page contents

The First Life of St. Francis (Thomas of Celano)

Prof’s Notes: Please visit the original site for this source (linked in the title) and read the background material regarding St. Francis, the Franciscan Order, and the author of this text provided there. It's not terribly long, but immensely helpful.

As the editor points out in the site, this translation is an old one and the language is a bit out of date. I've copied over some footnotes from the editor and have added some notes of my own to clarify where the language is particularly obscure. Muddle through as best you can and ask questions about portions that are particularly difficult or confusing.

As a final reminder - do be aware of the biases of this author. Thomas of Celano's status as a member of the Franciscan order does not negate the usefulness of the text; if anything, it gives us a better perspective on the people who chose to follow Francis's teaching/examples. But he isn't objective by any means...

Chapter 4: How he sold all his goods and despised the money he got for them

  1. Thus disposed, and strengthened by the Holy Ghost, the blessed servant [Francis] of the Most High [God] (for that the time appointed was come) followed that blessed impulse of his soul through which, by trampling on worldly things, the highest good is attained. He might no longer delay, for a deadly disease7 had now grown to such a height everywhere and had so laid hold on all the limbs of many, that, did the physician tarry but a little, it would choke the vital spirit and snatch away the life. He arose therefore, fortifying himself by the sign of the holy Cross, prepared his horse, mounted, and taking with him scarlet cloths to sell, came in haste to the city called Foligno.8 Here, having as usual sold all the goods he brought, the happy merchant left behind the horse he was riding, after receiving its price. So, having laid aside his burdens he turned back, and bethought him, with religious mind, what he should do with the money. Presently, being in wondrous fashion wholly turned to God's work, and feeling that to carry that money even for an hour would sorely oppress him, he hastened to get rid of it, deeming all the advantage of it to be as sand. And as he was returning toward Assisi, he found by the wayside a church which had been built of old in honor of St. Damian, but was threatening soon to fall from excessive age.1

  2. When Christ's new knight9 came to it he was moved with compassion for such need, and went in with awe and reverence. Finding a poor priest there, he kissed his hands with great faith, offered him the money he was carrying, and set forth to him in order his purpose. The priest was amazed, and wondering at a change of circumstances incredibly sudden, refused to believe what he heard; and, thinking he was being hoaxed, he would not keep the offered money. For almost the day before (if I may say so) he had seen Francis living riotously among his kinsfolk and acquaintance and surpassing the others in folly. But Francis with obstinate persistence strove to gain credit for his words, praying and earnestly entreating the priest to let him stay with him for the Lord's sake. At last the priest agreed to this, but would not take the money for fear of Francis' parents2 and the true despiser of money cast it on a window-sill, heeding it as little as dust. For he longed to possess wisdom which is better than gold, and to get prudence, which is more precious than silver.

Chapter 5: How his father persecuted and bound him

  1. So while the servant of God Most High was dwelling in the aforesaid place his father went all round about like a diligent spy, wanting to know what was become of his son. And when he understood that his son was leading such a life in that place, being inwardly grieved at heart over the sudden turn of events, he was exceedingly enraged, and, having called his friends and neighbors together, flew to the place wherein the servant of God was dwelling. But he (because he was a new athlete of Christ) on hearing of the threats of his persecutors and getting wind of their coming, desiring to give place to wrath, plunged into a hidden pit that himself had made ready for the purpose. The pit (known perchance to one only) was in the house, and here he lay hid for a month so continuously that he dared hardly come forth for human need. When food was given him he ate it in the secrecy of the pit, and every service was rendered to him by stealth. He prayed constantly amid showers of tears that the Lord would deliver him from the hands of those who were persecuting his soul, and that in kindly favor He would fulfil his pious wishes. In fasting and weeping he besought the Savior's clemency, and, distrusting his own efforts, cast all his care on the Lord. And, though he was in darkness, and in the pit, yet he was filled with an ineffable gladness of which till then he had had no experience, and, wholly fired by this gladness, he left the pit and exposed himself openly to his persecutors' curses.

