St Francis of Assisi – Welcome Sister Death

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Immediately after the conquest of the Holy Land tens of thousands of pilgrims from the West poured into the land where their Saviour had lived, died and rose from the dead. It changed many lives, none more than a draper’s son from an obscure little hamlet in Northern Italy, who with his followers decided to base his life on the life that Jesus lived with his disciples and the spirituality that inspired and animated them. The semi-literate man came to be called St Francis of Assisi and the spiritual renewal that he introduced was to change the spirituality of the Christian world for good. As we have just celebrated his life and death on October 4th I would like to tell the story of how he died before going on next time to show the essence of the spirituality that he introduced to a Europe that was languishing without it.

The Death of St Francis of Assisi

As the end drew near St Francis asked to be taken to the little church of St Mary of the Angels, otherwise known as the  Portiuncula, the little church that he had rebuilt with his own hands, that he might die in the poverty to which he had been accustomed all his life. Here he would be surrounded by his brothers who loved it as he did. The long procession that accompanied him from the Bishop’s Palace came to a halt when it was halfway to its destination and Francis was raised up by two of his brothers to gaze upon his beloved Assisi for the last time. He could hardly see the bare Rocca with the remains of the German Castle perched on its peak against the backcloth of the great Monte Subasio, with the hermitage of Le Carceri buried into her side. The walls around Assisi that he had helped to build in his teens framed an idyllic view of the town with its medieval houses huddled around the towers of the Cathedral of San Rufino where he was baptised. To the far right, outside the walls, was San Damiano that he had rebuilt, like the Portiuncula with his own hands, after he heard Jesus speak to him from the famous Cross that hung upon its interior wall. Clare and her community were living there now eager to hear any word about his well-being and his whereabouts and storming the gates of heaven on his behalf.

 Loving Lady Poverty to the End

When he was settled into a small hut a few feet away from the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels he insisted that he should be placed naked on the ground. When he was given clothes to wear, but warned under holy obedience that they were not his to give away, he was overcome with a frisson of joy that reverberated through his emaciated body. Now he was indeed at home again away from the Bishop’s Palace and back in a squalid little hut surrounded by all that would please his ‘Lady Poverty’.

When he was placed in his simple bed he forgave all who asked his forgiveness and blessed all absent brothers who could not be there. Then he gave a special blessing for Brother Bernard who was the first to give all his money away and embrace ‘Lady Poverty’ with him, and he commanded that all the Brothers in the order should honour Bernard as if he were himself. His thoughts were then with Clare and her community at San Damiano and he sent her a message promising that they would see his body before the burial.

Brother Jacoba arrives

He was in the middle of writing a letter urging Brother Jacoba to come quickly if she was to see him alive. She was a noblewoman who used to give him food and shelter when he stayed in Rome. Then suddenly to his surprise and joy, she arrived with her retinue and her two sons, alerted by news of his mortal illness. She had brought all that was necessary for his funeral, including a cushion for his head in the coffin that he never permitted himself when he was alive, a veil for his face and a shroud made of haircloth.  She also brought all the candles necessary for the funeral and for the wake and, confident that she would find him still alive, she brought some of the ‘sugared almonds’ that he had loved as a rare treat when he had visited her in Rome. Although no woman was allowed in the Portiuncula, an exception was made for Brother Jacoba who knelt at the bed of Francis bathing his body with her tears in such a way that her behaviour was later likened by the friars to Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. At her presence, he seemed to rally for a while and she had thoughts of returning to Rome, but he knew the end was not far off and he begged her to remain.

As the end drew near the strains of his ‘Canticle to Brother Sun’ could be heard coming from his poor abode with the verses that he had added in praise of ‘Sister Death’. On Friday, October 2nd he re-enacted a scene from the Last Supper. Taking bread he broke it and shared it with the brothers who surrounded him. The following day at his request the Passion of St John was read to him. Then when he knew that ‘Sister Death’ was about to arrive he asked the doctor to announce her arrival and he opened his arms to welcome her and welcome her with joy because it was she who was going to lead him to the gates of Eternal Life.

The Arrival of Sister Death

Acting on his orders Francis was stripped and laid down on the ground as naked as Brother Jesus had been when he was born into poverty and as naked as he had been when he died on the cross. Then, according to his wishes dust and ashes were sprinkled over him as in no more than a whisper he intoned psalm forty-one – “Voce mea ad Dominum clamavi” – “With my voice, I cry out to the Lord.” When his brothers bent over him at the end of the psalm it was to see that his prayer had been answered; ‘Sister Death’ had indeed led him to the gates of Eternal Life. The silence that followed was only broken by his favourite birds – a flock of larks which descended on the roof of his hut. They sang like larks ascending, half in sadness half in joy, as their brother ascended to the place whence they had all ultimately been conceived and into the one who he had called Brother Jesus in whom they had all been created. The next day a massive procession of friars and townsfolk followed the body of Francis to its place of temporary burial in the church of San Giorgio where St Clare had first heard him speak in the Lent of 1212. This was just after the cortège had stopped at San Damiano so that St Clare and her community could say their last farewells. Like Brother Jacoba, Clare bathed his body with her tears and reverently kissed the marks made by the stigmata.

An Aura of Peace

During the days that followed his burial,l it was as if a heavy black pall was spread over the little Umbrian town. But gradually the pall lifted, lightened and evaporated to be replaced by a distinctive aura that to this day seems to surround and pervade Assisi. It is an aura of peace, the peace ‘that surpasses the understanding’, that speaks even to the most sceptical of the visitors, of the one characteristic above all others that impressed all who met the supreme ambassador of peace  who once lived there. On July 16t,h, 1228 Gregory IX, the one-time Cardinal Hugolino, a friend of Francis and protector of the order, canonised this ‘ambassador of peace’ and two years later on May 25, 1230, his body was taken for burial to the newly completed Basilica of San Francesco.

The Primitive Observance Lived On

In the immediate aftermath of his funeral, there can be no doubt that the spirit of the primitive observance lived on amongst the three companions, Brother Leo, Brother Angelo and Brother Rufino and those who looked to them for leadership. In the second order that same spirit lived on in St Clare and in her devoted sisters at San Damiano and in the third order it found a unique embodiment in Brother Jacoba, who did not return to Rome, but stayed on in Assisi where she lived out the rest of her life. Her home became the meeting place for the many faithful followers of Francis and her presence was a continual support to all who turned to her for whatever help she was able to provide. It would seem that she outlived St Clare, who died in 1253 and Brother Leo, his beloved friend and the priest who said Mass for him whenever possible, who died in 1274.

It was because I believed that exactly the same form of spiritual renewal that St Francis introduced was so desperately needed to-day, that I have spent almost a life-time studying the man and his message. This has enabled me to write the only book I have ever written that has never received less than five star reviews. If you don’t want to buy the whole book you can read twelve major extracts from it on my website.

David Torkington  is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.

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