Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Preacher to the Birds

There is not surer proof of the greatness of any man or woman than the eagerness with which we fly to read all that is written about them. 'Oh, there can't  be anything more to be said about him, people cry again and again; 'I'm tired to death of his name.' But, though that is an exclamation often made about certain heroes and heroines of history, it is never uttered about such men as Napoleon or Francis of Assisi. It is as impossible to write a book of saints and leave Francis out, as it would be to write a book of great captains, and omit Cæsar.

In the part of Italy that is known as Umbria, there stands the little town of Assisi, built on the slopes of Monte Subasio. Assisi is a very old city—some say it dates as far back as 400 or 500 B.C.—and underneath its streets are long passages which come out far away in the hills, as if the citizens had used them in time of siege as a means of escape. If you studied its ruins of temples, theatres, and circuses, you would learn a great deal of history, not only of Assisi itself, but of Rome also. Totila, the Goth, halted there for a short space on his way to besiege the Eternal City. Charlemagne passed through it two hundred and fifty years later; while in the struggle for power between the pope and the emperor during the Middle Ages, the town sided first with one and then with the other. But, against one enemy, the people of Assisi never ceased fighting, and that was with the citizens of Perugia, which lay across the hills, and could be seen plainly from the castle on the top.

Among all the merchants of Assisi, none was so rich or well thought of as Bernadone, who carried on with France a large trade in silks and embroidered stuffs. He had an only son, Giovanni, or John, born in 1182, and, as soon as the child was four or five years old, he had been taught French, so that by and bye his father might send him across the sea to sell his goods to the noble ladies of the French court, and as no one in Assisi ever thought of learning any language but Italian, the boy was nicknamed 'Il Francesco,' or 'the Frenchman.'

Such, at any rate, is the story, whether it is true or not.

Francis was a lively boy, quick to notice and to remember. He must have heard, from his earliest years, tales of the martyrs who had been put to death by the pagan lords of the town, and could listen for hours to stories of 'battles long ago.' He was himself fond of fighting, as became a good citizen; and, dressed in fine clothes (which he loved) would frequently ride out through the gates with a company of friends to attack Perugia. But he went along that road once too often, for at last he was taken prisoner, and shut up for a year in the castle. When peace was made between the two cities and Francis was set free, he was so weakened by all the hardships he had undergone that he grew very ill. For some weeks they thought he would die, but he slowly got better, and at length was nearly as strong as he had been before his illness, and could ride and walk once more through the streets of Assisi. Yet now and then his companions would look at him with a puzzled expression. He seemed different, somehow, from the friend they had known, though they could not have told you why.

One day, Francis, now twenty-one, and as tall as he ever was likely to be, was walking down the road leading from the Castle of Assisi, when a ragged man rose from a doorstep where he had been basking in the sun, and stood before the young man, holding out his hand for money. Francis stopped and looked at him.

'Surely I know you,' he said. 'I am certain I have seen you before, but I cannot remember your name.'

'Well may you know me,' answered the beggar, 'but when you last saw me I wore clothes as fine as yours, for I, too, was once noble and rich, and commanded a troop of soldiers who went out to fight against Perugia. But yesterday is not to-day, as most of us find sooner or later.'

'Poor man! poor man!' murmured Francis to himself. Then he added aloud: 'Here, take my clothes, they are warmer than yours,' and, unfastening his tunic of grey velvet, he put it on the beggar, and wrapped his mantle of scarlet cloth about him.

'Now I shall pretend to be you,' he cried gaily, picking up the torn and dirty cloak that lay on the ground. 'Fare you well, I will not forget you,' and went away smiling.

That night a strange dream came to Francis. He thought he was in a large room, filled to overflowing with jewels and silks, and beautifully inlaid swords and daggers, and on every weapon was the sign of the Cross. In the midst of the pile stood Christ, and as Francis looked he seemed to hear the words: 'These are the riches which are the reward of my servants, and the swords are for those who fight for me.' But, even as he gazed, the dream vanished, and Francis lay awake wondering if it had any special meaning. Long he pondered over it, and at last he seemed to understand.

St. Francis


'I am to be a soldier and not a merchant, I suppose,' he said to himself. 'Perhaps some day I shall be sent on a crusade. Oh, I hope so! but I must wait and see.'

