The stories are (literally) the stuff of legends. This is where we hear that St. Francis preached to the birds (although I think his evangelism and discipleship of a wolf was much more exciting). This is where we learn of the stigmata St. Francis was blessed with. Here we learn how St. Clare blessed a loaf of bread only to see the sign of the cross on every slice.
What I found most interesting about these stories was not that their creation or collection, but what they reveal about the mindset of the Christians of those centuries. While I found some elements inspiring, I was also saddened by misguided theology. I want to end with the positive, so let’s start with the bad.
St. Francis and his followers were gripped with the idea of penance and mortification in a very physical way. Chapter 3 provides a good example. One day St. Francis lamented that his companion, Friar Bernard, didn’t answer him when he called three times. God proceeded to tell St. Francis that Friar Bernard was busy in Divine communion, so he could not answer anyone on the creaturely plane. Overwhelmingly upset with himself for his frustration with Friar Bernard, St. Francis found his companion, threw himself down before him, and said,
I command you in the name of holy obedience that, to punish my presumption and the arrogance of my heart, when now I shall cast myself down on my back on the earth, you shall set one foot on my throat and the other on my mouth and so pass over me three times, from one side to the other, crying shame and infamy upon me, and especially say to me: ‘Lie there, you churl, son of Peter Bernardone, whence have you so much pride, you who are a most abject creature? (9)
The Christians of this era seemed to take a perverse joy in being abused. This attitude is miles removed from Jesus’ words to sinner caught in the act: “I don’t condemn you … Go home, and from now on don’t sin any more” (John 8:11 NIV). Instead of hearing Jesus’ words of forgiveness, they chose their own self-punishment.
The inspiring part of this collection of stories can be seen in the same story: they took their sin seriously. If there was a tendency in their culture to overemphasize the most minute attitude of the heart and take matters into their own hands, there is a tendency in ours to ignore all sin and continue living like nothing is wrong. St. Francis and his followers recognized the diverse ways that pride can infect a community and did everything they could to resist it.
While I firmly believe that every Christ-follower should be rightly called, “saint,” it’s clear why the Roman church set some Christians apart as shining examples.
—Ugolino di Monte Santa Maria, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi (New Yrok: Vintage Books, 1998).