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God's Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi by  Sophie Jewett

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La Verna

LA VERNA

[163] THE story of the Troubadour is almost finished. The last years of his life were years of suffering and sorrow. Now that the Brotherhood had grown so large, many of its members were forgetting the teaching of their leader. Instead of serving Lady Poverty, they were serving Lady Wealth, or Lady Pride, or Lady Fame; and they were Little Poor Men only on the outside, in their coarse grey robes and their unshod feet. This change in his Brothers well-nigh broke the heart of Francis of Assisi. He remembered the first winter in the hovel at Rivo Torto, when, in spite of cold and want, the little company had been so happy and so united. He remembered the joy with which they had built the huts in the plain, and had planted [164] their tiny gardens. It seemed to him that his children were scattered far and wide over the world; that they were no longer simple servants of all who needed help, but that each was striving for his own comfort and his own gain. There came back to him an old dream. He had dreamed of a little black hen who had so many chickens that she could not gather them all under her wings. Some would be left out, to die of cold or to be stolen by the fox. Even in his grief, Francis smiled over his dream. "I am the little hen," he thought, "and I cannot any longer shelter my brood."

Besides his sorrow, Francis had much illness and pain to bear. His body, "Brother Ass," as he sometimes called it, was worn and weak, but his heart was brave, and his spirit was always sweet.

In those days, sick people could not have the help and comfort that doctors and [165] nurses have learned to give. There was no ether nor chloroform to put a patient out of pain, and surgery was horribly cruel. Once when Francis was exceedingly ill, the doctors decided that they must burn his forehead with a hot iron. As the surgeon came close to him with the terrible rod, heated till it looked white and quivering, Francis shrank away fearfully for a minute. Then he lifted his hand and said cheerily: "Brother Fire, thou art one of the most beautiful of all things, help me in this hour; thou knowest how I have always loved thee; be courteous to me to-day." The Brothers, unable to bear the sight, had gone to the next room. A moment later, they came back, and Francis, smiling on them, asked: "Why did you run away in such a cowardly fashion? I have not felt the pain," he added. "Brother Doctor, if it is necessary, you may begin again."

[166] One great joy remained to Francis almost until the end, the joy of being out of doors. His love for a life under the sky; his love for birds and flowers, for long journeys through the river valleys or among the high mountains, never left him. One mountain he loved best of all. It is called La Verna, and it stands, wild and beautiful, among the Tuscan Apennines. A certain Count Orlando, to whom all the region belonged, had once heard Brother Francis preach, and had said to him: "I have a mountain in Tuscany. It is a silent and lonely place, where one might rest and think and pray. If you would like it, I will gladly give it to you and to your Brothers."

The old story says that Brother Francis was greatly pleased by this gift of the mountain. He thanked first God and then Messer Orlando, and he promised that when he [167] should return to the Portiuncula he would send some of the Brothers to Messer Orlando, at his castle of Chiusi. This castle stood, and its roofless walls still stand, where the road begins to climb to La Verna.

So it happened, that when Count Orlando went home, he was visited by two Grey Brothers from Assisi, come to see if, in the forest of La Verna, they might find a fit place for Brother Francis. Count Orlando received the two Brothers with the greatest joy and friendliness, and, because the mountain was filled with wild beasts, he sent armed men to escort the strangers. The Little Poor Men, with their guard of soldiers, searched about on the steep, rocky mountain, till they found a small level place, like a natural terrace, looking off to the southwest. "Here," they said, "is the right spot. Let us build [168] huts for ourselves and for our Brothers."

The soldiers of Count Orlando began to cut down great branches from the fir trees and beeches, and, with these, they helped the Brothers to make rude shelters.

Then startled eyes looked out from the green shadows, and soft feet rustled away over the fallen leaves; and a thousand pairs of wings made a whirring sound, for all the wild things of La Verna were disturbed by the loud voices and the ringing axes of Count Orlando's soldiers, and Brother Francis was not there to understand and comfort them.

When the green, sweet-smelling huts were finished, the two Brothers with their guard of soldiers went back to the castle of Chiusi to thank Count Orlando for his gift. Then they journeyed down to the plain of Assisi and reported to Brother Francis that the [169] Tuscan mountain was the fittest place in the world in which to think and pray. Brother Francis rejoiced at the account of the two Brothers, and he thought it good that a company of the Poor Men should keep at La Verna the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, which comes at the end of September.

He started out bravely on foot, as of old, but during the long, rough journey, he became so weak that the Brothers were forced to ask help of a peasant who was riding upon an ass. The peasant gave his beast to the sick man, and walked beside him all the way, until they reached the sheer grey crags below the little huts that Count Orlando's soldiers had built.

Here they rested under an oak tree before making the steep climb. Brother Francis sat looking about the place, of which he had heard so much, and, says the story: "As he was looking and thinking [170] there came great flocks of birds from every direction, singing and beating their wings, and they showed signs of joy and welcome. They circled around Francis, so that some perched on his head, some on his shoulders, on his arms, in his lap and even on his feet. His companions and the peasant saw them with wonder, but Francis said, all happy of heart: 'I believe, dearest Brothers, that our Lord Jesus Christ is pleased that we are to live in this lonely mountain, since our sisters and brothers, the birds, show such joy at our coming.' "

The little company lived for some weeks on the mountain. Apart from the others, that he might be more alone, Francis had a tiny hut, and here he spent much time in prayer. Only Brother Leone was allowed to come to him, before dawn each day, bringing his scant food. His only other comrade was a falcon, whose shrill cry used [171] to waken him long before light; but sometimes, when Brother Francis, worn and ill, lay sleeping, Brother Falcon, like a person discreet and pitiful, would be silent until later in the morning.

The forest was full of singing birds, but sweeter music than theirs sounded sometimes in the ears of the Little Poor Man, who, growing weaker and weaker in body, fixed his mind more and more on the glory and the joy of the heavenly life.

Once, as he thought on these things, longing to know what heaven might be like, he saw before him a most beautiful angel with a viol in his left hand and a bow in his right. As Francis gazed, wondering, the angel touched the strings with his bow and so soft a melody was heard that the spirit of Francis was filled with sweetness, and he forgot all his pain of body and mind.

One morning, in the hours before sunrise, [172] Francis was kneeling in prayer not far from his hut, when a light shone in the heaven above him, and came nearer and nearer. And, behold! it was a seraph with six wings shining and aflame. As the seraph came nearer in swift flight he seemed to Francis like the figure of a man crucified. Two wings were lifted above his head, and two outstretched in flight and two were folded down, covering all his body. And Francis was filled with fear, and yet with great joy.

Then all the mountain of La Verna seemed to burn with rosiest flame. The flame shone out and lighted the hills and valleys far away, as if it were the red light of dawn. The shepherds, watching their flocks, were frightened to see the mountain all ablaze, and afterward they declared that the flame had lasted on La Verna for an hour and more. The light shone even into [173] the windows of the low houses and little inns in the country round about; so that some mule drivers, who were sleeping at an inn not far away to the west, rose, and saddled and loaded their mules, thinking that it was day. As they went on their journey they were astonished to see the beautiful light fade away over La Verna, and, after an hour of darkness, the real sun rise.

If the shepherds on the hills, and the muleteers going sleepily along the road wondered and feared because of the great light that was not dawn, the Brothers on La Verna wondered still more.

But Brother Francis knew what the vision meant. Often in these last years his life had seemed a failure, and sometimes he had envied the martyrs of the early Church, and even his own Brothers who had given their lives for the faith in Africa [174] and in Spain. Now, the vision of pain and glory seemed to say to him: "Be content, Little Poor Man, for not by the martyrdom of thy body, but by the fire of thy spirit, thou art made like to thy Master, Christ." And the Brothers who wrote down the story tell how, from that wonderful hour upon the mountain, their beloved leader bore on his hands and on his feet marks like the nail-prints of the Crucified.


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