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4.10.07

Feast of Saint Francis


Saint Francis of Assisi Is Wed to Lady Poverty
Fresco attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330, Basilica di San Francesco (lower level, over the altar), Assisi
Even someone who teaches for the Benedictines can lay down his monastic loyalty and appreciate the extraordinary example of Saint Francis of Assisi, today of all days, his feast day, October 4. The Dante pilgrimage this summer included my first visit ever to the marvelous city of Assisi, a place so extraordinary that it makes perfect sense that Francis came from there. We spent a long time looking at the fresco cycle on the life of Francis in the upper church of the Basilica of San Francesco, formerly attributed to Giotto. In the lower church, the fresco shown here (still believed to be the work of Giotto) held my fascination for a long time, because it is so related to the sections on Francis in Dante's Paradiso (in which Francis becomes the bridegroom of Poverty, left alone in the world for 1,100 years after the death of Christ, who first loved her). Other highlights of the trip included placing a candle at the tomb of Francis, praying in front of the crucifix that spoke to Francis (now in the church of Santa Chiara), seeing the Temple of Minerva (in front of which Francis offered his cloak and all his money to a beggar), and visiting the outrageous Baroque church built over the site of the Porziuncola, near where Francis died.
"Not much time as yet had passed
when he first lent his comfort to the earth
by the greatness of his virtuous power.

"For, still a youth, he fought against his father's wish
for the favor of a lady to whom, as to death,
no one unlocks the door with gladness,

"and before his spiritual court et coram patre
he joined himself to her and, from then on,
each passing day, he loved her more.

"She, bereft of her first husband, scorned and unknown
one thousand and one hundred years and more,
remained without a suitor till he came.

"Nor did it profit her when men heard that she stood
unmoved, with Amyclas, despite the voice
of him who put the whole wide world in fear.

"Nor did it profit her when, being fiercely loyal
and undaunted, while Mary stayed below,
she wept with Christ upon the cross.

"But, lest I make my meaning dark,
let it be understood, in all that I have said,
that these two lovers are Francis and Poverty.

"Their happy countenances and their harmony,
their love and wonder and sweet contemplation
made them a cause for holy thoughts,

"so that the venerable Bernard was the first
to shed his shoes and run, pursuing such great peace,
and, running, thought himself too slow.

"O unknown riches and prolific good! Barefoot goes Giles,
barefoot goes Sylvester, following the groom,
so greatly pleasing is the bride.

"Then that father and teacher went his way
in company of his lady and that family,
each one girt with the same humble cord.

"Nor did an unworthy shame weigh on his brow
for being Pietro Bernardone's son,
nor for being an object of amazed contempt,

"but he regally laid bare his stern resolve
to Innocent and, from him, he received
the first seal of his order."

-- Dante Alighieri, Paradiso XI (lines 55-93), trans. Robert Hollander (courtesy of the superlative Princeton Dante Project)
The speaker is Thomas Aquinas, encountered among the great contemplatives in the Sphere of the Sun.

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