By Sandro F. Piedrahita
“There can no more be
a knight without a lady
than a tree without leaves
or a sky without stars.”
“I am thinking of marrying
and the girl to whom I intend
to plight my troth is so noble,
so rich and so good that
none of you ever have seen her like.”
Saint Francis of Assisi
From his earliest youth, Francesco had dreamed of becoming a knight errant, to engage in glorious battle for the defense of his city and the honor of his lady. He had read all the romances of chivalry and hoped for a chance to imitate their heroes. He longed to make war for the sake of love and virtue, for God and glory. So when the opportunity arose and Assisi and Perugia began a fratricidal war, Francesco was ready to engage in battle. Nobody could dissuade him from his purpose, not even his mother Pica, who told him that battle was nothing like it was described in the books of chivalry. She warned him that war was ugly, painful, bloody, that it invited men to sin and kill, and yet her son would not desist.
“Waging war against a perfidious enemy is sanctified by God,” he said. “Otherwise why would the Pope send thousands to fight against the Saracens in the Crusades? The only thing that matters is the justice of the cause.”
Francesco’s father Pietro, a wealthy merchant, approved of his son’s decision and bought him a magnificent war horse and the raiment of a knight. Only the richest persons could afford to become knights, for the cost of the horse, the weapons and the armor was prohibitive. On the night before he left to do battle in Perugia, Francesco appeared below the balcony of his beloved, a lovely seventeen-year-old named Cristina. He was dressed like a knight errant and sitting on his horse next to his squire. Francesco’s armor was of chain mail made up of small interconnected iron rings. He also wore a hooded coat, trousers, gloves, and shoes all made from chain mail which covered his entire body except his face. Over the top, he wore a sleeveless velvet surcoat, which allowed him to show off his family coat of arms. He carried with him a long, triangular leather and wood shield and a wooden lance. In his gilded scabbard there was a heavy sword.
“Oh, Lady Cristina,” he cried out. “Tomorrow I shall go into battle to pay homage to you and to right some wrongs. The citizens of Perugia have taken up arms against Assisi, and we must respond in kind. As a knight, I pledge to you that I shall fight nobly, and always remember that I am fighting for your honor. For you, who has made a prisoner and captive of my heart, I shall reap eternal reward and fame. What do you say, my fair Cristina?”
The girl went into her room and soon appeared again at the balcony with a bouquet of roses in her hands.
“Go and do battle, my gallant Francesco,” she commanded as she threw the roses toward him. “You must fight for the oppressed citizens of Assisi in order to justify yourself in the eyes of God.”
“Do you promise that when I return I shall have your hand in marriage? You, Cristina, who are the object of my most chaste desires.”
“I am your betrothed,” Cristina responded. “What woman could resist the charm of such a knight? You are dressed in glory, and I am sure that you shall return from battle glorious in your victory.”
“The knight has a sublime mission,” responded Francesco. “One must abide by the code of chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table. One must never kill senselessly nor murder anyone, only taking an enemy’s life in battle when absolutely necessary. One must give mercy to him who asks for it, even if the plea comes from an implacable foe. One must always protect the fair ladies, the orphans and the widows. One must never fight in battles that are not for God or country, certainly not for plunder or treasure. And one must fear God and safeguard His Church above all else, always remembering that salvation is the ultimate purpose of life.”
“May God grant you success in battle,” replied Cristina.
“With the aid of God, I promise I shall gain the victory.”
At that point Francesco’s squire Sandrino Pancia interfered. He was nicknamed “Pancia” – Italian for belly – because of his bloated midriff.
“We must be getting on,” he said. “Tomorrow Assisi’s army is to convene at five in the morning in the Piazza Commune next to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Bishop Guido is to bless our troops before they go into battle.”
“Yes, that’s important,” replied Francesco. “A knight must be in the good graces of God so that he can achieve his noble quest.”
“I for one need some sleep,” said Pancia. “If we are going to be at the Piazza Commune by five, the least we can do is go to sleep before midnight. Don’t forget it takes a while for me to put your chain mail armor on. That means we’ll have to be up by four. As you know, I am rather lazy.”
“How can you be thinking of something like sleep at this time?” queried Francesco. “On the eve of battle, the only thing we should think about is how to fight to defend our city.”
Then Francesco turned to his fair lady Cristina.
“I must bid you adieu,” he said. “I shall return soon to tell you about our swift victory. With the strength of my mighty arm and the help of God above, I should be back within a month.”
“Godspeed,” said Cristina as she threw a Rosary into his hands. “Farewell, my conqueror.”
“Farewell, my lady,” said Francesco as he wrapped the Rosary about his neck.
* * *
After Bishop Guido blessed them, Francesco and his fellow soldiers made their way to the outer perimeter of Perugia, only twenty-five kilometers away from Assisi. The Perugians had been amassing troops at the border for weeks, and the people of Assisi had realized that war was imminent. There was simply no other reason for so many armed Perugians to congregate in such a manner. By ten o’clock in the morning, Assisi’s troops had arrived at their destination. Among them were infantry men with crossbows and knights in sartorial splendor accompanied by squires who hoisted the flags bearing Assisi’s coat of arms. Once they arrived, Assisi’s soldiers encamped at a site about a hundred meters away from where the Perugians were waiting for them. At first, nothing happened. The two opposing camps merely waited, nobody daring to go into the no-man’s land between the armies of Perugia and those of Assisi.As the days passed, Francesco became impatient and his squire expressed his hunger. Francesco was eager to do battle, although he had no idea what battle meant.
On the fourth day, a Perugian knight entered the space between the two armies, riding on a white steed with a resplendent image of the Virgin Mary on his shield. Francesco marveled at the fact that both sides were seeking heavenly intervention, but decided to charge against the Perugian knight in any case. So Francesco advanced with his horse, and the joust began. The two horsemen lunged at each other and attacked each other with their lances. Everyone was in rapt attention as the two men participated in a ritual the townspeople had seen many times before in friendly competitions, knowing this time it was but the first step in a much larger war. Francesco acquitted himself honorably and managed to throw his rival off his horse. The knight from Assisi did not proceed to kill his enemy and manifested the mercy of a knight errant at the service of God. And for a brief moment – the briefest of moments – he basked in glory and had no doubt he would emerge victorious like the knights of the chivalrous romances he had read. But that was before he saw what war really meant, before he met face-to-face with Lady Death.
