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- The Coming of the Friars - 2/38 -


"Prohibet dominus rex ne monachi... recipiant _aliquem de minuto populo in monachum,_ vel canonicum vel fratrem," &c.--Stubbs, "Benedict Abbas," pref. p. cliv.] In return the townsmen hated him cordially, as a supercilious aristocrat and Pharisee, with the guile and greed of the Scribe and lawyer superadded.

Upon the townsmen--whatever it may have been among the countrymen-- the ministers of religion exercised the smallest possible _restraint._ Nay! it was only too evident that the bonds of ecclesiastical discipline which had so often exercised a salutary check upon the unruly had become seriously relaxed of late, both in town and country; they had been put to too great a strain and had snapped. By the suicidal methods of Excommunication and Interdict all ranks were schooled into doing without the rites of religion, the baptism of their children, or the blessing upon the marriage union. In the meantime it was notorious that even in high places there were instances not a few of Christians who had denied the faith and had given themselves up to strange beliefs, of which the creed of the Moslem was not the worst. Men must have received with a smile the doctrine that Marriage was a Sacrament when everybody knew that, among the upper classes at least, the bonds of matrimony were soluble almost at pleasure. [Footnote: Eleanor of Aquitaine, consort of Henry II., had been divorced by Louis VII. of France. Constance of Brittany, mother of Arthur--Shakespeare's idealized Constance--left her husband, Ranulph, Earl of Chester, to unite herself with Guy of Flanders. Conrad of Montferat divorced the daughter of Isaac Angelus, Emperor of Constantinople, to marry Isabella, daughter of Amalric, King of Jerusalem, the bride repudiating her husband Henfrid of Thouars. Philip II. of France married the sister of the King of Denmark one day and divorced her the next; then married a German lady, left her, and returned to the repudiated Dane. King John in 1189 divorced Hawisia, Countess of Gloucester, and took Isabella of Angouleme to wife, but how little he cared to be faithful to the one or the other the chronicles disdain to ask.] It seems hardly worth while to notice that the observance of Sunday was almost universally neglected, or that sermons had become so rare that when Eustace, Abbot of Flai, preached in various places in England in 1200, miracles were said to have ensued as the ordinary effects of his eloquence. Earnestness in such an age seemed in itself miraculous. Here and there men and women, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, raised their sobbing prayer to heaven that the Lord would shortly accomplish the number of his elect and hasten his coming, and Abbot Joachim's dreams were talked of and his vague mutterings made the sanguine hope for better days. Among those mutterings had there not been a speech of the two heavenly witnesses who were to do--ah! what were they not to do? And these heavenly witnesses, who were they? When and where would they appear?

Eight years before King Richard was in Sicily a child had been born in the thriving town of Assisi, thirteen miles from Perugia, who was destined to be one of the great movers of the world. Giovanni Bernardone was the son of a wealthy merchant at Assisi, and from all that appears an only child. He was from infancy intended for a mercantile career, nor does he seem to have felt any dislike to it. One story--and it is as probable as the other--accounts for his name Francesco by assuring us that he earned it by his unusual familiarity with the French language, acquired during his residence in France while managing his father's business. The new name clung to him; the old baptismal name was dropped; posterity has almost forgotten that it was ever imposed. From the mass of tradition and personal recollections that have come down to us from so many different sources it is not always easy to decide when we are dealing with pure invention of pious fraud, and when with mere exaggeration of actual fact, but it scarcely admits of doubt that the young merchant of Assisi was engaged in trade and commerce till his twenty-fourth year, living in the main as others live, but perhaps early conspicuous for aiming at a loftier ideal than that of his everyday associates, and characterized by the devout and ardent temperament essential to the religious reformer. It was in the year 1206 that he became a changed man. He fell ill--he lay at Death's door. From the languor and delirium he recovered but slowly--when he did recover old things had passed away; behold! all things had become new. From this time Giovanni Bernardone passes out of sight, and from the ashes of a dead past, from the seed which has withered that the new life might germinate and fructify, Francis--why grudge to call him Saint Francis?--of Assisi rises.

Very early the young man had shown a taste for Church restoration. The material fabric of the houses of God in the land could not but exhibit the decay of living faith; the churches were falling into ruins. The little chapel of St. Mary and the Angels at Assisi was in a scandalous condition of decay. It troubled the heart of the young pietist profoundly to see the Christian church squalid and tottering to its fall while within sight of it was the Roman temple in which men had worshipped the idols. There it stood, as it had stood for a thousand years--as it stands to this day. Oh, shame! that Christian men should build so slightly while the heathen built so strongly!

To the little squalid ruin St. Francis came time and again, and poured out his heart, perplexed and sad; and there, we are told, God met him and a voice said, "Go, and build my church again." It was a "thought beyond his thought," and with the straightforward simplicity of his nature he accepted the message in its literal sense and at once set about obeying it as he understood it.

