A new light on St. Francis

Thirteenth-century codex reveals previously unknown details about the great eco-saint

A chance discovery of an overlooked manuscript is shining new light on the life of St. Francis of Assisi—and you’re going to love what we learn.

As reported in January by the Vatican's L’Osservatore Romano, the discovery is “more than mere fragments or indirect quotes from contemporary works … [but] the second oldest volume on the life of the Saint from Assisi, which was unknown until today.”

The paper reports that the small, “seemingly insignificant” Franciscan codex is a fitting messenger of the life of St. Francis because it is both “humble and poor, without decorations or miniatures”, according to the scholar behind the discovery, Jacques Dalarun.

The codex by Tommaso da Celano, written between 1232 and 1239, brings significant wealth for Medieval scholars. It is also delighting those of us who wish to know more about the life of the great patron of ecologists.

In his interview with Silvia Guidi of L’Osservatore Romano, Dalarun notes that

An episode which we already knew about but which is told differently than the so-called legenda trium sociorum. What we can read now is probably the older and more authentic version. It speaks about Francis’ journey to Rome, but not as the pilgrimage of an already converted person, who had embraced religious life. In this case, it describes the journey of a merchant on business, who is shocked by the poverty of the beggars he sees near St Peter’s. He asks himself whether he could live such an experience. It is far from the sugarcoated version that was subsequently disseminated: Francis, already a friar, bending over the suffering of those he encounters on the road. The contrast is much stronger here, it isn’t a gradual change but a real shock. Tommaso also adds other specific and concrete details. He explains that Francis mended the holes in his tunic using the threads of tree bark and grasses which he found in the field, just like those who had absolutely nothing, not even a needle to sew with.

As for Francis's view of the natural world, Dalarun offer this wonderful insight:

The theme of brotherhood with all of creation is also enhanced. At the beginning Tommaso spoke about this as something to be admired, as strange and amazing, but largely outside of his own experience. It’s well written, but distant. On rewriting it, instead he reflects on the fact that brotherhood with creation, not just beings without reason and human beings: it is an anti-identity discourse. We are different but we are brothers because we all descend from the paternity of the Creator. Therefore, I do not agree with those who say: “Francis loved nature”. That’s a pagan concept. Francis loved his brothers, men and animals alike, because we are all children of the same Creator.

If you’re like me, this news has only left you wanting more.

After all, given all his namesake is doing and saying about the poor and the created order, what better time than now for new lights to shine on St. Francis?

[Read the entire interview here. Or see it in its original form here on page 16.]

Photo: Flicker/KlausM

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.