As soon as the Peruvian horseman fell to the ground, another took his place and began to do battle against Francesco. This time it was Francesco who fell off his horse. The Perugian knight unsheathed his sword and prepared to kill him. Francesco, however, made good use of his shield and managed to escape. Soon great crowds from both sides entered the zone between the two encampments and started to fight. In the pandemonium that ensued, Francesco was able to find his horse and join in battle. That was when he first realized that being a knight errant was ultimately inimical to his nature. He simply could not bring himself to kill. The Perugians were his neighbors, and he counted many of them among his friends. So Francesco decided all he would do was to knock Perugia’s knights off their horses, never killing them. He would fight for victory without gambling with his soul. But then something horrible happened, and it would happen again and again, throwing him into the cesspit of despair.
A Perugian – a giant of a man – charged against Francesco in fury and ruthlessly pounded on Francesco’s shield with his lance. Francesco had the good fortune of knocking the man off his horse. One of Assisi’s infantry men approached the Perugian lying on the ground and slit his throat with a copper dagger.
“How could you?” asked Francesco incredulously. “Why did you take his life? God asks us to be merciful in the battle against our foes.”
“Mercy never wins battles,” the infantry man responded. “If we don’t kill them, how do you want us to win the war?”
Francesco continued to fight with his lance, knocking Perugian cavalry officers off their horses right and left. He never killed anyone, but he was instrumental in the death of many. Every time a Perugian knight fell off his horse, the soldiers from Assisi would finish him off with their weapons of war. And the Perugians were doing the same thing to the horsemen from Assisi. Everywhere there was death. Francesco saw no glory in the carnage that ensued. So many young men in the prime of their life lying dead on the ground soaked in their own blood. And for what? Certainly not to bring honor to fair ladies. Certainly not for the glory of God. It was a fratricidal war where brother was pitted against brother. They were not reclaiming the Holy Land from the Saracens. They were all fighting against fellow Italians, fellow Christians, men of good will. Francesco retreated briefly from the battle and wept silently in a corner.
* * *
The Perugians soon defeated the soldiers from Assisi, and Francesco was incarcerated along with Pancia his squire. Francesco expected to be immediately ransomed by his father, but apparently his captors and his father could not reach an agreement as to the amount that had to be paid. Francesco suspected that his father was driving a hard bargain, as was his wont, and that he was willing to let his son languish in jail for a year in order to persuade the Perugians that he would not pay one more cent than what he had initially offered. So the weeks passed, and then the months, and no one appeared to free the two men from their captivity. But that year was not misspent, as it forced Francesco for the first time in his life to seriously think of God.
“Do you ever wonder what the purpose of life is?” he asked Pancia one afternoon as they were sitting on a bench in their cramped jail cell.
“I don’t worry overmuch as to big important questions,” answered the squire.”I believe in Jesus and in His mother Mary, go to Mass on Sundays, try to follow the Commandments and leave the thinking to others.”
“I always thought that being a knight would give meaning and purpose to my life, and yet when I engaged in battle I found it repulsive to no end. If God exists – and I’m sure He does – He could not have been pleased that the citizens of two neighboring towns killed each other in droves without even knowing why. I’m sure humanity’s penchant for war appalls the Christ. In every place that humans live, war is the order of the day.”
“Do you think all war is bad?” asked Pancia as he scratched enormous belly. “What about the Christian wars to crush the infidels?”
“I don’t know, Pancia, I don’t know. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to ask myself such questions. But I do wonder why the Moslems cannot be converted through teaching and example rather than force of arms. Why don’t we send them missionaries instead of warriors?”
“With all due respect, my sire, I think that you are talking foolishly. They are a fearsome bunch. I don’t think they’ll convert to the one true faith even if ten thousand missionaries are sent their way.”
“Still, nothing would be lost by trying.”
“Other than the heads of all the missionaries,” Pancia replied.
“What if I told you that in my dreams Jesus appeared to me telling me never to fight in a war again? What if I told you he said war is always a failure and a defeat?”
“I think that’s very good advice, my sire. I for one have no penchant for battle. Or great bravery either. I am a peaceful man, a harmless quiet fellow. My back is still sore from the blows I received from the Perugians as I struggled for dear life. So go back to Assisi and become a cloth merchant like your father. I’m sure your life will be much easier than that of a mighty knight always on the verge of losing his life and limbs.”
“I’m not interested in the life of a merchant. Business is an honorable profession as far as it goes. But I don’t want to spend my life arguing over money. I’ve been a great sinner, but greed has never been one of my vices. I’ve never cared too much about money one way or the other. Perhaps I can be an explorer. What do you think, Pancia? Perhaps I can go to Egypt and discuss religion with the Sultan himself.”
“It’s easy to say you don’t care about money when your father is so prodigal with you. Earn your bread like every other man, and we’ll see if you begin to care about money. As far as your becoming an explorer, it would be sheer folly. You never know what brigands you might encounter along the way. And if you visit the Sultan of Egypt without an army, he’ll literally have your head on a platter like that of Saint John the Baptist. You won’t come back alive, my master.”
“Still, there must be more to life than making money and growing fat, with all due respect. I’m searching for meaning in my life. Do you understand me? I believe that a great destiny awaits me. That’s what I’ll pursue. Perhaps I shall become a poet or a famous troubadour!”
“Beware of grand ambitions, my sire. They can only lead to trouble. Humility is the most important of the cardinal virtues. Don’t get drunk on your own vanity.”
“I know it! I know it, Pancia. And pride is chief of the cardinal sins.”
