspects will be taken into account, even though it is sometimes necessary to complete and reorder the analysis of the texts. ↑
- Off. Pas. III 5. 11 (Ff 148-149); IX 4 (Ff 155); XI 9 (Ff 158); XII 7. 10 (Ff 159); XIII 5 (Ff 160); XV 5 (Ff 162). ↑
- Exp. Pater 7 (Ff 116). ↑
- Rnb XXIII 8 (Ff 211). ↑
- 2 Ep. fid. 28 (Ff 81). ↑
- Ibid., 22. ↑
- Ibid., 28-29. ↑
- Ibid., 42 (Ff 82). ↑
- Ibid., 43-44 (Ff 83). ↑
- Ff 95-96. ↑
- Ep. min., 9-11 (Ff 95). ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Cf. Compilatio assisiensis, 115 (Ff 1672-1674). ↑
- “During the Chapter of Pentecost, with the help of God and the advice of our brothers, we shall make one chapter such as this from all the chapters of the Rule that treat of mortal sin: If any one of the brothers, at the instigation of the enemy…” (Ep. min., 13-14 (Ff 95-96). ↑
- Ibid., 14 (Ff 96). ↑
- Ibid., 15-20. ↑
- Rb VII (Ff 177). ↑
- Adm. 27 (Ff 36). The last part of the Admonition, namely vs. 4-6, has been analysed by A. Jansen, Traduction, sens et structure de la 27 e admonition v. 4-6, in Franz. Stud. 64 (1982) 111-127, in order to highlight in the terminology used by Francis a Camaldolese influence probably due to his stay in the monastery of Camaldoli. The interpretative operation of verse 6 on the basis of monastic texts, without any reference to those of Francis, is also carried out by Robert Karris, The Admonitions of St. Francis: Sources and Meanings (Text Series, 21), St. Bonaventure 1999, 248-250, who explicitly links himself to Jansen. The analysis and conclusions drawn on verse 6, however, do not find us entirely in agreement. ↑
- Of the 16 times that the word “patience” recurs in the texts of Francis, 7 are linked to “humility” (Adm 13, 1.2; 2 Ep fid. 44; Rnb 17, 15; Rb 10, 8). The two virtues also appear in the praises of the Most High God where it is said of him: “you are humility, you are patience” (Ff 47). ↑
- In this sense, Admonition XIII is of great value where the first two terms recur and are implicitly opposed to anger and turmoil: “A servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as he is content. When the time comes, however, when those who should make him content do the opposite, he has as much patience and humility as he has at that time and no more” (Ff 31). Francis’ exhortation directly recalls the other famous text True and Perfect Joy which concludes with the praise of patience exercised in a context of obvious injustice: ” I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, true joy, as well as true virtue and the salvation of my soul, would consist in this” (Ff 242). ↑
- Rhetorical figure that consists “in reproducing a concept by means of the grouping of two synonyms or two words so similar that in the context they take on the aspect of synonyms, arranged in succession and paired by means of the conjunction and” (G. Pozzi, Lo stile di san Francesco, in Italia medievale e umanistica, 41  9). The author provides a wide range of examples of the presence of this figure in the writings of Francis, distinguishing between cases where nouns and adjectives are used; among the first we note only a few passages: “propter infirmitatem et debilitatem” (Let. Fid. 2,3), “inferunt tribulationes et angustias, dolores et tormenta” (Rnb, 22,3). Although the examples given by the Author do not include our two couples, their belonging to this stylistic pattern of Francis must be considered as certain. ↑
- According to A. Jansen, the pairs of terms to be related are “mercy-excess” and “discernment-hardness” because otherwise “we are faced with a chiasm, which the whole of the admonition does not allow us to assume” (Traduction, 120). The argumentation is very weak, because it relies on a structure of the text of Admonition XXVII that is anything but fixed among the numerous pairs of terms present in the short text, as the author would seem to imply. Even the semantic justification of the two pairs leaves one somewhat perplexed, in fact for the first “mercy-excess” the author, starting from the juridical definition of “excess”, says that the “superfluitas” is a “superfluity”. Starting from the juridical definition of “superfluitas” seen as an “abusive demand without legal basis”, he sees his clarification