Not long after his meeting with the beggar, Francis was praying in the Church of St. Damiano, which had suffered so severely in many sieges that it was more than half in ruins. He was kneeling before the altar when a voice again struck on his ears:

'Francis, thou shalt repair my Church,' and he looked about him, waiting to hear more. But as all was silent he at once resolved to lose no time in obeying the Lord's command; and he hastened to buy some bricks, which he carried away on his back and set down near the church, ready to begin his work next day. On his way back with the bricks he met some friends, who stopped and laughed at him for turning mason. Francis laughed too, and said they had better come and help him, so they parted merrily. As soon as he had put the bricks in a convenient place, he went home, and, taking a roll of cloth from his father's warehouse, sold it in the market, giving the money to the priest of St. Damiano to spend as he thought fit for the benefit of the church. When old Bernadone returned and discovered the cloth missing, and that his son had stolen it, he was so angry that Francis fled from his fury, and hid in a cave in the hills, where he stayed for many days without food. At last, driven by hunger, he crept back to his father's house, so changed in the short time that even his friends hardly knew him. His mother wept over him, thinking he was going to die, but his father declared he was mad, and locked him in his room till he could be taken before the bishop. As soon as he found himself in the old man's presence, Francis did not wait to be asked questions, but flung off his clothes, and, throwing himself at the bishop's feet, exclaimed:

'Henceforth, I have no father but the one in heaven,' which caused the bishop so much joy that he almost wept. Then, covering Francis with a tattered cloak that lay on a chair, he gave him his blessing.

It was in this manner that Francis Bernadone at twenty-four, yielded himself to the service of God.

His first act was to go for some time to a small hospital, which was set apart for lepers, and help to tend the poor creatures who were objects of terror and loathing to all. His friends were horrified when they heard what he had done, for they felt sure he would catch the disease and die a dreadful death. Francis, however, had no fears for himself, and while he was nursing the lepers was as gay and cheerful as usual. But, by and bye he felt new duties were required of him. He set out on a sort of pilgrimage over the Umbrian mountains, singing hymns in the joy of his heart and praising God for the birds in the woods and the fishes in the rivers, and all the beauty he saw around him. At night, he slept in a little cell at the foot of the mountain on which Assisi was built; and by day he went from door to door, asking for food or money or clothes or anything else that he needed, and when he got it he would hurry off gladly to seek out some sick or miserable being and give away all that was not absolutely necessary to keep himself alive.

'Take nothing for your journey, neither gold, nor silver, neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves.'

This was the text of a sermon Francis heard one Sunday at mass, and he thought it was meant specially for him, and to be a sign that such was to be the rule of his life. He had long parted with all his rich garments, and now his dress consisted of a loose grey tunic, with a little cape and hood, a leathern girdle round the waist and wooden sandals on his feet, unless, as often happened, he went barefooted. It is thus we see him in the early pictures, but two centuries after his death his followers exchanged the grey habit for a brown one.

Was there, he wondered, any part of his dress that he could manage to do without? At first he thought not, then a sudden idea occurred to him. Yes, of course! he only wanted something to fasten his robe, and a rope would do as well as anything else, in fact better. And then he would have his girdle to give away! So from that day forward instead of the girdle he wore the rope, which gained both for him and his followers the name of 'Cordeliers.'

By this time his untiring humility and charity had drawn many to him. It was a period of restlessness and excitement; men—and women too—were dissatisfied with the lives they were leading, and wanted something different, though what, they did not exactly know. But Francis knew, and so they followed his teaching and did his bidding; and the rich gave to the poor, and even the labourers in the fields stopped sowing and ploughing and preached peace to each other. Soon, the women formed themselves into a society, a large number taking no vows and remaining as before in their homes, only giving up balls and tournaments, and the gay parties of which the Italians were so fond. Later, some of them entered convents, living near big towns and working to support themselves. These were known as the Order of the Poor Clares, from the name of their foundress.

Like Mère Angelique, in France, four hundred years after, Francis would not allow his friars—the friars, minor or lesser, he called them in his humility—either to own any property or to decorate their churches. At a period when in northern Europe the most beautiful of all cathedrals were slowly being raised, the churches of the Franciscans were small and low and made of the cheapest materials that would last. Many of the brothers found this very hard to bear, and entreated, when joining, to be permitted to spend their wealth on more splendid buildings. But Francis was firm.

'That was not their business. The money they collected was for the poor, and to the poor it must go.'

Ever since he had heard the sermon which had caused him to part with his leathern girdle, Francis had longed to be a missionary, and had even set sail for Syria. They had not lost sight of Italy when a violent storm forced the ship to put back disabled into port. Most likely he took this to be a sign that he must give up his plan, for he relinquished the project of going to the Holy Land and made up his mind to embark for Spain, and to cross from there to Morocco.

