Saint Francis Of Assisi
The official biography of Saint Francis was written by Saint
Bonaventura, who was appointed this task by the Franciscan
general chapter in 1260, thirty-four years after Saint Francis’s
Saint Francis was born in the city of Assisi on September
26, 1182 and died on October 3, 1226. His father was a
prosperous merchant and his mother a noblewoman. He was
given the name John by his mother, but when his father
returned from France, he changed the name to Francis, in
honor of France, the country where he had made his wealth.
Coming from a well-to-do family, Francis had the opportunity
to study Latin, poetry, music, Italian, French, the Provencal
dialect, and literature. It seemed that Francis was destined to
follow in his father’s footsteps.
Around the age of twenty, Francis joined up with the Assisi
army and fought against the city of Perugia, but he was taken
prisoner and remained in prison for one year. The time he
spent in jail was very hard, so much so that he contracted a
serious illness when he returned home. His sickness was the
turning point in his life. He decided to radically change his
lifestyle. To that point he had lived a worldly life, but now he
chose to dedicate himself to following Jesus’s model. He began
to give money to help the lepers, the poor, and the needy.
Francis’s new life and prodigality were not appreciated by
his father, who eventually disinherited him. From then on,
Francis lived a life of poverty and absolute simplicity. Soon
other young people joined him, giving rise to the monastic
Franciscan order. His soul was so pure that he talked with
birds, and one day he even tamed a wolf. An example of the
pureness of his heart can be found in the “Canticle of the
Creatures,” which he composed in 1225.
Saint Francis’s life was short; in fact, he lived only fortyfour
years. After his death, many authors started writing his
biography. Some biographies had a hagiographic aim, while
others were straightforward accounts, but some data is
common to all of them:
Saint Francis was a great traveler. Around the age of thirty
he left his hometown to go to Syria. Unfortunately, his journey
was interrupted in Dalmatia for an unknown reason, but
probably because he couldn’t find a ship to Syria, so he was
forced to return to Italy.
In spite of the failure of his first attempted trip to a Muslim
country, he set off on another journey to Islamic lands, this
time Morocco. To go to Morocco, he crossed France and Spain.
Again he failed to succeed in his plan, because he contracted
a serious disease in Spain and once more had to return to
His third endeavor to get to an Arab country finally
succeeded. He boarded a ship at Ancona in the year 1219,
seven years before his death, at the same time the fifth crusade
was under way. Once in Egypt, Saint Francis wanted to meet
Sultan Malic al-Kamil. Their meeting really happened, and as
far as we know, he was treated kindly by the sultan as a guest,
and not as an enemy. He received safe conduct and was invited
to return to visit Egypt anytime.
From Egypt he travelled to the Holy Land. About two years
before his death, he received the stigmata on Mount Verna.
Later, his health worsened and he died in a small church
near Assisi called Porziuncola. At his death, his body was taken
to Assisi and a basilica was later built in the place where he
I had the opportunity of going to Assisi three times in my
life. The first time was with my parents on a travel to north
Italy. It happened many years ago. Even though I was very
young and not in a condition to appreciate Saint Francis’s
message to humanity, a few things remained etched in my
mind. One was the sight of the cilice, which Saint Francis wore
to mortify his body.
The cilice was a special garment made of goat hair, which
caused considerable suffering to the person who wore it. The
flesh was considered a kind of contamination of the soul;
therefore, through the mortification of the body, the soul
would be purified.
Hearing the story of Saint Francis from my parents, I was
struck by the strength of character of this great man who
rebelled against his father in order to follow the aspirations of
The second time I visited Assisi was while I was traveling
on a trip organized by the parish priest from the Church of
San Cataldo. We visited the basilica, which is divided into three
parts: the upstairs basilica, the walls of which are covered with
gorgeous frescoes by Giotto; the downstairs basilica, which
contains other works of art; and finally the crypt where Saint
Francis’s mortal remains are kept.
The tomb is placed in a raised position over the altar, and
is made without frills of grey square and rectangular stones.
As soon as I knelt to say some prayers and make a wish, I had
the sensation that a kind of energy was radiating from his
tomb, and then I asked Saint Francis to hear my prayer.
“Please, Saint Francis, grant me a gift! You are a very
powerful saint and can easily make my wish come true. I love
Elisabetta more than life, and I want her to become my wife.
There are many hindrances that prevent us from getting
married. Please, Saint Francis, remove all the hindrances and
help us get married as soon as possible.”
At that time I had fallen in love with a young lady named
Elisabetta. She was from Enna as well, and taught Latin and
Greek at the high school. I courted her for two years and
wanted to get engaged to her. We used to stroll along Via Roma
and Belvedere and talk religion. In fact, she was an earnest
Catholic, to such an extent that she was once on the verge of
quitting her job to become a Carmelite cloistered nun.
One day while we were walking around the Lombardia
Castle, she told me of her pilgrimage to Assisi. “I have been
struck by Saint Francis’s burial place. I felt a special energy
coming from his tomb,” she said.
Now, I don’t know whether or not it was due to
autosuggestion because Elisabetta had told me her feelings,
but the same strange sensation was now happening to me.
While I repeatedly asked San Francis to grant my wish, I felt
as if powerful energy was radiating from his tomb and talking
“I have spent all my life searching for God,” Saint Francis’s
energy seemed to say, “and now you arrive at my tomb and
ask me to grant you a trivial wish, Vincenzino!”