He began by giving all he could lay his hands on to provide funds for the work. His own resources exhausted, he applied for contributions to all who came in his way. His father became alarmed at his son's excessive liberality and the consequences that might ensue from his strange recklessness; it is even said that he turned him out of doors; it seems that the commercial partnership was cancelled: it is certain that the son was compelled to make some great renunciation of wealth, and that his private means were seriously restricted. That a man of business should be blind to the preciousness of money was a sufficient proof then, as now, that he must be mad.

O ye wary men of the world, bristling with the shrewdest of maxims, bursting with the lessons of experience, ye of the cool heads and the cold grey eyes, ye whom the statesman loves, and the tradesman trusts, cautious, sagacious, prudent; when the rumbling of the earthquake tells us that the foundations of the earth are out of course, we must look for deliverance to other than you! A grain of enthusiasm is of mightier force than a million tons of wisdom such as yours; then when the hour of the great upheaval has arrived, and things can no longer be kept going!

"Build up my church!" said the voice again to this gushing emaciated fanatic in the second-rate Italian town, this dismal bankrupt of twenty-four years of age, "of lamentably low extraction," whom no University claimed as her own, and whom the learned pundits pitied. At last he understood the profounder meaning of the words. It was no temple made with hands, but the _living_ Church that needed raising. The dust of corruption must be swept away, the dry bones be stirred; the breath of the divine Spirit blow and reanimate them. Did not the voice mean that? What remained but to obey?

In his journeyings through France it is hardly possible that St. Francis should not have heard of _the poor men of Lyons_ whose peculiar tenets at this time were arousing very general attention. It is not improbable that he may have fallen in with one of those translations of the New Testament into the vernacular executed by Stephen de Emsa at the expense of Peter Waldo, and through his means widely circulated among all classes. [Footnote: See "Facts and Documents Illustrative of the History, Doctrine, and Rites, of the Ancient Albigenses and Waldenses," by the Rev. S. R, Maitland, London, 8vo., 1832, p. 127 _et seq._] Be it as it may, the words addressed by our Lord to the seventy, when he sent them forth to preach the kingdom of heaven, seemed to St. Francis to be written in letters of flame. They haunted him waking and sleeping. "The lust of gain in the spirit of Cain!" what had it done for the world or the Church but saturate the one and the other with sordid greed? Mere wealth had not added to the sum of human happiness. Nay, misery was growing; kings fought, and the people bled at every pore. Merchants reared their palaces, and the masses were perishing. Where riches increased, there pride and ungodliness were rampant. What had corrupted the monks, whose lives should be so pure and exemplary? What but their vast possessions, bringing with them luxury and the paralysis of devotion and of all lofty endeavour? It was openly maintained that the original Benedictine Rule could not be kept now as of yore. One attempt after another to bring back the old monastic discipline had failed deplorably. The Cluniac revival had been followed by the Cluniac laxity, splendour, and ostentation. The Cistercians, who for a generation had been the sour puritans of the cloister, had become the most potent religious corporation in Europe; but theirs was the power of the purse now. Where had the old strictness and the old fervour gone? Each man was lusting for all that was not his own; but free alms, where were they? and pity for the sad, and reverence for the stricken, and tenderness and sympathy? "O gentle Jesus, where art Thou? and is there no love of Thee anywhere, nor any love for Thy lost sheep, Thou crucified Saviour of men?"

* * * * * * *

Knocking at his heart--not merely buzzing in his brain--the words kept smiting him, "Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses, neither scrip for your journey, neither two coats, nor yet staves, for the workman is worthy of his meat!" Once men had changed the face of the world with no other equipment. Faith then had removed mountains. Why not again? He threw away his staff and shoes; he went forth with literally a single garment; he was girt with a common rope round his loins. He no more doubted of his mission, he no more feared for the morrow than he feared for the young ravens that he loved and spake to in an ecstasy of joy.

Henceforth there was "not a bird upon the tree but half forgave his being human;" the flowers of the field looked out at him with special greetings, the wolf of the mountains met him with no fierce glare in his eye. Great men smiled at the craze of the monomaniac. Old men shook their grey heads and remembered that they themselves had been young and foolish. Practical men would not waste their words upon the folly of the thing. Rich men, serenely confident of their position, affirmed that they knew of only one who could overcome the world--to wit, the veritable hero, he who holds the purse-strings. St. Francis did not speak to these. "Oh, ye miserable, helpless, and despairing; ye who find yourselves so unutterably forlorn--so very, very far astray; ye lost souls whom Satan has bound through the long weary years; ye of the broken hearts, bowed down and crushed; ye with your wasted bodies loathsome to every sense, to whom life is torture and whom death will not deliver; ye whose very nearness by the wayside makes the traveller as he passes shudder with uncontrollable horror lest your breath should light upon his garments, look! I am poor as you--I am one of yourselves. Christ, the very Christ of God, has sent me with a message to you. Listen!"

It is observable that we never hear of St. Francis that he was a sermon-maker. He had received no clerical or even academical training. Up to 1207 he had not even a license to preach. It was only after this that he was--and apparently without desiring it--ordained a deacon. In its first beginnings the Franciscan movement was


The Coming of the Friars - 2/38

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