St. Francis of Assisi abandoned a life of luxury for a life devoted to Christianity after reportedly hearing the voice of God, who commanded him to rebuild the Christian church and live in poverty. He is the patron saint for ecologists.
Born in Italy circa 1181, St. Francis of Assisi was renowned for drinking and partying in his youth. After fighting in a battle between Assisi and Perugia, Francis was captured and imprisoned for ransom. He spent nearly a year in prison—awaiting his father’s payment—and, according to legend, began receiving visions from God. After his release from prison, Francis heard the voice of Christ, who told him to repair the Christian Church and live a life of poverty. Consequently, he abandoned his life of luxury and became a devotee of the faith, his reputation spreading all over the Christian world. Later in life, Francis reportedly received a vision that left him with the stigmata of Christ—marks resembling the wounds Jesus Christ suffered when he was crucified—making Francis the first person to receive such holy wounds. He was canonized as a saint on July 16, 1228. Today, St. Francis of Assisi has had a lasting resonance with millions of followers across the globe.
Early Life of Luxury
Born circa 1181, in Assisi, duchy of Spoleto, Italy, St. Francis of Assisi, though revered today, began his life as a confirmed sinner. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant who owned farmland around Assisi, and his mother was a beautiful Frenchwoman. Francis was not in want during his youth; he was spoiled, indulging himself with fine food, wine, and wild celebrations. By age 14, he had left school and become known as a rebellious teenager who frequently drank, partied and broke the city curfew. He was also known for his charm and vanity.
In these privileged surroundings, Francis of Assisi learned the skills of archery, wrestling and horsemanship. He was expected to follow his father into the family textile business but was bored by the prospect of life in the cloth trade. Instead of planning a future as a merchant, he began daydreaming of a future as a knight; knights were Medieval action heroes, and if Francis had any ambition, it was to be a war hero like them. It wouldn’t be long before the opportunity for warfare beckoned.
In 1202, war broke between Assisi and Perugia, and Francis eagerly took his place with the cavalry. Little did he know at the time, his experience with war would change him forever.
War and Imprisonment
Francis and the men of Assisi came under heavy attack, and in the face of superior numbers, they took flight. The whole battlefield was soon covered with the bodies of butchered, mutilated men, screaming in agony. Most of the surviving Assisi troops were immediately put to death.
Unskilled and with no combat experience, Francis was quickly captured by enemy soldiers. Dressed like an aristocrat and wearing expensive new armor, he was considered worthy of a decent ransom, and the soldiers decided to spare his life. He and the other wealthy troops were taken as prisoners, led off to a dank underground cell. Francis would spend nearly a year in such miserable conditions—awaiting his father’s payment—during which time he may well have contracted a serious disease. Also during this time, he would later report, he began to receive visions from God.
After the War
After a year of negotiations, Francis’s ransom was accepted, and he was released from prison in 1203. When he came back to Assisi, however, Francis was a very different man. Upon his return, he was dangerously sick in both mind and body—a battle-fatigued casualty of war.
One day, as legend has it, while riding on a horse in the local countryside, Francis encountered a leper. Prior to the war, Francis would have run from the leper, but on this occasion, his behavior was very different. Viewing the leper as a symbol of moral conscience—or as Jesus incognito, according to some religious scholars—he embraced and kissed him, later describing the experience as a feeling of sweetness in his mouth. After this incident, Francis felt an indescribable freedom. His earlier lifestyle had lost all of its appeal.
Subsequently, Francis, now in his early 20s, began turning his focus toward God. Instead of working, he spent an ever-increasing amount of time at a remote mountain hideaway as well as in old, quiet churches around Assisi, praying, looking for answers, and helping nurse lepers. During this time, while praying before an old Byzantine crucifix at the church of San Damiano, Francis reportedly heard the voice of Christ, who told him to rebuild the Christian Church and to live a life of extreme poverty. Francis obeyed and devoted himself to Christianity. He began preaching around Assisi and was soon joined by 12 loyal followers.
Some regarded Francis as a madman or a fool, but others viewed him as one of the greatest examples of how to live the Christian ideal since Jesus Christ himself. Whether he was really touched by God, or simply a man misinterpreting hallucinations brought on by mental illness and/or poor health, Francis of Assisi quickly became well-known throughout the Christian world.
Death and Legacy
As Francis approached his death, many predicted that he was a saint in the making. When his health began to decline more rapidly, Francis went home. Knights were sent from Assisi to guard him and to make sure that no one from neighboring towns would carry him off (the body of a saint was viewed, at the time, as an extremely valuable relic that would bring, among many things, glory to the town where it rested).
Francis of Assisi died on October 3, 1226, at the age of 44, in Assisi, Italy. Today, Francis has a lasting resonance with millions of followers across the globe. He was canonized as a saint just two years after his death, on July 16, 1228, by his former protector, Pope Gregory IX. Today, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint for ecologists—a title honoring his boundless love for animals and nature.