  2. Forthwith therefore he arose, bold, eager and active and, bearing before him, in order to fight for the Lord, the shield of faith, armed moreover with a great confidence, he took his way toward the city, and, kindled with Divine heat, began severely to accuse himself of sluggishness and cowardice. When they saw this, all who knew him, comparing what he had been with what he now was, began to revile him miserably; they cried out on him as distraught and demented, and pelted him with mire and stones. They saw that he was changed from his former ways and greatly worn by maceration10 of the flesh, and therefore they set down all he did to his privations and to madness. But (because the patient man is, better than the arrogant) the servant of God turned a deaf ear to all these things, and, unbroken and unchanged by any injuries, gave thanks for all to the Lord. For in vain does the unrighteous persecute one who is making for virtue, since the more he is buffeted the more mightily will be triumph. Indignity (as some one says) strengthens a generous spirit.

  3. Now when such noise and rumor about him had been some time current in the open places and streets of the city, and the sound of those who mocked him was reechoing hither and thither, the report of these things at length reached his father, among many others to whose ears it came. And when he heard his son's name, and that his fellow-citizens were treating him thus, he arose forthwith, not to deliver his son but rather to ruin him, and, casting all moderation aside, he rushed on him like a wolf on a sheep, and, looking at him with malign and cruel countenance, laid hands on him very shamelessly and disgracefully, and carried him off to his own house. And so, without any mercy, he shut him up for several days in a dark place, and thinking to bend his son's spirit to his own will, urged him at first by words, and then by stripes and chains. But this made Francis the readier and stronger to carry out his holy purpose, nor, though insulted by words and wearied by chains, did he flinch from endurance. For he who is bidden to rejoice in tribulation, though he be scourged and bound, can neither decline from his right intent and posture of mind, nor be led away from Christ's flock: nor does he quake in the overflowing of many waters whose refuge in distress is the Son of God, Who, in order that we might not think our troubles hard, ever showed that those He endured were greater.

Chapter 6: How his mother released him, and how he stripped himself before the Bishop of Assisi

  1. When his father had departed for a while from his home on business, the man of God remained bound and in confinement in the house; but, his mother, who had been left alone at home with him, disapproved of what her husband had done and spoke to her son kindly. And though she saw that she could not recall him from his purpose, she yearned over him with maternal compassion, and she loosed his chains and let him go free.3 But he, giving thanks to Almighty God, returned to the place where he had been aroused before. But now he gave himself greater freedom, having been proved in the school of temptation; and the manifold struggles he had gone through had given him a more cheerful countenance. The wrongs that had been done him had embued him with a more confident temper, and, with higher spirit than before, he went about freely everywhere. Meantime his father came back, and not finding his son, heaped sin on sin and turned round to upbraid his wife. Then, raging and blustering, he ran to the place where his son was, so that, if he could not call him back, he might at least drive him out of the province. But (for that the fear of the Lord is confidence of strength) when the son of Grace heard his carnal father coming to him, he went of his own accord to meet him fearless and joyful, crying with free speech that he cared nothing for his father's chains and stripes. He averred moreover that he would gladly undergo any, evils for the name of Christ.

  2. But when his father saw that he would not be able to recall Francis from the journey he had begun he was roused by all means to get back the money. The man of God had desired to offer it all to be spent on feeding the poor and on the repair of that church. But he, who loved not money, was not to be misled by any show of good that it might bring, and he who was not held back by any affection for it was in nowise disturbed at the loss of it. Therefore when the money was found which that greatest despiser of earthly things and that most eager searcher after heavenly riches had thrown aside into the dust of the window, the raging father's fury was somewhat appeased, and the thirst of his avarice in some sort allayed by the dew of discovery. Then he brought his son before the bishop of the city, so that by a formal renunciation of all his property in the bishop's presence he might give up all he had. And Francis not only did not refuse to do this, but, greatly, rejoicing, made haste with ready mind to perform what had been demanded of him.4

  3. When brought before the bishop, Francis would brook no delay nor hesitation in anything: nay, without waiting to be spoken to and without speaking he immediately put off and cast aside all his garments and gave them back to his father. Moreover he did not even keep his drawers but stripped himself stark naked before all the bystanders. But the bishop, observing his disposition, and greatly wondering at his fervor and steadfastness, arose forthwith, gathered him into his arms and covered him with the mantle which he himself was wearing.5 He understood clearly that "the counsel was of God," and perceived that the actions of the man of God which he had witnessed enfolded a mystery. Immediately therefore the bishop became his helper, and, cherishing and encouraging him, he embraced him in the bowels of charity.