* * *
A year after Francesco was ransomed by his father, all the young men of Assisi were enlisting to fight in Apulia at the orders of Pope Innocent III. A certain Gauthier de Brienne claimed the crown of Sicily and with the Pope’s blessing had formed an army to reclaim it. Francesco’s father Pietro encouraged his son to enlist in order to redeem his honor. Pietro believed that Francesco should have died in battle during the war with Perugia rather than having allowed himself to be captured by his enemies. But the matter was not so clear to Francesco. He felt that two wolves were fighting over his soul and was not sure whether war was glorious or genocidal. On the one hand, there was his thirst for vainglory, the belief that he could achieve great things in battle. On the other hand was his great nobility of spirit, which told him fighting in a war as a mercenary for Gauthier de Brienne was sinful rather than glorious. The war which de Brienne was preparing would result in massive bloodshed, much worse than what Francesco had experienced in the little war with Perugia. When he expressed his doubts to his father, Pietro told him he was being a coward.
“I think a year in a Perugian prison has made you lose your knightly brio. You are now afraid to kill or be killed. But such are the exigencies of war. And there is nothing sinful about a just war.”
“I’ll pray about it,” replied Francesco.
“What is there to pray about?” his father asked. “The Pope himself has given de Brienne his blessing. I thought you always wanted to achieve great things in life.”
“And I still do. But I’m no longer sure that felling young men in battle is the way to do so.”
Taking leave of his father, Francesco retired to the cave where he often prayed.
“Please, Lord,” he said. “Give me a sign. Do you think it would be sinful pride for me to engage in a bloody war in Sicily, or would I be fighting for your greater honor?”
After meditating for hours, Francesco finally fell asleep and was graced with a vision as he slept. He saw his father’s house had become a magnificent palace, full of golden swords, golden shields and spears, helmets which shone brightly. He did not fail to notice that two of the bright shining swords formed the image of a cross, as in the banners of the Crusaders, nor that the shields and armor were decorated with crosses. He also saw a lovely lady, resplendent in her beauty, beckoning him to some great battle. Francesco awoke in a cold sweat and was sure it was a message from God telling him that he should not only engage in war but that it would be glorious to do so. He would put on the armor of chain mail and ride his horse into battle once again, although he did not understand the apparition of the lady. He would no longer be fighting for the honor of Cristina, as that relationship had ended long before. Little did Francesco realize at the time that his betrothed would be Lady Poverty, for he had not met her yet and had no idea she would become his mistress.
When he returned to his father’s house, Francesco was immensely happy. In his mind, the Lord had chosen to resolve his quandary and to remove any and all scruples about joining de Brienne’s expedition. His father was elated, purchased the suit of chain mail for his son as well as all the necessary weapons and a new war horse, as well as a small ass for his squire Pancia. The two men immediately joined a caravan of soldiers making their way to Rome, en route to southern Italy. Francesco, letting his pride take over once again, promised his father that he would come back a prince. But once they arrived at Spoleto, something happened which threw all his plans of earthly glory into disarray. He received another vision. This one told him he had not understood God’s prior message.
“Return to your own country,” the voice said. “There it shall be revealed to you what you are to do, and you will understand the meaning of these visions. Why follow the servant instead of the Master on whom he depends?”
Francesco was crestfallen and dejected to no end. Not only would he fail to attain the prize he so desired, but he would be humiliated by all of Assisi for being a coward. He cringed at the idea of returning to his city in such dishonor. And yet he was sure it was the Lord’s directive that he return to Assisi, though Francesco racked his brain and could not understand God’s purpose. If the golden weapons of his first vision did not signify that he should return to war, what could they mean? Who was the beautiful woman he had seen in the dream if not a lady for whose honor he had to engage in battle? As he and his squire arrived at the gate leading to Assisi, children pelted them with eggs and laughed at them with scorn, crying out “Codardos! Codardos!” That was the first time Pancia realized that his master’s new persona was no safer than the rollicking knight errant. Nor did he doubt that he would share in his master’s fate.
* * *
For months, Francis had no idea as to what his two visions meant. He was now a pariah, berated by all including his father for being a coward. And yet he was as far as possible from being a coward, unless refusing to kill your fellow man makes of one a coward. On the contrary, he still dreamed of great and valorous feats, sure that if the Lord was giving him messages in his dreams, it must be because God still had a grand purpose for him. So if the messages came from God, he resolved that the best way to decipher their meaning was to seek the answer from God. He visited all the churches of Assisi, often accompanied by his loyal Pancia, and prayed for a divine revelation. Pancia thought he was overdoing it with the prayers but said nothing. At first, the Lord was silent, but then, in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, Francesco heard a voice.
“Francesco, don’t you see that my church is in ruins? Go restore it for me.”
The knight turned to his squire.
“Did you hear Him?” asked Francesco.
“No, my Lordship, I heard nothing.”
But Francesco jumped for joy, although in truth, he failed to understand the message. Nevertheless it gave him something useful to do with his time. It saved him from the terrible lethargy he had experienced on an ongoing basis after his disastrous return from Spoleto. And perhaps, thought Francesco, this latest apparition could help him understand the two prior visions.
“Come,” he said to Pancia. “We must obtain the stones and mortar.”
“For what, my Lord?”
“We must rebuild this church,” replied Francesco. “It is a request from God.”
“Where are you going to get the materials to refurbish it?” asked the ever practical Pancia. “Those things cost a good deal of money. This church is barely standing up.”
Francesco, with joy painted on his face, responded simply, “I have a plan. Come follow me.”
The two men returned to the shop owned by Francesco’s father, and Francesco took as many bales of cloth as he could carry on his horse and instructed Pancia to do the same. Then they went to the central marketplace and in a few hours sold all the fabric for a hefty price. Then Francesco sold his horse as well as the ass on which his squire rode through the neighborhoods of Assisi.
“Your father isn’t going to like this,” said Pancia. “You’ve sold his best merchandise and the war horse too. Your father doesn’t suffer fools gladly, especially when it comes to his money.”
“I’m doing this at the orders of my heavenly Father. Don’t you understand? His demands prevail over those of my earthly father. I must rebuild God’s church according to His instructions.”
Thereafter they returned to the church of San Damiano, where they found the priest and told him they had obtained money to repair the church.
“We shall use the money to repair your church. I myself will obtain the mortar and the stones and with my squire I shall commence the project.”
“Your squire?” asked the priest quizzically.
“My assistant,” responded Francesco. He was still in the habit of calling Pancia his squire, even though their engagement in war was over.
“Thank you,” replied the priest, not expecting such a sudden boon. “The church could use a little rebuilding.”