This was in the year 1214, when Francis was thirty-two years old.

After landing in Spain he went from one place to another, preaching, and founding many convents; but he was never very strong, and after some months the fatigue of the life proved too much for him. He became very ill, and for awhile it was feared that he would not recover. However, at last he got better, and as soon as he was well enough to bear the journey he travelled down to the coast, and was put on board a ship just starting for Italy.

It was in 1216 that the two great founders of Orders in the Middle Ages—Dominic and Francis—met in Rome; and it was there that Pope Innocent III delivered to them their charters of confirmation. That is, he permitted the Orders formed by the two saints to exist, and gave his seal to the rules which they had drawn up. The Franciscans mixed with the people, who felt them to be their friends, and talked to them freely of their difficulties and of the hard lives led by many of them. In their turn, the friars or brothers used, as we have seen, the gifts of rich or kind persons to help those that were in need, and tried by gentle words to make them repent of their sins, and to soothe their troubles, while in their leisure hours they practised the trade which Francis insisted every man should learn. By and bye Pope Nicholas III revoked this excellent rule, and all sorts of lazy men who would not work became friars, and passed their time in begging—and begging too, not for others but for themselves—so that they became pests to the country. But in the beginning the spirit of St. Francis was still with them, and they served as a link between the rich and poor, and were always welcomed by both.

The Order had been in existence for ten years when Francis called a gathering of all the members, in the plain at the foot of Assisi. Five thousand friars met there, each bringing a little tent of his own, with a mat on top of it, so the assembly is known as the 'Chapter of Mats.' Some of them, besides the founder, had been born in the small walled town on the hill above them, and like him had ridden forth as young men to make war on Perugia. Now, their warfare was of a different kind and needed far more courage and endurance, and often their grief for the sins they were continually committing led them to do very foolish things. For instance, in his rounds among the tents where he could speak unheard to each man, Francis noticed that some of the brothers looked very ill, with an expression as of bodily pain on their faces. He guessed what was the matter, and at length brought them to confess that little iron hearts were bound closely on their bosoms and ate into their flesh, so that day and night they were in torture. Others again, had tied strips of linen round their arms and thighs so tightly that the blood could not flow properly in their veins. To all, Francis pointed out that if they deliberately chose to make themselves weak and unable to move, they were putting aside the work set apart for them to do, and hindering the cause of Christ instead of helping it. Then he bade them take off both crosses and bandages, and gather them into a heap. The bandages he burned, and the crosses he threw into the river.

As for the friars, he washed their wounds and rubbed healing ointment into them; and when they were cured, sent the brothers forth as missionaries to distant countries.

It was never the way of Francis to demand sacrifices from others that he was not ready to make himself, and for the third time he sailed from Italy in the hope of turning the followers of the Crescent of Mahomet into soldiers of the Cross of Christ. Strong in his faith, he set sail for Damietta on one of the mouths of the Nile, where so many years later St. Louis of France was to land his crusading army—and entered the Moslem camp. At his own request he was at once led into the presence of the sultan whom, he says himself, he had great hopes of making a Christian.

The sultan received him kindly—in reality he thought his guest a little mad—and listened politely while Francis first preached to him, and then offered to prove his faith in his religion.

He was ready, said the missionary, to pass through a fire if only one of the Moslem priests, or Imaums, would pass through with him. The sultan gazed at him wonderingly but declined to put him to the test, nor was he more encouraging when Francis next proposed to cast himself into the fire and be burned, provided the sultan and the whole nation would become Christians. A guard was summoned to take charge of him and put him on board a ship bound for Italy, with special orders from the sultan himself to treat him with all care and kindness. Never do we hear of anyone—except his father long ago—being rough and rude to him, he was so gentle and good to all.

Thus ended St. Francis' last attempt at crusading. The next few years he spent in wandering over Italy, and many stories are told of his adventures both at that time and earlier. He had one or two friends who went with him everywhere, when he would allow them to do so; and some of his most faithful companions had been, in the beginning, the greatest hinderers of his work. One of these, Silvester by name, formerly owner of a quarry near Assisi, was filled with envy at seeing Francis divide a large sum of money, given him by a rich noble, among the people of a poor village who sorely needed it. Silvester cast about in his mind for some excuse by which he could obtain part of it, and at length he found one he thought would do. 'Francis,' he said, 'never have you paid me the debt you owe me for the stones you bought of me long ago to rebuild your church. Now therefore, that gold is in your possession, give me what is mine.'

Francis did not answer at once. He knew that Silvester was not speaking the truth, and that Silvester himself knew it. But he also knew that his friend Bernard, who was standing by, had in his wallet the prices of all his goods which he had sold to give to the poor, and that what was Bernard's was likewise his. So turning, he took from the wallet two handsful of money, and held it out to Silvester, saying, 'If you will have more, I will give it you.'

No reproaches could have shamed the thief and the liar as bitterly as those few words. For three nights he dreamed that St. Francis stood before him with a cross of gold stretching up from his mouth to heaven. His eyes were opened, and he beheld the gulf between their two souls, and he repented, and gave away all that he had, and straightway became a member of the Order.

But, in spite of all the cares on his shoulders, and the thousands of people that looked to him for guidance, Francis still kept something of the old gaiety which had made him such a favourite in his youth at Assisi. On a journey with Brother Masseo through Tuscany, preaching and visiting as they went, they reached a spot where three great roads met, one leading to Florence, another to Arezzo, and a third to Siena. Here Francis halted and looked about him.

'Which road shall we take, Father,' asked Masseo.

'That which God wills, my son,' answered the saint.

'And how can we tell which He wills?' inquired Masseo.

'He has given me a sign,' replied Francis, 'and it is this: I command you,—and see that you break not your vow of obedience,—I command you, in the road where you now stand, to turn round and round as the children do, until I tell you to stop.'

So poor Masseo twirled and twirled, till he fell down from giddiness. Then he got up and looked beseechingly at the saint; but the saint said nothing, and Masseo, remembering his vow of obedience began again to twirl his best. He continued to twirl and to fall for some time, till he seemed to have spent all his life in twirling, when, at last, he heard the welcome words:

'Stop, and tell me whither your face is turned.'

'To Siena,' gasped Masseo, who felt the earth rock round him.

'Then to Siena we must go,' said Francis, and to Siena they went.

He was passing with two or three friends through the little city of Agobio, when he perceived that the people were all in mortal terror of a great wolf which lay in hiding near the walls, and slew every creature, man or beast, which ventured outside. Nobody dared walk about alone, said the inhabitants, and when they were forced to travel to some distant place they were obliged to form companies of six or seven men, armed with bows and spears, lest the wolf should attack them.

Such was their tale; and, after it was ended, Francis answered them:

'Fear nothing; I and my friends will speak to that wolf,' and he stepped towards the gate.

'Oh, Father! Father, no!' they cried. 'It is bad enough that he should slay us and our children, but we cannot spare you.'

'Fear nothing,' repeated Francis, 'the wolf has no power over me,' and he went through the gate and out into the country, followed boldly by his friends.

And the people stood on the walls, watching.

At a little distance from the town was a small wood, and as Francis drew near, a curious snarl was heard coming from it. At the sound his companions turned and fled wildly to the gates, which swung open to receive them. But Francis did not seem to know that they had forsaken him at the moment of danger, and continued his path without even looking back.

And the people on the walls stood watching. As they watched, a large grey body flew through the air, and, those who had good eyes, saw a gleam of white teeth, and a long, red tongue. They held their breath and their hearts seemed to stop beating, for they thought that the next instant would find the wolf and his victim rolling together in the dust. But, instead, they beheld Francis make the sign of the Cross, as he said,—though they were too far off to hear the words:

St. Francis


'Come hither, brother wolf: I command you, in the name of Christ, that you hurt not me, nor do harm any more to man or beast.'

In the middle of his spring the wolf checked himself and, instead of landing on the saint's shoulder, dropped at his feet.

'Do you know,' said Francis, speaking gravely, 'all the mischief you have done? You have not only slain men but the beasts on whom they depended, and many have gone nigh to starvation in consequence. Richly you deserve hanging'—here the wolf stretched himself out and buried his nose in the dust, beating his tail in shame as he listened—'but I will give you yet another chance, for I believe that you did not know how evil were your deeds, and, if you will come with me, I will make peace between you, for I think that it is hunger and not wickedness, which has driven you to these ways. Therefore, if I obtain a promise from the people that never more shall you be hungry, will you undertake on your part, henceforth to spare both man and beast?' and Francis, as he spoke, held out his hand, and the wolf sat up and put his paw into it.