in two texts of the Rule of St Benedict (literature that influenced according to the author the composition of Francis) and in a commentary on them by Bernard Cassin, to conclude that the best translation of “superfluitas” is “demand, undue pretension, recrimination. This demand quickly manifests itself in the form of a ruthless criticism of one’s neighbour. In this context, the meaning of the first part of verse 6 becomes clear. “Excess” is opposed to mercy” (121). A similar operation is done for the other couple, whose justification is found in an episode of the Chronica XXIV generalium also reported by the Actus beati Francisci where it narrates the temptation of brother Ruffin to whom the devil darkened and hardened his heart making him doubt his vocation, and consequently making him incapable of discerning the will of God for himself: “Rufin did not realise that his beautiful anchorite ideal was of dubious origin, especially his anxiety about his neighbour. He was spiritually blind, his judgement was misguided. That his judgement was not inspired by wisdom and that he did not act under the motion of the spirit was manifested in his inner hardening and his tenseness. We thus see that these two concepts hardness and discretion are combined in contrast” (122). It is not difficult to grasp the methodological weakness of such a way of proceeding that argues on the semantic significance of terms used by Francis without appealing to Francis’ own texts. ↑
- In the four passages in which the term ‘discernment’ occurs, once it is used as an attitude of veneration towards the Eucharist (Ep. cust. (I), 4), the second as a moral virtue of the priests to whom one should turn for sacramental penance (Rnb, XX 2); in the other two the term designates an attitude of moderation in the use of things and in particular of food (Ep. S. Clarae, 2 [Ff 240]) and of alms (Audite, 4 [Ff 245]). It is in this latter sense that the other term “excess” is used, when Francis exhorts us to “abstain … from excess food and drink ” (2 Ep fid. 32). ↑
- Adm. I 14-18 (Ff 26). ↑
- As also notes P. Messa, Frate Francesco tra vita eremitica e predicazione, Assisi 2001, 44-45. ↑
- The proposal of F. Aizpurúa, who tries to explain the lack of this word by referring to Francis’ desire not to connect to the religious feeling connected to the term “conversion” (“Lo amargo, se me tornó en dulzura. La conversión del hermano Francisco como conversión social, in Selecc. Franc. 30 180-181). It is not easy to find an explanation for the absence of the word in the texts of Francis, but the argument proposed above seems too intellectually sophisticated; perhaps one can more simply think of an implicit form of humility on the part of Francis, who probably wanted to avoid a concept linked to the conversions of the great saints. ↑
- Cf. Reg. Clarae, I 4; VI 1 and her Test. 8, 25. ↑
- Cf. 2 Cel., II 6, 5-11 (Ff 448). ↑
- Cf. 2 Cel., VI 10, 1-8 (Ff 452-453). ↑
- An operation typical of the first biographers and is still reaffirmed today, for example, by M. Conti when he affirms that “This mercy with those in need, as required by the Gospel parable, Francis learned in the school of Christ and considers it a gift of God. If he was able to show mercy to the leper, it is because through his conversion the Lord gave him the gift of a new mind” (Il discorso d’Addio, 64). ↑
- “There is, therefore, as a decisive moment in the conversion of Francis of Assisi, the passage from one human condition to another, the acceptance of his own insertion into a marginality, the entrance among the excluded, whose characteristic was, precisely, to be rejected by all for their condition of abhorrence” (R. Manselli, San Francesco, 45). ↑
- Cf. also F. Accrocca, Francesco e le sue immaggini, Padova 1997, 18. ↑
- Bonaventura, Legg. maior I 6, 2 (Ff 785). ↑
- There is a beautiful notation that summarises what happened in “I showed mercy to them”: the “radical reversal of perspective caused by ‘suffering’ together with one who, destroyed in his human traits, is in some way a man ‘rovesciato’ [literally: upside-down, upturned, overturned, inside out]” (G. De Sandre Gasperini, Lebbrossi e lebbrosari, 259). ↑