Francesco and Pancia did not immediately return home, for they knew Francesco’s father would be incensed. Instead, they hid in a cave for over a month. Finally Francesco and Pancia, ravaged by hunger and cold, returned to the house where Francesco lived with his father. Francesco was bursting with joy, singing one of the songs of the French troubadours which he so admired. Pancia, on the other hand, was apprehensive, for he suspected the day would end with a flogging. Upon their arrival to Assisi, dressed in rags, they were greeted with taunts from a group of boys.
“Madmen! Fools! Pazzos!” they shouted as they threw stones and mud at the two men. It would not be the last time Pancia would be pelted with stones for following his master, nor was it the last time he would be called a madman for following his master’s vision.
“Pazzo d’amore!” retorted Francesco as the stones struck him. “Crazy in love with God!”
When the two arrived, Francesco’s father Pietro was waiting for them, cross-armed in the living room, having heard the noise of the boys taunting his son through a window.
“I have a question for you,” he addressed his son in an even voice. “All of the finest fabric from my shop disappeared a month ago. That was very valuable cloth which I brought from France on my last trip. What did you do with it?”
“We sold it,” Francesco responded with an expression of delight.
“You sold it?” Pietro repeated. “I hope you obtained a good price. Show me the money.”
“The money is not mine to return. According to God’s wishes, it must be used to repair the church at San Damiano.”
Pietro could not believe what he was hearing. Incensed, he told his son to return the money immediately.
“I can’t do that,” replied Francesco. “The money now belongs to Mother Church.”
Pietro struck Francesco hard across the face.
“That money belongs to me, and you shall return it. You’re nothing more than a common thief.”
“You can strike me all you want,” Francesco resisted, “but it is the divine will that the church of San Damiano be rebuilt.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve had another one of your foolish visions. Like the one that ordered you to return from Spoleto with your tail between your legs. Your conduct brought nothing but shame to our house.”
“I haven’t made up any of my visions. At first the Lord’s messages were somewhat cryptic, I’ll admit it. But now He has given me specific instructions to fix the church of San Damiano. You should be happy. You can share in the exquisite joy of knowing your money will be used to make God’s wishes a reality.”
Pietro then called two of his valets and directed them to chain down his son and throw him into a dungeon. As for Pancia, Pietro decided he should be flogged. The terrified man argued that he had done everything at his master’s bidding and had no choice in the matter, but it was to no avail. It was not the last time Pancia would be flogged for following Francesco’s outlandish wishes.
At some point, Pietro brought the matter up with Bishop Guido and asked for the redress of his grievances. After listening to both sides, he told Francesco he had to return the money even if he intended to use it for a noble purpose, for the money was not his to give. Francesco nodded his head in agreement and took off all his velvet clothes without further ado. He threw his clothes in a heap, and on top of them, he threw the money. As he was standing completely naked before the bishop, he said in a peremptory voice, “Up to now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father, but now I have a purpose to thank God. I give him back not only this money he wants so much, but all the clothes I have from him. I am no longer the son of my father Pietro but only of my Father who is in Heaven.”
Bishop Guido placed a shawl upon Francesco’s shoulders. His father left, taking the clothing and the money, never again to speak to a son he considered a madman and a fool.
And the knight Francesco, for the first time in his life, was to meet face-to-face with Lady Poverty.
* * *
Sandrino Pancia, ever the squire, accompanied Francesco in his newly discovered destitution. They had no salary, no roof over their heads, no money for a bit of cheese or even a loaf of bread, certainly no guarantee for the morrow. When Pancia suggested that they seek employment as farmhands or as laborers in one of the monasteries, Francesco waved his hand in the air dismissively and said, “God will provide.” When his squire remonstrated that God helps those who help themselves, Francesco responded without hesitation.
“We shall help ourselves indeed. And in honor of Lady Poverty, we shall do it by begging.”
“So you mean you don’t intend for us to work? You expect us to survive based on the benevolence of passersby? Didn’t the Lord say, ‘By the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread’?”
“We shall work repairing the church at San Damiano and other churches in the zone. So many of them have been neglected and left in disrepair. But we shall not earn our living from work, for that would not be pleasing in the eyes of Lady Poverty.”
“Who is this Lady Poverty? I have never heard of such a woman. Why would she prevent us from seeking some material comfort through an honest day’s work?”
“Remember the dream I had,” Francesco responded, “where I saw a beautiful woman surrounded by instruments of war, and I concluded she was sending me to battle for Gauthier de Brienne? Well, it turns out I misunderstood the vision. It is only in the last few days that I have figured it out. The lady was not inciting me to military battle for an earthly prince but to a peaceful war on behalf of the prince of princes, our Lord Jesus Christ. So from now on we shall not only be mendicants, but we shall publicly preach Christ’s message of repentance. In fact, we shall start tonight.”
“All right,” said Pancia, “but it is not Lady Poverty that I fear. The one who terrifies me is Mistress Hunger. How shall we be able to eat if we do not work?”
That night the two men went to the Piazza Commune, and Francesco began to sing and dance, encouraging Pancia to follow suit. He sang chivalrous songs about doing battle for one’s lady, but in his mind the songs were all about Lady Poverty. Then he began to preach, encouraging people to repent and to seek the Eternal Kingdom. And he laughed with joy, laughed like a madman, as some in the crowds began to call him crazy, for the preacher was dressed in rags.
“I think it’s time to leave,” said Pancia. “I don’t think the townspeople of Assisi like your dancing or your message.”
But Francesco was unperturbed.
“Yes, I am a madman,” he exclaimed, “a madman for Christ. Let us all follow the folly of the Cross. Welcome to the lunacy of love. Do not keep gold or silver or money in your girdles, nor wallet for your journey nor two tunics nor sandals. What did Jesus say? If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his Cross and follow me.”
Then Pancia mustered the courage to intervene. He was brief, for he was not a man used to public discourse, but Francesco encouraged him to do so.
“Do everything this man tells you to do,” he said simply. “No one can tell you anything better.”
Francesco repeated another injunction of the Christ.
“Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor knapsack, shoes nor money.”
Suddenly a large group approached the two men and began beating them with their walking sticks and pummeling them with their fists.
“Madmen!” they cried out. “Crazy fools!”
