Answering Our Dilemma: Saint Francis of Assissi

Saint Francis of Assisi, like Saint Benedict of Nursia, came from an affluent family.[1] As a result, he could have become anything he desired: in this case, a knight.[2] However, he could not become anything he wanted. In pursuit of his endeavor, he became critically wounded, captured, and remained a prisoner for a year, suffering serious illness.[3] Shortly after this depressive experience, Francis began to feel callings to God. After receiving many divinations from God,[4] he made himself lowly—financially and spiritually—so he could serve all creation, serving from world leaders to the sick to the rich to the poor and even the natural world.[5] He, like his predecessor, did not desire to start a movement, but to remain faithful to God; people noticed his service and desired to emulate him.[6]

Francis, again like Benedict, wearied of the prestige of his former life. He singularly focused on God’s gospel and proclamation.[7] This worked out in several ways: “[h]umility, simplicity, poverty, and prayer.”[8] These practices lead him to reflect Jesus so closely, that his body bore the marks of his flogging and crucifixion (John 20:27).[9] His humble disposition led him to the continent of Africa, where he ministered to the Muslims and sought their conversion—even leading to a meeting with the sultan of Egypt. Francis’ desire for martyrdom, to minister to those across the sea, and his faith encouraged the Sultan so greatly that he frequently asked for him to come back when Christians often would face martyrdom before they got too far into the country.[10] His simplicity revealed itself in his sermons; they tended to be moralistic in nature, using examples of stories that emulated good works. For example, after Francis discerned his call to preach the Gospel, he went forth with such energy with a few of his brothers, that he chose paths without thought and preached indiscriminately to all who would listen—and many did.[11]

In one instance, he departed from his brothers to go into a nearby field to preach to the birds and trees. After expounding the many blessings the birds received, he charged them to not be ungrateful for God’s provision.[12] His poverty led him to a beggars life that relied on God’s faithfulness everyday (Matthew 6:25-34) and not on his own possessions. He did not enter abject poverty unflinchingly. Reportedly during one season of lent, he had a friend ferry him to a remote island, where he could fast in private.[13] For the whole season, he had drank and eaten nothing except one half of one loaf of bread that he had brought with him.[14] He supposedly wanted to spend the same about of time fasting that Jesus did before he started his earthly ministry, thus demonstrating his close followership of Jesus.[15]

Finally, his prayer life sustained him through the immense difficulties abject poverty continually brought upon him and his followers. Although hagiographic in nature, Francis’ the constancy of his prayer life seemed to bring him in contact with Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and John the Evangelist.[16] This echoes Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13), but pointedly demonstrated that Francis, once again, exhibited Jesus so closely in his life.

Ultimately, Francis’ monasticism, contra earlier forms of monasticism, provided a space where one could remain attached to the church and society.[17] Whereas hermitic forms of monasticism discourage engagement with society, Francis’ cenobitic form of monasticism strongly encouraged engagement with those around them. Francis did not intend to attract people to himself, but his first disciples surprised him in that way.[18] Their first endeavors together were to travel in two pairs—one pair went to Marches of Ancona while another pair went the opposite direction so they could spread the gospel efficiently.[19] As the evangelists would go out from Assisi, they would return and attract more followers as a result of their work.[20] As Francis started to attract more followers, he drafted a Rule—similar to Benedict—to regulate their life and work together.[21] This development launched them into later starting their own order.[22] Towards the end of 1217, the movement had grown from Francis to a small band of followers to an international religious movement.[23]

Essentially, whereas Benedict focused on the inward life of his monastic order, Francis concerned himself with the output of his monastic order which came from a deep, inward life. As one reads Francis’ Little Flowers, that person reads countless stories of significant works flowing from a deep, gospel oriented spirituality. For example, one of Francis’ first followers was Bernard of Quintville.[24] Francis came to visit Bernard to talk about spiritual matters but was unable to find him in the woods he was reported to be in.[25] After calling out many times, Bernard—being in deep prayer—finally heard him and came straightway to see him.[26] He apologized profusely to Francis, not intending to ignore him. However, Francis—almost outdoing Bernard’s apology—command Bernard to step on his neck and mouth three times because of his frustration; why would anybody be frustrated at someone’s non-responsiveness in deep prayer?[27] This disposition of deep virtue characterized the whole monastic movement and was part of the reason why it gained steam so quickly.


  1. John R. H. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968), 4.
  2. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 4.
  3. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 429.
  4. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 4–6.
  5. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 430.
  6. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 430.
  7. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 430.
  8. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 3.
  9. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 432.
  10. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi: In the First English Translation, ed. Roger Hudleston (New York, NY: The Heritage Press, n.d.), 31.
  11. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 25.
  12. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 25.
  13. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 17.
  14. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 17.
  15. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 17.
  16. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 25.
  17. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 431.
  18. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 11.
  19. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 12.
  20. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 14.
  21. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 15.
  22. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 18–19.
  23. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517, 31.
  24. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 11.
  25. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 14.
  26. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 14.
  27. Saint Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, 14.

This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy in Ancient & Medieval Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.