Page images

in Northern Italy, Francis every where preached to crowds hanging on his lips, and though the ignominy of the cross may have been his theme, it must be confessed that the admiration of mankind was his habitual reward. But amidst the applauses of the world, his heart yearned after his native Umbria, where his Order had first struggled into sight, and where it was now to receive its final development.

In his missions through Europe he had discovered that his institutes of Minor brethren, and of poor sisters, bound to celibacy, to poverty, and to obedience, were erected on a basis far too narrow for the universal empire at which he aimed. Marriage was incompatible with the first of these vows, worldly callings with the second, and secular dignities with the last. But though wives, and trades, and lordships were incompatible with perfection,' they might be reconciled with admission into a lower or third estate of his Order, where, as in the court of the Gentiles, those might worship to whom a nearer approach to the sanctuary was interdicted. With the design of thus throwing open the vestibule of the temple to the uninitiated, a supplemental code was promulgated, in the year 1221, for what was to be called The Order of Penitence.'


The members of it were to take no vows whatever. Engaging to submit themselves to certain rules of life, it was agreed that the breach of those rules should not involve the guilt of mortal sin. They required the restitution of all unjust gains, a reconcilement with all enemies, and obedience to the commands of God and of the Church. The members of the Order were to wear a mean and uniform dress. Their houses and furniture were to be plain and frugal, though not without consulting the proprieties of their social rank. All luxuriousness in animal delights, and all the lusts of the eye, were to be mortified; all theatres, feasts, and worldly amusements eschewed. Their disputes were to be settled, with all possible promptitude, by compromises or by arbitrement. Every member of the Order was to make his will. They were never to take a nonjudicial oath, nor to bear arms, except in defence of the Church, the Catholic faith, or their native land.

The founder of such a confederacy must have had some of the higher qualities of a legislator. It would be difficult even now, with all the aid of history and philosophy, to devise a scheme better adapted to restrain the licentiousness, to soften the manners, and to mitigate all the oppressions of an iron age. Secular men and women were combined with ardent devotees, in one great society, under a code flexible as it addressed the one, and inexorable as it applied to the other, of those classes; and yet a code, which im

posed on all the same general obligations, the same undivided allegiance, the same ultimate ends, and many of the same external badges. Christianity itself, when first promulgated, must to heathen eyes have had an aspect not wholly unlike that which originally distinguished the third estate of the Franciscan Orders; and rapid as may have been the corruption and decline of that estate, it would be mere prejudice or ignorance to deny that it sustained an important office in the general advancement of civilization and of truth.

In the times of Francis himself and of his immediate successors, the Franciscan cord (the emblem of the restraint in which the soul of man is to hold the Beast to which it is wedded) was to be seen on countless multitudes in the market-place, in the universities, in the tribunals, and even on the throne. In the camp it was still more frequent, for there was much latent significance in the exceptional terms by which the general prohibition of military service had been qualified for the members of the Order of Penitence. In the early part of the 13th century, the defence of the Church, of the Catholic faith, and of their native ' land,' was to Italian ears an intelligble periphrasis for serving either under the standard of the cross against the Albigenses, or under the standard of the Guelphs against the Ghibellines; and the third estate of the Minorites formed an enthusiastic, patriotic, and religious chivalry, which the Pope could direct at pleasure against either his theological or his political antagonists.

And now it remained that Francis should receive the appropriate rewards of the services which he had rendered to Rome, to the world, and to the church-to Rome, in surrounding her with new and energetic allies; to the world, in creating a mighty corporation formidable to baronial and to mitred tyrants; to the church, in supplying her with a noble army of evangelists, who braved every danger, and endured every privation, to diffuse throughout Christendom such light as they themselves possessed. The debt was acknowledged, and paid, by each.

In the bitterness of his heart, Francis was weeping over the sins of mankind, in the shrine of St Mary of Angels, when a revelation was made to him, which, though described with ease and familiarity by a host of Catholic writers, the weaker faith, or the greater reverence, of Protestantism cannot venture to paint with the same minuteness. All that can be decorously stated is, that the Virgin mother, her attendant angels, her divine Son, and their devout worshipper, are exhibited by the narrative as interlocutors in a sort of melo-dramatic action, which terminates in a promise from the Redeemer, that all who should visit that church, and confess themselves to a priest there, should receive

[ocr errors]

a plenary remission from the guilt and punishment of all their sins, provided' (such is the singular qualification of the promise) that this general indulgence be ratified by him whom I have ' authorized to bind and to loose on earth.'




[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

On the following day, Francis was on his knees before the Pope at Perugia.Holy Father,' he began, 'some years ago I reconstructed a little church on your domain. Grant, I implore you, to all pilgrims resorting thither, a plenary indulgence, and exempt the building from the imposts usually consequent on the grant of such privileges.' For how many years,' said the Pontiff, do you desire the indulgence to be ' given?' 'Give me not years,' replied the suitor, but souls, (da mihi non annos, sed animos,) and let all who enter the church of Saint Mary of Angels in contrition, and who are 'there absolved by a priest, receive a full remission of their sins ' in this life, and in the life to come.' A vast gift, and contrary 'to all custom,' observed the parsimonious dispenser of salvation. But, Holy Father, I make the request not in my own name, but in the name of Christ, who has sent me to you.' Then 'be it so,' exclaimed the Pope, but I limit to one day in each ' year the enjoyment of this advantage.' The grateful Francis rose, bowed low his head, and was retiring, when the voice of the Pope was again heard. Simpleton, whither are you going? what evidence do you carry with you of the grant which you ' have been soliciting? Your word,' replied the single-hearted suitor. "If this indulgence be of God, let the blessed Virgin be the charter, Christ the notary, and the angels the witnesses. 'desire no other.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]