“I thought something like this would happen,” Pancia lamented as the men furiously attacked him, and he made an effort to run away.
“You should be pleased,” Francesco responded as if he didn’t feel the pain of the canes across his back. “You are suffering for the sake of the Lord. What greater glory could there be? What greater homage to our Lady Poverty? Don’t you realize that the contempt of others is a blessing?”
Once they escaped, Pancia complained bitterly about the incident, but Francesco accepted it with unbridled joy.
“Happy are those who are persecuted,” he exclaimed, “because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”
But the night was not over. As the two men fled to the cave where they had found refuge, they encountered three ruffians in tattered clothes. Francesco mistook them for disciples of Lady Poverty and greeted them with mirth.
“I am a herald of the Great King,” Francesco boisterously announced. “Come and follow me, fellow knights of Lady Poverty!”
The three men were perplexed by the man’s words, as the truth was that they were thieves.
“Herald of the Great King,” they mocked him, “turn over all your money.”
“If I had any money, I would willingly give it to you, since you are obviously poorer than me. My poverty has not forced me to become a thief. But I’ve made a vow to Lady Poverty and reject the use of money, so there’s nothing for me to share.”
“And what about you?” they asked, turning to Pancia. “What are you carrying in that bag?”
“Just a piece of cheese I received from a generous soul.”
“Well, turn it over,” one of the thieves demanded.
“Give it to them,” ordered Francesco. “They are obviously hungry.”
“I shall not,” Pancia protested. “That’s all I have for the morrow. I am hungry too. Don’t you see that I’m a shadow of my former self?”
The three robbers proceeded to beat the two men up and throw them into a ditch. Francesco was once again unperturbed – he thought he was earning Heaven’s treasures – but Pancia violently protested that his whole body was stinging as a result of the night’s events.
“I never imagined this new life we’re living would lead to so many blows. Your Lady Poverty is certainly a demanding mistress.”
“Following this path won’t be easy,” responded Francesco. “I perfectly understand if you don’t want to follow me on this journey. But let me tell you that turning your life over to Christ and Lady Poverty will lead you to receive a jewel of immeasurable value. She can provide you with treasures you cannot imagine. You must decide if you want to join me not only as a squire but as a knight for Christ with all the joy and suffering that entails.”
“When you say I shall become a knight and receive a treasure, what do you mean? Knights are often given islands to administer. Is that the kind of bounty I should expect from Lady Poverty?”
“No, you’re getting it all wrong, Pancia. The treasure is the poverty itself. You must imitate the Christ born in a simple manger and crucified nearly naked on a Cross. You must put to bed all fear and worry and just have faith in the one true Christ.”
“Well, I won’t leave you alone on such a difficult journey,” said Pancia. “I have followed you into battle in the past, and I shall follow you into battle in the future.”
“You’re a fool,” said Francesco mirthfully as if the word was not an insult but an accolade. ”We shall both be fools for Christ and Lady Poverty.”
* * *
As the months passed, Francesco continued to joyfully suffer through insults, blows and taunts every time he preached, sang and danced in the Piazza Commune, but among many of the citizens of Assisi his message began to strike a chord. Some wondered whether he might be a saint, for they had never seen anyone imitate Jesus to such an extent, and they approached him in all humility to kiss his hands. He was taking the injunctions of the Christ quite literally rather than metaphorically, as many of them did.
Francesco’s extreme conduct also made the citizens of Assisi feel a certain shame, for they realized how far they were from the example set by this new apostle and by inference the Christ. And there were a few – a very few – who decided not only to emulate him but to join him. Among them were some of the wealthiest men in Assisi, who sold all their goods and distributed the proceeds to the poor in order to live with Francesco and Lady Poverty. Bernard of Quintavalle for example was one of the richest men in town. After a night with Francesco when they discussed the purpose of his life, Francesco suggested he open the Bible at any page to see what plans Jesus had for him. The answer could not have been more peremptory.
“If you will be perfect,” said the passage they had found, “go sell what you have and give it to the poor.”
Bernard liquidated all his assets the very next day and turned over all the money to a leprosarium in need of funds. Soon he put on an old brown tunic and began to beg with Francesco to the amazement of all of the citizens of Assisi. Next came Peter of Catanii, a well-known jurist who also sold all he had and put on a brown robe to seek alms in the streets. Eventually nine other men joined Francesco in their pursuit of Lady Poverty. That is when an outlandish idea came to his mind.
As Francesco and Pancia were putting the final touches to the church of San Damiano – they had paid for the materials with money obtained by begging – Francesco turned to Pancia and told him he had finally understood what the Christ had meant when He ordered him to repair his Church, which had fallen into ruins.
“Repairing the church of San Damiano is all well and good,” said Francesco, “but that is not what the Christ asked me to do. When He spoke of repairing His church, He didn’t mean this little chapel, but the universal Church itself. He was referring to Peter’s barque, which is tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness and persecution. The Good Lord wants me to restore His Church, to preserve the boat from the hunger of the sea.”
“With all due respect,” said Pancia, “that sounds like a pretty tall order. You’re a humble man who lives by collecting alms. You’re not the Pope or even a bishop. How do you think a lowly man like you could restore a church of millions of people?”
“You’re forgetting the Christ built His church with twelve disciples. But after Pentecost Sunday, those few apostles multiplied and conquered the world.”
“Beware of your wild ambitions,” said Pancia. “You’ve been like this all your life. In your deepest heart, you desire honor, fame, success. But that is not the humility which you have taught me again and again. Leave the barque of Peter to Peter’s heirs. You devote yourself to smaller tasks.”
“I shall consider what you’re saying, but aspiring to greatness is not the same thing as sinful pride. God created man to do great deeds. And I see no other meaning to God’s command that I repair His Church. The problem with you is that you aspire to too little, that you’re stuck on earth and don’t see things of Heaven.”
“If you say so,” replied Pancia. “But even if excessive ardor is not a manifestation of vanity, your plan is an impossibility nonetheless.”
“I had a dream,” responded Francesco.
“The Lord revealed to me that our little Order is going to spread all over the world.”
“We’re not even an Order yet,” answered Pancia. “Don’t you need approval from Pope Innocent III?”
“Don’t worry about the minutiae,” said Francesco. “The Pope will approve our Order.”
“And then what? Do you propose to send Bernard to France, Giles to Castile, Angelo to England, Morico to Portugal, Sabbatino to Germany? You don’t have enough disciples to convert men to the cult of Lady Poverty throughout the world as you propose.”
“To men it may be impossible. But don’t forget that to God all things are possible. Trust in Him, and become willing to let Him guide us. I assure you we will gain many more adherents.”
“You’re still the knight errant of old, my lord, still fighting imaginary battles for your Lady.”
* * *
Francesco and his eleven disciples began to make their way to Rome a sunny day in August in order to meet with Pope Innocent III and seek his blessing for their Order. Assisi is about two-hundred kilometers from Rome, and it took Francesco and his fellow mendicants about forty hours to make the trek. By the time they arrived, their brown tunics were covered in dust, and their faces were dirty. But that did not stop Francesco from immediately appearing at the palace where Pope Innocent III lived. Francesco wore his old tunic, patched and repatched a dozen times, and apologized to the Pope for arriving unannounced. The Pope sitting on a throne looked at him as if he were an insect.
“How dare you come to the Holy See dressed in rags and with an unwashed face? And there’s a stench about you! Do you live with pigs?”
“This is my only tunic, your Holiness. I travel light in accordance with the Lord’s directives. I wish my tunic wasn’t so old and ragged, but that is all I have. As far as the smell, I apologize, your Holiness. I live on the streets and don’t always have a place to take a bath.”
“What is your business with me?”
“My name is Francesco of Assisi. I come to beg for you to approve my request that you allow the small group with whom I share the Gospel to become a Catholic order.”
“I’ve heard about you,” replied the Pope. “Your group lives in complete poverty and lives off alms. And you have a reputation of being a bit of a madman. I’ve heard that you preach to the birds and converse with wolves. Tell me, Francesco, do you think animals have souls?”
“One never knows, your Holiness. Birds are beautiful creatures, and I’m sure Heaven is full of beautiful things. I’m sure there are birds in Paradise. As to the wolf of Gubbio you’ve heard about, I merely convinced the animal not to attack the villagers or their livestock.”
“That certainly does not comport with traditional Catholic teaching, but I suppose it’s a harmless imagination.”
“I’ve brought the Rule for our proposed Order, your Holiness. Would you like to read it? In a dream, the Lord told me to rebuild His Church.”
“Before we discuss anything, go back and take a bath and come back in a new tunic. Your attire is an affront to the Papacy.”
“With all due respect, your Holiness, would you have refused to see me if I had come dressed like the Christ as He was crucified? My poverty is merely an emulation of the Christ. Jesus did not live in a palace, nor was he ever dressed like a king. He died nearly naked on a Cross. Why should His followers be dressed any better? I know it is an extreme idea, but it is a logical extreme.”
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those heretics who criticize the Pope and the bishops for supposedly living in luxury.”
“That would not be me,” replied Francesco. “I honor you as the Vicar of Christ on earth and would not dare to reproach you for anything. My proposed Rule says explicitly that the Order shall be governed by the Pope. But I do think that some in the Church have forgotten the example set by the Christ and His earliest followers. Money has polluted the Church. Ecclesiastical privileges are bought and sold rather than earned.”
“Are you accusing me of simony?”
“Far from it,” replied Francesco. “I am but a little beggar for Christ and would not presume to give your Holiness advice. But I don’t think that dressing like a poor man is a sign of disrespect.”
“Well, come back tomorrow. You’ve taken up enough of my time, and I have other matters to take care of. But let me tell you that based on what I’ve heard, I’m probably not inclined to approve your Order. It sounds like a group of lunatics taking matters to extremes. Have you considered that trying to so thoroughly imitate the Christ might be a sign of forbidden vanity? And please, when you come back tomorrow, don’t do so in the appearance of a swineherd.”
On the next day, Francesco did not wear a new tunic or replace his threadbare sandals. Instead, he put on the same old tunic and covered his face with ash. Pancia thought his master had finally become completely demented. This was madder than the time when he had advised friar Juniper to run after a thief who had stolen his cowl in order to hand him his gown.
“If you go to the Pope with ashes on your face, he is going to throw you out of his quarters. Why don’t you just wear Bernardo’s tunic instead? It’s much newer than yours and doesn’t have any patches. And maybe put a little ointment on your neck.”
“I know what I am doing,” replied Francesco dismissively. “Don’t forget that I am guided by God. I want to remind the Pope that we are destined to become ashes. If such is the fate of our body, who cares about the clothes we wear? And wasn’t Christ’s robe covered with patches?”
“If you say so,” answered Pancia. “But I think your conduct will be completely counterproductive. If you go to the Pope in such a condition, your dreams of a grand multitudinous Order will go up in flames. You shall fail spectacularly.”
“I’ve had a dream,” Francesco peremptorily replied. And without any further explanation he made his way to the Vatican.
The Pope did not receive Francesco with anger.
“I see your face is covered with ashes. What does that mean?” he asked.
“I just wanted to remind your Holiness of the words of God. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ Since our bodies are mere dust, it does not matter how we clothe them. So I have decided to come back wearing the same clothes I wore yesterday, not as a sign of disrespect but to show you there is nothing offensive about poverty, especially when it is a choice.”
At that point, the Pontiff did something entirely unexpected. He rose from his chair, kissed Francesco’s hands and suddenly began to sob.
“How could I not have seen,” said the Pope amid his tears, “that you are a holy man, a man of God? I understand now what the Lord meant when he told you to rebuild his Church. I myself have struggled to reform the barque of Peter for years, but I always thought change would come from above, from the bishops and prelates of the Church. But now I understand that change must come from the bottom up. It will not be the Bishop of Rome alone who shall restore the Church, but your little army of supplicants and other men of good will. Now let’s see the Rule you propose.”
“I am most grateful,” said Francesco, “but if I’m not being impertinent, what brought about this change of heart? Yesterday you were suggesting I preach to the pigs, and now you are ready to approve my Order.”