I wondered why Saint Francis would consider my wish to
get married to my beloved trivial. As time passed, I realized
that I had actually requested something really trivial. In fact,
human affairs like love, business, careers, and so on are trifles
in comparison to the search and love for God, who is the giver
Meanwhile, Elisabetta got married to another man, and I
understood that what I had considered a great love was
nothing more than an infatuation doomed to dissolve like the
fog dispersed by the wind.
True love is not related to a woman or a person. Love is
something that you must have inside you. Love comes from
your heart and mind, and it stands apart from the appearance
and character of the people who you come across and the
happenings of life.
Later, I married a lady from Greece, and we now live
together in Enna. In the evenings after dinner, my wife and I
usually stroll along Via Roma and Saint Francis Square, which
is surrounded by old palaces on three sides and by the stately
Church of Saint Francis on the fourth.
A small green area had recently been attached to the
church, with an olive tree and a statue of Saint Francis
surrounded by white doves inside it. While my wife and I
were going back home and passed by that green, we noticed a
fragrance emanating from the area. We turned in all directions
but couldn’t spot a flower or a tree from where that subtle
scent might be emanating. The following days we passed by
the same place again, but we couldn’t smell anything.
A subtle thread was leading me to Assisi for the third time.
My Greek wife and I decided to take a car trip across northern
and central Italy. We embarked on a ferry in Palermo and
landed in Genoa. From there we travelled to Pisa, Florence,
and San Gimignano.
While we were admiring the numerous towers of the last
town, my wife suddenly cried out, “What about going to
Assisi? Is it far from here? Do you remember the fragrance we
smelt in Enna near the Church of Saint Francis?”
“No, it is not far away. We can go to Perugia first, and Assisi
is a stone’s throw from there,” I replied.
We arrived at Saint Francis’s hometown around midday
and found lodging in a monastery run by Filipino nuns. We
strolled for a while around the medieval city and then arrived
at the basilica. My wife was surprised at the sight of the
frescoes both upstairs and downstairs.
“Even though I am not a Christian,” she said, “and don’t
follow any religion, I cannot help being astonished by the
religious ardor that was behind these great masterpieces.”
Then we went to the crypt and sat on a pew facing Saint
Francis’s tomb. As soon as I sat down, I had the sensation that
the same energy that had talked to me many years ago was
now speaking again, suggesting the path I should follow to
find out who really I was.
Purify your heart, mind, body, and actions, and then you’ll
see God inside you!
What was Saint Francis telling me this time? I inferred
that he meant that the real kingdom of God is inside every
living being, but we cannot find it if our mind is contaminated
by too many materialistic desires or our actions are not
directed towards the wellbeing of our fellow creatures. I also
inferred that prayer and meditation are a good way to purify
the mind and get close to God, as long as my actions aim not
towards an egoistic goal, but to the love of all creatures.
While I was meditating on what Saint Francis was
suggesting to me at that moment, my wife suddenly turned to
me. “I have a pain in my heart, and my heart is pounding! I
shed tears and I don’t know why. I don’t feel sad and I don’t
know why I am crying!”
My wife is not Catholic, and actually doesn’t practice any
religion. So we couldn’t understand why such a phenomenon
befell her. Maybe the same energy that had talked to me was
revealing itself to her in some way.
I left Assisi with a strong devotion to Saint Francis. Every
time I had trouble in my life after that, I thought of him and
reminded myself that my worldly misfortunes are a mere
trifle. What really matters in life is the search and love for God
and all His creatures.
Reviewing my encounter with Saint Francis, I reconsidered
what my law teacher had taught me a long time ago. She had
stressed the importance of the difference between a piece of
evidence and a clue. A piece of evidence is a fact that you have
seen or heard, or a way that an event can be proved with
absolute certainty—evidence that can direct the judge to
return his verdict. A clue doesn’t have the strength of evidence,
and a mere clue is usually not enough to bring in a judge’s
verdict, but if the clues are numerous, unambiguous, precise,
and concordant with one another, they can be taken into
consideration by the judge in order to pass judgment.
In the case of my encounter with Saint Francis, there are
five clues that can be admitted as evidence of the existence of
another spiritual level that is beyond our ordinary worldly
1. The energy that Elisabetta felt while she was praying
before the tomb of Saint Francis;
2. The fragrance that my wife and I smelt near his statue
while we were strolling in Enna;
3. The energy coming from his tomb that talked to me
about the true goals of my life, which were not a mere
love of a woman, money, or some other worldly
pleasure. Searching for God is the real goal;
4. The energy that I felt when I went to Assisi for the
third time. I realized that the kingdom of God is really
inside me. I just need purify my mind, my heart, and
my actions, and then I can be on the path that leads to
the spiritual world;
5. The unusual sensation of pain in my wife’s chest and
the tears in her eyes while she was sitting with me in
front of Saint Francis’s tomb.
These days, Saint Francis is the master in my daily life.
Whenever I am too worried because my business didn’t go
well, I remind myself of the teachings he gave me in the crypt
in Assisi. The ups and downs of life are mere trifles when
compared to meeting God, who stays in the heart of every
By minding Saint Francis’s teachings, I live my life in a
more relaxed way. I am less anxious. I just juggle the events of
life as soccer players do when playing a friendly match.
Excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History by ETTORE GRILLO
Ettore Grillo, author of these books:
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind