A Suffering Saint

Francis of Assisi's shadow side

The fact that Francis of Assisi hated to be put on a pedestal does not stop us from doing so as his annual feast arrives today. He is fondly remembered for his love of animals and nature, and for his generous spirit -- all of which deserve to be honored. But, as is often the case with saints, we would do well to take Francis down from his pedestal and get to know him as the man he was rather than through his pious image. Before I began researching a book about Francis, I’d had the idea that, given his powerful sense of God’s presence, he was always carefree and happy.

The truth is more complicated: Francis’s life was encumbered by dark shadows, to the point that he experienced long periods of anguishing separation from God.

His psychological trauma began with his military service in Assisi’s war against its more powerful neighbor, Perugia. He saw men he knew since childhood torn limb from limb in a devastating battle, and was taken prisoner for a year, thrown in a dark, damp hole in the ground.

This left Francis a broken man. His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, indicates as much when he recounts that Francis, after his release, felt nothing when he looked at fields and mountains that once thrilled him. We can’t expect Celano to put this in modern psychological terms, but from what we now know, Francis was traumatized. He was a physical and emotional wreck, too ill and depressed to go out of the house. Some experts believe he had contracted malaria, which would return periodically for the rest of his life. 

Francis tried once more to go to war, this time to help Pope Innocent III defend papal lands in southern Italy against imperial forces. Beset with the memory of his gruesome experience on the battlefield, Francis turned back, laid down his arms and, after a period of solitary prayer, began his transition to a life of voluntary poverty. This offered Francis a path to healing but a close reading of the medieval texts shows that the dark shadows in his life never disappeared completely.

For example, the Assisi Compilation, a collection of anecdotes compiled by the Franciscan order in the 1240s, quotes Francis on the “demons” that gave him sleepless nights: “If the brothers knew how many trials the demons caused me, there would not be one of them who would not have great piety and compassion for me,” he said. The account continues: “As a result, as he often said to his companions, he was unable by himself to satisfy the brothers or sometimes to show them the friendliness which the brothers desired.” 

One senses that Francis felt isolated in his role as leader of a growing order -- that he felt he couldn’t be the man the other brothers wanted him to be. Clearly, he had to have been a great inspiration for the order to grow so swiftly in those years, but Francis in such moments was down on himself. 

Celano recounts a prolonged spiritual depression that occurred later in Francis’s life: “At one time, a very serious temptation of spirit came upon the holy father, surely to embellish his crown. Because of it he was filled with anguish and sorrow; he afflicted and chastised his body, he prayed and wept bitterly. He was under attack in this way for several years."

Francis was filled with anguish and sorrow for several years before he could finally find tranquility. It is surprising that Thomas of Celano would write about that. The hagiographer’s task was to burnish Francis’s reputation as a saint, but such prolonged spiritual anguish would hint, at least in the medieval era, at the sin of acedia. This is one of the seven deadly sins, also called sloth. [See Thomas Baker's review of Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris.]

According to Thomas of Celano, Francis put great emphasis on avoiding this sin. “The devil is most delighted when he can steal the joy of spirit from a servant of God,” he quoted Francis. “He carries dust which he tries to thrown into the tiniest openings of the conscience, to dirty a clear mind and a clean life.” Celano adds: “He avoided very carefully the dangerous disease of acedia, so that when he felt even a little of it slipping into his heart, he quickly rushed to prayer. For he used to say, 'When a servant of God gets disturbed about something, as often happens, he must get up at once to pray and remain before the most High Father until he gives back to him the joy of his salvation. But if he delays, staying in sadness, that Babylonian sickness will grow and, unless scrubbed with tears, it will produce in the heart permanent rust.'"

In our enthusiasm for Francis, there is a tendency to almost divinize him. Pope Pius XI wrote in 1926, marking the seven hundredth anniversary of Francis’s death, that “there has never been anyone in whom the image of Jesus Christ...shone forth more lifelike and strikingly than in St. Francis.”