The traveller who in our own day visits Assisi, finds himself surrounded by a population of about three thousand souls, and amidst the thirty churches and monasteries which attract his eye, he distinguishes, as pre-eminent above them all, the Sagro Convento, where repose the ashes of Saint Francis. It is a building of the sixteenth century, extending over the summit of a gentle eminence, at the base of the Appenines. A double row of gigantic arches, resembling one vast aqueduct erected on another, sustain a sumptuous terrace, which stands out against the evening sky, like the battlements of some impregnable fortress. The luxuriant gardens, and the rich meadows below, watered by a stream which gushes out from the adjacent mountains, encircle the now splendid church of St Mary of Angels, where still may be traced the Porzioncula, in which Francis worshipped, and the crypt in which his emaciated body was committed to the dust. And there also, on each returning year, may be seen the hardy mountaineers of Umbria, and the graceful peasants of Tuscany,

and the solemn processions of the Franciscan orders, and the long array of civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, waiting till the chimes of the ancient clocks of the holy convent shall announce the advent of the day in which their sins are to be loosed on earth, and their pardon sealed in heaven.

Why demand the reasons of any part of a system which presupposes the renunciation of all reason? The promise given to Francis by the Saviour, and ratified by his Vicar, was precise and definite. It insured a plenary remission of sin to all who should visit the hallowed Porzion cula with contrite hearts, and there receive priestly absolution. The promise, as interpreted by the eloquent Bourdaloue, seems equally absolute. From his sermon, Sur la fête de notre Dame des Anges,' we learn that indulgences granted by the Pope may, after all, turn out to be worthless, since the cause of the gift may be insufficient, or some other essential condition may have been neglected. But in this case, the indulgence, having been granted directly by Christ himself, must, (says the great preacher,) be infallible, for he must have known the extent of his own power, and must have been guided by eternal wisdom, and must be superior to all law in the free dispensation of his gifts.

Pause, nevertheless, all ye who meditate a pilgrimage to Assisi, in quest of this divine panacea! Put not your trust in Bourdaloue, but listen to the more subtle doctor of our own days, M. Chavin de Malan. From him you will learn that to all these large and free promises is attached yet another tacit condition; and that unless you renounce all sin, venial as well as mortal, unless the very desire to transgress have perished in your souls, unless your hearts be free from the slightest wish, the most transient voluntary attachment, towards any forbidden thing, you may be members of all religious orders, and join in all their pilgrimages and devotions, but the plenary indulgence shall never be yours. Pilgrims to Assisi! if such be not your happy state, it boots not to go thither. If such be your condition, why roam over this barren earth to find the heaven which is yours already?

Equivocal as the benefit of the papal reward may have been, the recompense which the world rendered by the hands of Orlando, Lord of Chiusi de Casentino, was at least substantial. At a solemn festival, at which the knight had made his profession of arms, Francis had pronounced the usual benediction on the symbols of his chivalry. Much discourse ensued on the spiritual state and prospects of this militant member of the church, when the grateful, and not improvident, Orlando, for the good of his soul, bestowed on the founder, and the companions of the order of Minor brethren, a tract of land amidst the highest summits of

the Tuscan Apennines. Monte del Alvernia, now Lavernia, was a wild and sequestered region, covered with heath and rocks, and the primæval forest, and eminently adapted for a life of penitence. It became the favourite retreat of its new owners, and especially of their chief. Yet even in these solitudes he was not exempt from some grave incommodities. By night, malignant demons afflicted him, dragging his defenceless body along the ground, and bruising him with cruel blows. When the sun burnt fiercely over his head, Orlando appeared with food, and with offers to erect cells and dormitories for the hermits, and to supply all their temporal wants, that they might surrender themselves wholly to prayer and meditation. But neither the enmity of the demons, nor the allurements of their unconscious ally, could seduce Francis from his fidelity to his wedded wife. In her society he wandered through the woods and caverns of Alvernia, relying for support on Him alone by whom the ravens are fed, and awakening the echoes of the mountains by his devout songs and fervent ejaculations.

It remained only that the Church, in the person of her eternal Head, should requite the services of her great reformer. The too familiar legend must be briefly told, for every one who would cherish in himself, or in others, the reverence due to the Holy and the Awful, must shrink from the approach to such a topic, and be unwilling to linger on it.

On the annual festival of Saint Michael the archangel, for the year 1224, Francis, and Leoni a member of his order, went together to worship at a church which had then been erected on Mount Alvernia. The sortes sanctorum were again consulted, by thrice opening the gospels, which lay upon the altar. On each occasion, the volume presented to their eyes the history of the passion; and the coincidence was accepted by Francis as ominous of some great event which was about to happen to himself.

The hour arrived of the 'holy sacrifice,' when, as though to symbolize his disgust for earth, and his aspirations to heaven, the body of the saint slowly ascended heavenwards. When it had reached the ordinary height of a man, the feet were embraced and bathed with tears by Leoni, who stood beneath. Gradually it mounted beyond the range of human vision, but even then his voice was heard in discourse with the Invisible, and a bright radiance attested the presence of the Redeemer. He was made manifest to the eye of his enraptured worshipper, in the form of a seraph moving on rapid wings, though fastened to a cross; and when the whole scene passed away, it was found that by radiations from this celestial figure, the body of Francis, like wax beneath the pressure of a seal, had acquired the sacred stigmata

« PreviousContinue »