    Behold even now he wrestles naked with his naked foe, and having cast off all that is of the world, is mindful of God's righteousness alone! Even now for that righteousness' sake laying aside all anxiety he strives so to set at naught, his own life that as a poor man he may find peace in his harassed way, and that meanwhile the wall of the flesh alone may separate him from the vision of God.

Chapter 10: Of his preaching of the Gospel and proclamation of peace; and of the conversion of the first six brethren

  1. Then with great fervor of spirit and joy of mind he began to preach repentance to all, with simple words but largeness of heart edifying his hearers. For his word was like a blazing fire piercing through the inmost heart, and it filled the minds of all with wonder. He seemed quite another man than he had been, and, gazing on heaven he disdained to look on earth. And this was surely a wonder; for he first began to preach in the place where when still a child he had learnt to read, and where moreover he was buried with honor the first time; in order that the happy beginning might be commended by a still happier consummation. Where he learnt there also he taught, and where he began there he made a happy end. Whensoever he preached, before setting forth God's word to the congregation he besought peace, saying, "The Lord give you peace." Peace did he ever most devoutly proclaim to men and women, to those he met and those he overtook.

    Wherefore many who had been haters alike of peace and of salvation, embraced peace with their whole heart, the Lord working with them, and themselves became children of peace and zealots of eternal salvation.

Chapter 21: Of his preaching to the birds and of the obedience of the creatures

  1. During the time when (as has been said) many joined themselves to the brethren the most blessed father Francis was journeying through the valley of Spoleto, and came to a spot near Bevagna where a very great number of birds of different sorts were gathered together, viz. doves, rooks, and those other birds that are called in the vulgar tongue monade.6 When he saw them, being a man of the most fervent temper and also very tender and affectionate toward all the lower and irrational creatures, Francis the most blessed servant of God left his companions in the way and ran eagerly toward the birds. When he was come close to them and saw that they were awaiting him, he gave them his accustomed greeting. But, not a little surprised that the birds did not fly away (as they are wont to do) he was filled with exceeding joy and humbly begged them to hear the word of God: and, after saying many things to them he added, "My brother birds, much ought you to praise your Creator, and ever to love Him who has given you feathers for clothing, wings for flight and all that you had need of. God has made you noble among His creatures, for He has given you a habitation in the purity of the air, and, whereas you neither sow nor reap, He himself does still protect and govern you without any care of your own." On this (as he himself and the brethren who had been with him used to say) those little birds, rejoicing in wondrous fashion, after their nature, began to stretch out their necks, to spread their wings, to open their beaks and to gaze on him. And then he went to and fro amidst them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic. At length he blessed them, and, having. made the sign of the Cross, gave them leave to fly away to another place. But the blessed father went on his way with his companions, rejoicing and giving thanks to God Whom all creatures humbly acknowledge and revere. Being now, by grace, become simple (though he was not so by nature) he began to charge himself with negligence for not having preached to the birds before, since they listened so reverently to God's word. And so it came to pass that from that day he diligently exhorted all winged creatures, all beasts, all reptiles and even creatures insensible, to praise and love the Creator, since daily, on his calling on the Savior's name, he had knowledge of their obedience by his own experience.

  2. One day (for instance) when he was come to the fortress called Alviano to set forth the word of God, he went up on an eminence where all could see him, and asked for silence. But though all the company held their peace and stood reverently by, a great number of swallows who were building their nests in that same place were chirping and chattering loudly. And, as Francis could not be heard by the men for their chirping, he spoke to the birds and said, "My sisters, the swallows, it is now time for me to speak too, because you have been saying enough all this time. Listen to the word of God and be in silence, and quiet, until the sermon is finished!" And those little birds (to the amazement and wonder of all the bystanders) kept silence forthwith, and did not move from that place till the preaching was ended. So those men when they had seen that sign, were filled with the greatest admiration, and said, "Truly this man is a Saint, and a friend of the Most High." And with the utmost devotion they hastened at least to touch his clothes, praising and blessing God.