I don’t dispute that shining portrayal of Francis, but his all-too-human darkness deepens my appreciation for him and makes him all the more a model for the Christian life. From his brokenness, Francis found the insights that led him to oppose warfare, promote an alternative to the greed rampant in the church, and to identify with the poor, lepers, and other outcasts -- all those “scrubbed with tears.” 

Art: St. Francis of Assisi Contemplating a Skull, by Francisco de Zurbaran

Quotations in this article are from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (New City Press).

Related: Mission Improbable: St. Francis & the Sultan, by Paul Moses

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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Kathleen Norris wrote about acedia which you are equating with sloth. From your description and from hers, it sounded as though he was unable to feel joy or have any feeling at all. More like an absence of feeling, a deadness. Depression may be one way of looking at it. What is being called sloth here could be an inability to muster energy as happens to people in depression.

In any event, his humanity shows here as it did when Christ wept over Jerusalem, felt compassion for the widow who lost her only son, sorrowed (for whatever reason) at the grave of Lazarus.

Paul, thanks for this article. Are you writing a new book on St. Francis or did this material arise out of research for your book on St. Francis and the Sultan?

I was entirely unfamiliar with St. Francis' military activities. It's certainly not a part of the popular hagiography, which presents him as a fop suddenly transformed by an encounter with a leper. Though the saints are supposed to be models of the Christian life, they are too often portrayed, inhumanly, as beings unlike us. A warts-and-all presentation that is true to history would help us see them as beings like us, a realistic portrayl that would be more likely to appeal today than a saccharine one.

This was an amazing article. I am so thankful that finally someone is interested in the human Francis. I was drawn to him by his humanness. 

In 1973 I made a visit to Assisi and visited the church of San Damiano where, according to the tradition, Christ spoke to Francis from the crucifix, "Repair my church, which you see is falling into ruins." The English friar who was there proceeded to explain that Francis took that literally and began to work on the church. He needed the physical work, the friar explained, to deal with the trauma or depression he was experiencing.It made sense to me.

Later that same day I walked up to the Basilica where Francis is buried. Walking in the church and admiring the Giotto frescos I heard a friar explain that Francis got the message from the crucified Christ wrong. Francis was called to rebuild the Catholic Church, the friar said.

I was astounded. The English friar recognized the humanity of Francis and his human, natural needs whereas the other friar seemed to have an exalted view of Francis.

That encounter has affected me deeply - especially because I see the workings of God on the human level - as well as God's respect for the value (even therapeutic value) of manual labor.

The English friar at San Damiano got it right. Francis got it right because by laboring with his hands God began the process of healing he needed to become the instrument of God to renew the church.

I too visited Assisi on a parish pilgrimage and have always read as much as I could and listened to various interpretations of the personality of Frnacis from as many people as I could.

Francis was probably suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his war experiences. Maybe his natural temperament had a tendency to melancholia ; all traits that many saints have experienced. I love him all the more for this. I get sick and tired of the way we are all manipulated by the mantra to be happy and joyful all the time. Francis clearly had joy and hope - these are not the same as optimism.

Given the state of the church and the world during his time the words rebuild the church can be taken both literally AND metaphorically. I don't see why it is necessary to try and box Francis in one way or the other. As the great Richard Rohr says we have to refrain from dualistic thinking ! Francis was a free spirit deeply in love with God and also very courageous to radically confront the hypocrisy of religious practice that payed lip service to the mission Christians are called to.

Although he never wanted divisions from the church he was troubled by its lavish opulence and wealth and personal corruption and clericalism within- just like today.



Very fine essay, although the Assisi Compilation manuscript is dated to 1310, not the 1240s, although some stories might go back that far..

Your reading of Francis is very much like that in the book "Francis of Assisi: A New Biography" by A. Thompson which came out last spring.  You might find it very interesting reading.

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