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In those hallowed precincts Francis found courage to oppose, and constancy to disarm, the rage with which he was pursued by his father. Gradually, but surely, the mind of the old man embraced the discovery, that, though dwelling on the same planet, he and his son were inhabitants of different worlds. From that conviction he advanced with incomparable steadiness to the practical results involved in it. Why, he enquired, should a churchman, to
a whom all earthly interests were as the fine dust in the balance, retain the price of the pack-horse and of his pack? The priest of St Damiano immediately restored the scattered gold, which he had providently gathered up. Why should a youth who despised all treasures, but those laid up in heaven, retain his prospective right to a sublunary inheritance ? A renunciation of it was at once drawn up, signed, and placed in his hands. Why should a candidate for cowl and scapulary retain the goodly apparel in which he had reached his place of refuge? In a few moments the young probationer stood before him in his shirt. Carefully packing up the clothes, the parchment, and the gold, the merchant returned to accumulate more gold at Assisi. And here history takes her leave of him ; without regret and without applause, but not without a sullen acknowledgement, that, after all, it was from the mortal Pietro that the immortal Francis derived one inheritance which he could not renounce—the inheritance of that inflexible decision of purpose which elevated the father to distinction among the worshippers of Mammon, and the son to eminence among the saints of Christendom.
It was indeed an obstinate hill to climb. An orphan with living parents, a beggar entitled to a splendid patrimony, he traversed the mountains with the freedom of soul known only to those for whom the smiles of fortune have no charm, and her frowns no terror. Chanting divine canticles as he went, his voice attracted the banditti who lurked in those fastnesses. They tossed the worthless prize contemptuously into a snow drift. Half frozen, he crawled to a neighbouring monastery, and was employed by the monks as a scullion. He returned to the scene of his former revels, and obtained the cloak, the leathern girdle, and the staff of a pilgrim as an alms from one who, in those brilliant days, had confessed his superiority in every graceful art, and in every feat of chivalry. With the dress he assumed the spirit of a pilgrim, and devoted himself to the relief of the sorrows of those who like himself, though for a very different reason, were estranged from a cold and a fastidious world.
a Into all the countries embracing the Mediterranean, the Crusaders had at this period introduced the Leprosy of the East. A ritual was compiled for the purpose of celebrating with impressive
solemnity the removal of the victims of that fearful malady from all intercouse with their fellow Christians. It was a pathetic and melancholy service, in which the sternest interdict was softened by words of consolation and of pity. Nor were they words of empty ceremonial. A sentiment of reverence towards those miserable sufferers was widely diffused throughout the whole of Europe. The obscurity which hung over the origin, the nature, and the cure of the disease, and the mysterious connexion in which it stood to the warfare for the Holy Sepulchre, moved that wonder-loving age to invest it with a kind of sacred character. The churchmen of the times availed themselves skilfully and kindly of this popular feeling. They taught that Christ himself had regarded the leprous with peculiar tenderness; and not content to enforce this lesson from those parts of the evangelic narrative which really confirm it, they advanced by the aid of the Vulgate further still, and quoted from the 53d chapter of Isaiah, a prophecy in which, as they maintained, the Messiah himself was foretold under the image of a leper. Nos putavimus ' eum quasi Leprosum, percussum a Deo, et humiliatum.' Kings and princes visited, countesses ministered to them, saints (as it was believed) wrought miracles for their cure, and almost every considerable city erected hospitals for their detention and relief.
Some time before his betrothment to Poverty, Francis, crossing on horseback the plain which surrounds Assisi, unexpectedly drew near to a leper. Controlling his involuntary disgust, the rider dismounted, and advanced to greet and to succour him, but the leper instantaneously disappeared. St Bonaventura is sponsor for the sequel of the tale. He who assumed this deplorable semblance was in reality no other than the awful Being whom the typical language of Isaiah had adumbrated. Little wonder, then, that after his vows had been plighted to his austere bride, Francis had faith to see, and charity to love, even in the leprous, the imperishable traces of the Divine image in which man was created, and the brethren of the Divine sufferer by whom man was redeemed.
Yet, despite this triumph of the spiritual discernment over the carnal sense, neither faith nor charity could subdue bis natural terror in the prospect of a continued and familiar intercourse with such associates. Some distinct disclosure of the Divine will was still requisite to such a self-immolation; and such disclosures were never long denied to him. The now familiar voice was heard anew. Hate what thou hast hitherto loved,' it cried ; ' Love what thou hast hitherto hated.' He listened, and became an inmate of the Leprous Hospital at Assisi.
With his own hands he washed the feet and dressed the sores of the lepers, and once
at least reverently applied his lips to such a wound.
The man (so says St Bonaventura) instantly became whole. . Whether shall we most admire,” he exclaims, the miraculous power, or the courageous humility of that kiss ?' A question to be asked of those who believe in both. But even they who reject the miracle, will revere the loving-kindness of such a sojourn among such unhappy outcasts.
In later days Francis became the father and the apostle of the leprous; and when weightier cares withdrew him in person from that charge, his heart still turned towards them with a father's yearnings. Among his numerous followers, were some who, though destitute of the higher gifts of intellect, were largely endowed with the heroism of self-denying love. James, surnamed the Simple, was amongst the most conspicuous of them, and in those abodes of woe he earned the glorious title of steward and physician of the leprous. It happened that, in his simplicity, James brought one of his patients to worship at a much-frequented church, and there received from Francis the rebuke so well merited for his indiscretion. The heart of the sick man was oppressed as he listened to the censure of his benefactor; and the heart of Francis was moved within him to perceive that he had thus inadvertently added to the burden of the heavy laden. He fell at the leper's feet, implored his forgiveness, sat down with him to cat out of the same dish, embraced and dismissed him! Had he grasped every subtle distinction of the Summa Theologiæ itself, or had he even built up that stupendous monument of the learning of his age, it would have been a lower title to the honours of canonization.