Much did those on the walls marvel as they beheld these things, and still more when Francis turned toward the gates of the city, with the wolf following after him. They flocked eagerly into the market-place, and there, with the beast beside him, Francis told them of the compact he had made to feed the wolf, and asked if they would keep it. 'We will,' they cried. 'We will, and gladly.'

'And will you,' he said to the wolf, 'on your part abstain from ill-doings, and not put to shame my trust in you?'

And the wolf again held up his paw, and he and the saint shook hands.

The next day Francis, with his friends who were greatly humbled at their own conduct, continued their journey; but, if you wish to know what became of the wolf, I can tell you. He lived on for two years in Agobio, respected by all, and then died—perhaps of too little exercise and too much food—regretted by all, and especially by the children.

As we know, St. Francis loved dearly 'the world and all that therein is,' but best he loved the birds and the fishes; and this he had in common with his friend, St. Antony of Padua, who was much in his company. Often they walked long distances while their roads lay together, and then they would part and each go his own way. On one occasion, Antony had gone alone to preach to the people of Rimini, on the coast of the Adriatic, but they would not hear him, and shut themselves up in their houses. This Antony saw, and straightway went down to the seashore and called to the fishes, bidding them come and listen to his words, seeing that the inhabitants of the city turned a deaf ear to him.

And the fishes came up in multitudes out of the sea and stood on their tails in the water, the little ones in front, the middle-sized ones in the middle, and the big ones behind, and bowed their heads before him. So great was their number that the whole sea seemed covered with fishes; and the people, seeing this sight, felt shame that the fishes were wiser than they; then they unlocked the gates and ran down to the shore, and giving heed to the words of the saint, were converted.

But when we think of St. Francis, it is not surrounded with fishes or wolves that we picture him, but in the midst of the birds, and it is so that he is most often painted.

'Wait here and I will preach to my little sisters, the birds,' he said to his companions, Masseo and Agnolo, when on one of their journeys they passed a thicket so full of birds that every leaf seemed singing. Alone he walked into the field, and birds of every kind flew about him and stood on his shoulders and his feet and covered the ground in front of him and bent down from the bushes. Not a wing fluttered as he talked, and even after he had given them his blessing they remained quite still, till he said:

St. Francis

"St. Francis preaches to the Birds."

'Go, little sisters.' Then they bowed their heads and rose upwards, filling the air with their songs. And singing, they took their way to the ends of the earth.

Four years after his return to Italy, Francis resigned the headship of the Order he had founded, feeling, though he did not let anybody know it, too weak and ill to perform the duties of his office. He bade his friends farewell, and set out for Monte Alvernia, where he knew of a little cave in which he wished to end his life. The way to it was rough, and led uphill, and often the saint was forced to lean upon his staff and gasp for breath. He had felt bitterly the parting with his friends whom he loved so much, some of whom had grown up with him. It was one of the moments which come to all of us as we get older, when we seem to be alone in the world; and he paused where he stood and bowed his head, his heart sinking within him. Then a sudden rush of wings was heard, and a chorus of joy wrapped him round, as his little sisters, the birds, flew out of the cave, and came to meet him, circling round him and alighting on him, and giving him greeting. So he was comforted; and he entered the cave which was soon to be his death-bed. And the birds slept in the trees outside, and every day a falcon came into the cave and beat her wings around the head of the saint, singing in her own language:

'Wake up! Wake up! O holy man! Arise and pray and give thanks, for the hour of Matins is here.' Yet sometimes when Francis looked pale and tired and more ill than usual, she would gaze at him sorrowfully and let him sleep on, while she flew noiselessly away.

One night when Francis had suffered all day from pain and had felt that the blindness he so greatly dreaded was coming fast upon him, he had fallen sound asleep, worn out with weariness and exhaustion and a long fast. As he slept, a vision appeared to him, and he beheld hovering over him a seraph with six wings, and on the seraph was a man crucified. At the sight all his pain and terrors fell away and, instead, a feeling of peace and glory seemed to enfold him. How long the vision lasted he could not tell, but when it vanished he found on his hands, his feet, and his side, the marks of the five wounds of Christ which are known as the stigmata. Of this and of some other visions he never spoke, but the marks were there for all to see who visited him. Henceforth, for the time he remained on earth, he possessed a joy which nothing could take away, and illness and blindness were almost forgotten.

'Bury me with the robbers and evil-doers in the place of execution,' he said, when he knew that the hour of his death was at hand—for no man was ever more humble than he. But his followers would not have it so; and in four years' time a magnificent cathedral had been built in Assisi in his honour, and there his bones were laid to rest by his friends.