    And it is certainly wonderful how even the irrational creatures recognized his tender affection towards them and perceived beforehand the sweetness of his love [...]

  3. Once accordingly when he was sitting in a boat near a port on the lake of Rieti, a fisherman caught a big fish called a tench, and respectfully offered it to him. He took it up joyfully and kindly, began to call it by the name of brother, and then putting it back out of the boat into the water he began devoutly to bless the name of the Lord. And while he continued thus for some time in prayer, the said fish played about in the water close to the boat, and did not leave the place where Francis had put him, until, having finished his prayer, the holy man of God gave him leave to depart. Even so did the glorious father Francis, walking in the way of obedience, and taking upon him perfectly the yoke of Divine submission, acquire great dignity before God in that the creatures obeyed him. For water was even turned to wine for him when he was once in grievous sickness at the hermitage of Sant' Urbano; and when he had tasted it he got well so easily that all believed it to be a Divine miracle, as indeed it was. And truly he is a Saint whom the creatures thus obey and at whose nod the very elements are transmuted for other uses.

Chapter 28: Of the spirit of charity and the compassionate disposition wherewith he glowed toward the poor: and of his treatment of a sheep, and lambs

  1. Francis, the poor man, the father of the poor, making himself like unto the poor in all things, used to be distressed to see anyone poorer than himself, not because he coveted vain renown, but only from a feeling of sympathy; and though he was content with a very common and rough tunic, he often longed to share it with some poor man. But in order that this richest of poor men, led by his great feeling of tenderness, might (in whatsoever way) help the poor, he would in very cold weather ask the rich of this world to lend him a mantle of furs. When in their devotion they complied with his request even more readily than he had made it, he would say to them, "I will take this from you on the understanding that you do not expect to have it back anymore," and then with joy and exultation he would clothe the first poor man he met with whatever had been given him. He was very much distressed if he saw any poor man harshly spoken to, or if he heard anyone utter a curse against any creature.

    For instance it happened that a brother had given a sharp answer to a poor man who had asked alms, saying, "See to it, for perhaps you are a rich man feigning poverty." When St. Francis, the father of the poor, heard of it he was deeply grieved, and sharply rebuked the brother who had spoken thus, and bade him strip himself before the poor man, kiss his feet and beg his pardon. For he used to say, "He who reviles a poor man does a wrong to Christ, for the poor man bears the noble ensign of Christ Who made Himself poor in this world for us." Often therefore when he found poor people laden with wood or other burdens he would help them by giving the support of his own shoulders, even though very weak. [...]

  1. Editor: The nuns of Francis’s female disciple, St. Clare, would eventually live in this place.
  2. Francis, although in his twenties, is still living in his parents' house and in a dependent state.
  3. Editor: Saints often bend the norms of gender. Alert readers of this life would have been aware that this part of Francis's story bears a certain resemblance to the lives of the virgin martyrs, sometimes persecuted by their fathers for refusing to marry.
  4. The bishop was not only a religious leader, but also a social/quasi-political leader able and often asked to resolve conflicts in the community.
  5. Editor: This is one of the really striking scenes in the biography. It gives us some idea of the impact Francis must have had on those around him, through dramatic and unconventional actions like this. The action also works on a symbolic level--Francis's earthly garments are stripped away and he is taken under the mantle of the church. Nakedness comes up again and again in Franciscan writings. The Franciscans wish to be "naked following a naked Christ." The Little Flowers of St. Francis, composed more than a half century later, has Francis ordering one of his brothers to preach half-naked and then doing so himself
  6. Editor: commonly called 'monk birds'
  7. Not literally a disease. This is a metaphor to suggest the 'sickness' of the world and the author's assertion of Francis's ability to provide healing.
  8. Some context from the editor: Francis's father was a cloth merchant. Cloth was an amazingly large part of the high medieval economy, perhaps about 1/5. I (your prof) would add this: While Francis participated and assisted in his father's business, the profit from the cloth was not his to keep...
  9. Editor:Monks were frequently spoken of as "warriors" or "knights" or "athletes" of God from early on. Thomas uses all of these terms to describe Francis, but "knights" most often. By the thirteenth century, however, this term was charged with all sorts of social ideas about nobility it didn't have before about 1000.
  10. Thinning or wasting away due to fasting