“I too had a dream, Francesco, which showed me that your project of extreme poverty is pleasing in the eyes of God. I saw the huge Lateran Basilica, that thousand year old jewel of Christendom, horribly leaning to one side and about to collapse. Suddenly a little poor man dressed in rags pressed his shoulders against the church to buttress the tottering walls. When I saw the face of the poverello, I realized that it was you, Francesco. Cardinal San Paolo has also recommended that your Order be approved. He has fiercely argued that your Order should not be disapproved on the grounds that it is too extreme, since that would be to say Jesus also was too extreme.”
After the Pope inspected the Rule proposed by Francesco, he approved it without making any changes. Francesco and his platoon of penniless friars now had the authority to preach throughout the world. When he was about to leave, Francesco kneeled before the Pontiff.
“You kissed my hands, and now I must kiss your feet,” Francesco said, “for it is not right for the master to kiss his servant when it is the servant who must kiss his master.”
“May the Lord increase the Order of the Friars Minor,” the Pope replied with a blessing.
And Francesco shuddered at the monumental task ahead.
* * *
Ten years after Francesco’s audience with Pope Innocent III, the Order of Friars Minor had grown exponentially. Young men all over Europe – from Hungary to Aragon, from France to Germany – had been seduced by the charms of Lady Poverty and had sworn their troth to her. Francesco was inordinately pleased by the growth of his Order, but at the same time was afraid so much success might go to his head. He was now at the head of an institution with thousands of members and wielded real power. At the same time, the strictures of Lady Poverty were no longer a burden to him, as he had grown used to them over the years and was accustomed to living a life of voluntary destitution. So he decided to do more, lest he succumb to a sinful complacency. He announced to Pancia that he had decided to join the Christian soldiers who had gone to Egypt in the Fifth Crusade at the orders of the Pope. Francesco’s faithful companion was astonished. Hadn’t Francesco forsworn war ever since he received the message at Spoleto? Did he now intend to fight in a Crusade?
“I am not going to Moslem lands in order to engage in physical battle,” Francesco responded. ”I plan to go there to convert those who need conversion, to wage a grand spiritual battle.”
“Do you plan to convert the Moslems?” asked Pancia. “I don’t see how you can do that. They are fiercely loyal to their faith.”
“Yes, I plan to convert them and some wayward Christians too. I intend to put an end to the Fifth Crusade. And I want you to join me.”
“With all due respect, my sire, what you propose to do is a fool’s errand. I don’t know what you mean by converting wayward Christians. If you mean you want them to abandon battle, you shall never accomplish that. They believe they are on a God-given mission and enjoy the spoils of war. As far as the Moslems, I’ve heard they’re holed up in Damietta while the Crusaders lay siege to the city. Unless you plan to cross enemy lines, you cannot possibly convert the Moslems of Egypt.”
“We shall cross enemy lines if need be,” responded Francesco peremptorily. “We shall enter Damietta and talk directly with the Sultan.”
“Have you had a dream again, my lord? If you haven’t received a message from God, what you’re proposing is sheer folly. As soon as we enter lands occupied by the heathens, we shall promptly be decapitated by their scimitars.”
“In that case we shall be martyrs for the cause of Christ. What death could be more glorious?”
“You intend to take us on a suicidal mission,” said Pancia, shaking his head. “I don’t think God requires so much of us.”
“If you don’t want to join me, I shall not order you to do so. But you too have grown complacent in your faith. Maybe the Lord wants us to risk all to prove our fealty to Him.”
“I’m sorry to say so,” responded Pancia, “but that is the zaniest idea you’ve ever had. You think you’re just going to enter the Sultan’s camp and make him a Catholic? You won’t even be able to go through his ferocious guards without being killed.”
“When life itself seems lunatic,” responded Francesco, “who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness; and maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be. God does not approve of bloodbaths. And this won’t be the first time people take me for a fool.”
“Throughout all these years,“ said Pancia, “I’ve never allowed you to face your perils alone. This new lunacy will not be the exception. We shall march together into the land of death for a heavenly cause.”
When Francesco and Pancia arrived in Egypt, the siege of Damietta had already begun. Francesco immediately began to inveigh the Christian crusaders, demanding that they accept the terms of a peace proposal made by Sultan Malik al-Kamil. Francesco boldly told the Christian troops that they were wrong in what they were doing and bitterly complained that they were courting disaster as war was always contrary to the will of God. But as had happened so often in his life, he was met with jeers and taunts, spat upon by those he tried to convert. When the Crusaders launched a battle to control Damietta, they were routed by the Moslem forces as Francesco had predicted, and thousands of Christians died. Francesco remembered the small war with Perugia in which he had participated as a youth and which taught him that war was never justified. But this time the death toll was so much worse – the bloodied corpses of five-thousand Crusaders were strewn everywhere – and the carnage was caused by two armies violently protesting that their actions were commanded and sanctified by God.
“Let the princes of the whole world take note of this,” Francesco spoke of the Christian defeat as he wept. “It is not easy to fight against God, that is, against the will of the Lord, as stubborn insolence usually ends in disaster.”
When Francesco announced to Cardinal Pelagius Galvani, papal legate and leader of the Fifth Crusade, that he intended to enter Damietta in an effort to convert Sultan Malik al-Kamil to Christianity and end the war, Pelagius readily agreed. He knew that Francesco decried the Fifth Crusade despite the fact that it had been ordered by the Pope. He knew Francesco said the evil of war could never be used to accomplish something good and urged a peace agreement with the Moors since violence was an affront to God. He also knew that the Sultan had decreed that anyone who delivered to him the head of a Christian would be rewarded with gold. If Francesco’s madness ended with his death at the hands of the Saracens, mused Cardinal Pelagius, so be it.
* * *
When Francesco and Pancia, accompanied by an Arab interpreter, got close to the three-walled Arab stronghold of Damietta, they were spotted by four of the Sultan’s black African guards who proceeded to scuffle with and arrest them.
“We’re here to see your Sultan,” Francesco explained to his captors through the interpreter. “We’re here on a mission from God.”
The two Italian men were dressed in patched-up brown tunics with white ropes about their waists, looking nothing like emissaries from Cardinal Pelagius. The African guards had no idea who they were. Then they started vigorously arguing with each other. The interpreter told Francesco and Pancia that the four guards were arguing whether or not they should be immediately be put to death.
