While the life of St. Francis as we know it is a pastiche of a few facts and a lot of myths, everyone agrees that he went through a series of profound and wrenching experiences that lead to a radical change of his values and his way of life. There are two sculptures here in Assisi that capture his process of conversion in ways that I find graphic and moving. In front of the main Basilica we see this:
and at the lovely church/hermitage of San Damiano we see this:
The broken man on the horse represents Francis returning to Assisi in shame after renouncing his glorious dreams of military adventure. Two years earlier, he had been on the losing side of a bloody battle between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, and after seeing many of his friends hacked to pieces, he was imprisoned in a dungeon for a year before his father managed to raise his ransom. Some modern authors assert that Francis suffered from a form of PTSD that sent him into a dark night of questioning his very identity. He was 22 years old.
After a period of intense soul searching, he attempted to recapture his sense of who he was by enlisting in another military campaign heading to the South of Italy. He got only as far as Spoleto, a town just a few miles away from Assisi. Here he had a deep realization that the world in which he was living was topsy-turvy. Most people who called themselves Christian had little use for the teachings of Jesus that encouraged peace and poverty of spirit. Love of enemies and living a simple life with trust in the Divine seemed to be values honored in words but mocked in daily life.
Thus he turned his back on his upper middle class life, and decided that one was either a Christian or not. Cherry picking the Gospels seemed a betrayal that was rampant in the 13th century–from the top down. There were many movements of religious awakening in those days, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, but for reasons I will pursue in another essay, they were ultimately condemned by the institutional church and many of their adherents were burned at the stake. Francis himself escaped this fate although some of his most faithful followers were executed after his death. But that is another story.
For now, let us simply remember that he managed to remain a faithful Catholic and went about his Father’s business of love and healing. Much is made of his extreme asceticism and life of poverty, but this could be an exaggeration intended to idealize his sainthood by his early biographers. He was certainly more ascetic than I would wish to be, but I think his most characteristic and charismatic feature was his unwavering love for God and human beings and nature. Given the context of the 13th century, I think it is this Love that set him apart, and called over 5000 followers to his community in a very few years. It is this love and peace that I see in the sculpture at San Damiano. His journey to that beautiful place–both in Assisi and in his own heart–was not an easy one. But look again at the picture. Is there anywhere else you would rather be?