The church of St Damiano still lay in ruins. The command to rebuild it was still unrevoked. Ill success had followed the attempt to extract the requisite funds from the hoards of the old merchant. Plutus, his inexorable father, had been invoked in vain. Poverty, his affianced wife, might be more propitious. He wooed her in the form she loves best. In the dress and character of a beggar he traversed the city through which he had been wont to pass, the gayest of her troubadours, the bravest of her captains, , the most sumptuous of her merchants. Assisi had her witty men who jeered, her wise men who looked grave, and her respectable men who were scandalized, as this strange apparition invoked their alms in the names of the Virgin and of St Damiano. Solemn heads were shaken at the sight, in allusion to the supposed state of the brain of the mendicant. But the sarcasms of the facetions, and the conclusive objections of the sensible, fell on Francis like arrows rebounding from the scales of Behemoth. His energy silenced and repelled them all. Insuperable difficulties gave way before him. The squalid lazar became the inspiring genius of the architect, the paymaster of the builders, the menial drudge of the workmen. Sometimes he came with money in his hand, sometimes with stones and mortar on his back. At his bidding, nave, chancel, arches, roof, and towers, rose from their foundations. The sacred edifice appeared in renovated splendour. The heavenly precept was obeyed.
Prompt and decisive was the reaction of popular feeling. Instead of debating whether this strange mortal was rogue or maniac, it was now argued that he must be either a necromancer or a saint.
The wiser and more charitable opinion prevailed. Near to the city was a ruined church sacred to the prince of the apostles. Confident in his late success, Francis rather demanded, than implored, contributions for rebuilding it. Purses were emptied into his hands, and speedily the dome of St Peter's looked down in all its pristine dignity on the marts and battlements of Assisi.
There were no church-building commissioners in those days. In their stead, a half-starved youth in the rags of a bedesman moved along the streets of his native city, appealing to every passer-by, in quiet tones and earnest words, and with looks still more persuasive, to aid him in reconstructing the chapel of La Porzioncula ; a shrine of Our Lady of Angels, of which the remains may yet be seen, at once hallowing and adorning the quiet meadow by which Assisi is surrounded.
• He wept to think upon her stones, it grieved him to see her in the dust.' Vows were uttered, processions formed, jewels, plate, and gold were laid at the feet of the gentle enthusiast; and Mary with her attendant angels rejoiced (so at least it was devoutly believed) over the number and the zeal of the worshippers who once more thronged the courts erected in honour of her name.
From that devout company he was not often absent, by whose pious zeal the work had been accomplished. As he knelt before the altar, the oracular voice so often heard before again broke in upon the silence of his soul. It cried, “ Take nothing ' for your journey, neither staves nor scrip, neither bread nor 'money, neither have two coats a-piece.' A caviller, in the plight to which Francis was reduced already, might have evaded such an injunction. But Francis was no caviller. The poor fragment left to him of this world's goods, his shoes, his staff, his leathern girdle, and his empty purse, were abandoned ; and in his coarse cloak of serge, drawn round him with a common cord, he might defy men and devils to plunge him more deeply in the lack of this world's wealth, or to rekindle in his heart the passion for it.
And now were consummated his nuptials with his betrothed spouse. Dante has composed the Epithalamium in the eleventh Canto of the Paradiso :
• Not long the period from his glorious birth,
When, with extraordinary virtue blest,
This wondrous Sun began to comfort earth ;
For sake of her whom all as death detest,
And banish from tbe gate of their desire.
His father, too, he took her for his own :
But lest my language be not clearly seen,
Know, that in speaking of these lovers twain,
Francis and Poverty henceforth I mean.
Where love and sweetness might be seen to reign,
Were unto others cause of holy thought.'* Nor did Bossuet himself disdain to emulate this part of the divine comedy.' In the panegyric bestowed on the saint by the great orator, Francis is introduced thus addressing his bride :
• Ma chère Pauvreté, si basse que soit ton extraction selon le * jugement des hommes, je t'estime depuis que mon mâitre t'a
épousée. Et certes,' proceeds the preacher, 'il avait raison, « Chrétiens ! Si un roi épouse une fille de basse extraction, elle • devient reine ; on en murmure quelque temps, mais enfin on la • reconnaît : elle est ennoblie par le mariage du prince.' 'Oh • pauvres ! que vous êtes heureux ! parce qu'à vous appartient le royaume de Dieu. Heureux donc mille et mille fois, le pauvre François ; le plus ardent, le plus transporté, et, si j'ose parler de • la sorte, le plus désespéré amateur de la pauvreté qui ait peut « être été dans l'église.'
Art contributed her aid to commemorate this solemn union. In one of the churches of Assisi may yet be seen a fresco by Giotto, of Francis and his bride ; he placing the nuptial ring on her finger, and she crowned with light and roses, but clothed in sordid apparel, and her feet torn by the sharp stones and briars over which she is passing.
As often as the rising sun had in former days lighted up the spires of Assisi, it had summoned the hard-handed many to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows; and the prosperous few
* Wright's Dante.