“Now we’re done!” exclaimed Pancia to Francesco as he put both hands on his ruddy cheeks. “They are going to cut off our heads!”
“Why are you terrified?” Francesco replied in a calm voice. “Don’t you see that one way or another God will protect us to the end? Oh man of little faith, do you not yet believe?”
The guards put the two friars in chains and decided to take them to the Sultan, who would decide their fates.
“Who are these men?” the Sultan queried.
“They say they are here on a mission from Allah,” responded one of the African guards.
The Sultan turned to the two Christians.
“So you believe Allah is the only God? You’re dressed like Sufi priests. Or are you Christians bringing an offer of peace to end this war?”
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But you are right. We are here to propose an offer of peace to end this heinous war. But the offer does not come not from Cardinal Pelagius. It comes from God Himself.”
“So you weren’t sent by your leader Pelagius?” asked the Sultan. “On whose authority, then, do you speak?”
“I am here on the authority of Jesus Christ, to whose faith I desire to convert you.”
“Oh, little mendicant,” the Sultan laughed. “Your madness is matched only by your courage. You have willingly entered the lion’s den on a mission doomed to fail. If all the armies of Europe have not converted me to the Catholic faith, why do you think a little man in tattered clothes will be able to do so?”
“On the force of my ideas,” replied Francesco. “If you listen with an open heart, you can learn the wonderful way of Jesus Christ, a man who preached peace throughout his life and never war.”
“It certainly seems that His followers have not heeded His message. The Christians have brought nothing to these lands other than never-ending bloodshed.”
“Alas,” confessed Francesco. “What you say is true. But they are diverging wildly from the message of the Christ. I have repeatedly warned them that their war is not in accordance with the will of God. They have refused to listen, bringing disaster to these lands and dishonor to themselves.”
“Well, I shall not order your execution. Why don’t you stay a bit? I will gladly listen to what you have to say. I must warn you that I will not abandon my faith.”
Then Francesco made an offer to the Sultan which horrified Pancia. He had thought his master could no longer do anything that would surprise him, but he was wrong. Just when their safety was assured by the Sultan, Francesco abruptly proposed a solution which could only end in death. It was one of Francesco’s typical flights of fancy, but this time he had gone too far. Francesco suggested that the Sultan prepare a great pyre, then Francesco and Pancia would go through the fire. If they survived, the Sultan’s men were to do the same. The test would show which religion was favored by God.
Fortunately, the Sultan rejected the proposal out of hand, laughing once again.
“Oh, little man of Christ,” he smiled. “How you amuse me.”
Like anyone who spent any length of time with Francesco, the Sultan of Egypt at first thought he was a fool but ended up believing he was a sage. The Sultan, a hardened warrior, detested war and had repeatedly sued for peace, even offering the Christians control of the Holy Sepulcher, the ostensible purpose for the Fifth Crusade. All of his offers had been rejected by Cardinal Pelagius, so the Sultan had reluctantly been forced to engage in a brutal war which decimated the armies of both sides. He marveled at Francesco’s frank admission that the atrocity of the Fifth Crusade had not been ordained by the Christian God but by those who ignored Jesus’ injunction to treat our enemies like friends. Just as the leper, and just as the Pope, had been made in the image and likeness of God, so too the Moslem.
* * *
In the end, Francesco never knew whether or not he had succeeded in converting the Sultan to the Christian faith. There were rumors among the Crusaders that he had been secretly baptized and that he had made all his concubines depart, not wanting to engage in continuous sin. At all events, after his talk with the poverello – the little poor man – the Sultan treated Christian prisoners with humanity, no longer paying for their heads as he had been his wont to do, but keeping them in comfortable prisons until they could be exchanged for Moslem captives.
Still, when he was on his deathbed, Francesco spoke of his inability to establish peace between the Christians and the Moslems as his life’s greatest failure. He had failed to convince the Moslems to accept the Christ, and he had failed to make those who were nominally Christian to avoid the depredations of war.
“Perhaps,” said Francesco to Pancia, “perhaps everyone was right in calling me a madman. Forgive me, Pancia, that I led you to seem as mad as myself. I risked your life on an impossible mission to establish peace between the Christian and the Moslem. I now realize they will be warring against each other into the future. The centuries will pass, and the Crusades will continue, and the land where our Lord was born shall be known as the most violent region of the world.”
Pancia, weeping bitterly, responded that his master was no madman.
“It was noble and brave and beautiful for you to attempt to broker peace between the Christians and the Moslems. I still believe they can be converted to the Catholic faith, and that the Catholics can relearn Christ’s message never to engage in bloody wars.”
“How can we convert Moslems to the Christian faith when they are immolated for doing so by their leaders? How can we teach Christians that war is always a defeat when the Pope himself sends them into battle? You were right when you told me that entering Moslem territory to convert the Sultan was a fool’s errand.”
“I was wrong, my master, I was wrong. Didn’t Saint Paul preach that we should be fools for Christ?”
“We are fools on account of Christ, but you are wise in Christ,” Francesco quoted from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
“You see?” Pancia queried. “Your famous madness was wisdom in the end. You were imitating the folly of the Christ.
“Perhaps that was a sinful vanity, to think that I could live my life as Jesus had lived His. I fell far short of that, Pancia.”
“Do you realize how many souls have been saved through your ministry? There are thousands of men in the Order you founded, and each of those men has converted thousands to the Faith. So your sinful vanity – your unflinching commitment to Lady Poverty – has resulted in the salvation of millions. One can never be accused of sinful pride when he is merely a servant at the service of his master.”
“Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I can gain Heaven yet.”
“Of course,” said Pancia, “and I hope you’ll continue to protect me from your celestial home above.”
“Blessed be almighty God who has shown me such goodness. In truth, his mercies are boundless and the sins of men can neither limit them nor keep them back.”
And with those words Francesco expired.
Several years later, while preaching to the Moslems of Morocco, Pancia was martyred for the Faith.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 2 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
God Alone Suffices (Fiction, June 2023)
Salvifici Dolores (Fiction, July 2023)
That Person Whom You Know (Fiction, September 2023)
The Slave and His Master (Fiction, September 2023)