- This vision of Francis is lost in and far from the hagiographic solution of the first biographers and in particular of Bonaventure, when still, without too much attention, reference is made to the encounter or the kiss to the “leper” and not to a period spent with the “lepers”, an inattention that we find for example in the entry “Conversion” of the Franciscan Dictionary edited by Bougerol, where the encounter with the leper is presented as the turning point of the conversion (Padua 1983, 232); and also in the volume of J. Le Goff, San Francesco di Assisi, Bari 2000, 36. ↑
- Bonaventura, Legg. maior I 5, 2 (Ff 784). ↑
- This is what transpires from the considerations of Grado Merlo, who, commenting on Francis’ affirmation of the reversal of taste for life after the experience with the lepers, notes that “Such a confession reveals a first element of the Franciscan positivity (of Brother Francis) and of the (implicit) anthropological conception that derives from the full acceptance of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Human fullness implies the abandonment of the values of the world, which certainly are not those for which Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again” (Storia di frate Francesco e dell’Ordine dei Minori, in Francesco d’Assisi e il primo secolo di storia francescana [Biblioteca Einaudi, 1], Torino 1997, 5-6). ↑
- I Ep fid., 1-7 (Ff 74-75). ↑
- Such is, for example, the position put forward by K. Esser, Il Testamento, 114-117, according to whom “Francis, after a period of uncertainty, decided on a life somewhat similar to the monastic one, although he must admit that he did not yet know well the external forms of this life” (116). The opinion is taken up and made definitive by M. Conti for whom “leaving the world” represents “a technical terminology, typical of medieval language, used to indicate the religious profession made in one of the ‘institutions of religion’ approved by the Church” (Il discorso d’addio, 57). Contrary to this view instead is F. Iozzelli, who considers Esser’s interpretation “an evident forcing” (Francesco d’Assisi tra Vangelo e Chiesa, in Frate Francesco 67  11). ↑
- Test. 14 (Ff 228). ↑
- Cf. Anonimus perusinus, 11 (Ff 1317). ↑
- Cf. Thomas of Celano, I vita, 22 (Ff 296-297). On the evaluation of the two narrative traditions regarding the biblical texts heard by the group together with Francis, see the extensive study of G. Miccoli, Francisco di Assisi, 158-189, in particular 173, and also L. Di Fonzo, L’anonimo perugino tra le fonti francescane del secolo XIII. Rapporti letterari e testo critico, in Miscellanea Francescana 72 (1972) 439-440. ↑
- It should be noted that these texts are part of those quoted at the beginning of the Rnb where the following of Jesus that the brothers are seeking is made explicit (I.1-5) and which in the Rb is summarised in the statement “to observe the holy gospel ” (I.2). ↑
- I believe that the overwhelming and shocking experience made by Francis among the lepers constitutes that “precise spiritual situation” presupposed by O. Schmucki, but not identified, to explain why Francis perceived precisely those three biblical texts to be particularly significant for his life (cf. “La “forma di vita secondo il Vangelo” gradatamente scoperta da Francesco d’Assisi, in L’Italia Francescana 59  351). ↑
- Compilatio assisiensis, 18, 3 (Ff 1497). ↑
- Ibid., 5 (Ff 1497-8). ↑
- Ibid., 6 (Ff 1498). ↑
- Test. 34 (Ff 231). ↑
- A survey of this transformation has been attempted for the passage from itinerancy to stability that already took place at the time of Francis, a process with which the Founder confronts himself in order to maintain the itinerant character of the minoritic vocation (cf. P. Maranesi, Pellegrini e forestieri: l’itineranza nella proposta di vita di Francesco di Assisi, in Coll. Franc. 70  352-374; similar dynamics, however concerning the question of studies are analysed in P. Maranesi, San Francesco e gli studi: analisi del “nescientes litteras” del X capitolo della Regola bollata, in Coll. Franc. 69  7-41, the text was taken up in Id., Maranesi, Nescientes litteras: l’ammonizione della regola francescana e la questione degli studi nell’ordine [sec. XIII-XVI] [Bibliotheca seraphico-capuccina, 61], Roma 2000, 29-66). ↑