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(Medieval Tale)

Chapter 1 - sample


There was a young man of Assisi, and his name was Francis.

One day, whilst troubled in spirit, he entered the ruined chapel of San Damiano to pray. He knelt before the stone altar and spoke to God, saying, 'Why do the good suffer?'

But God answered him nothing.

Then Francis spoke again, saying, 'Why do the evil prosper?'

But again God answered him nothing.

Francis continued to kneel before the altar until evening came on. Then he lifted his eyes to the cross and said, 'What can I do?'

Then God answered him, saying, 'My house is falling. Rebuild it for Me.'

Now Francis was a simple man, and when he looked around him he saw that the walls of the chapel were ruined, and that the roof was open to the sky. He rose and walked about the chapel, unsure of what to do. At last his eyes fell on the cross, and he asked in his heart if it was truly God who had spoken to him: and his heart answered, Truly.

Then Francis unbuttoned his fine tunic and put it aside. He turned up his sleeves and lay his soft hands on a stone and lifted it into place in the wall. Then he lifted a second stone, and a third, and on until evening passed into night, and darkness came. Then Francis returned to his home and lay down on his bed and wondered what had happened to him that day.

In the morning he rose from his bed slowly, rubbing his weary arms and his legs. He heard his father in the next room selling cloth, and he heard his own friends in the street, calling to him. He waited until they had gone, then he went to the window and looked down the valley to the ruined chapel.

When his mother called, he dressed himself. Then he went quietly down and put bread in his pocket before slipping away from the house.

At the chapel of San Damiano, Francis recommenced his labour. The place was quiet and unvisited, and he worked alone. There were dirt mounds by the walls, and he dug through these mounds with his hands to retrieve the fallen roof-tiles and stones. Then he put the stones and tiles into heaps, as he had seen the masons do; but he was unused to the work, and the piles grew slowly.

By late morning he was hungry, and so he went to sit in the shade of a cypress by a stream. There he ate his bread while he looked back at the ruined chapel.

Once he had dreamt of being a great soldier, a knight of renown. That dream had fallen on the battlefield, and perished utterly during his year-long captivity in a Perugian gaol. But the larger dream had not died: Francis believed that one day he would be a great man.

'My house is falling. Rebuild it for Me.'

When Francis looked at the ruined chapel now, the rebuilding seemed a task altogether lowly for his soaring spirit. And then he doubted, and would have forsaken the work, but for his troubled remembrance of the command given him by God. So once he had finished his bread, he drank from the stream and returned patiently to his labour.

Though his body was weary, his spirit was strong; and he sang as the pile of stones grew. Then in the afternoon a voice hailed him, and Francis looked up and saw a priest standing nearby.

'What are you stealing?' cried the priest.

'Not stealing,' said Francis, 'but returning,' and he pointed to the piles of stones.

Then the priest said to him, 'Who are you?' and he answered, 'Francis Bernadone.'

But the priest was not satisfied, and he said, 'Has your father sent you here?'

Then Francis replied, 'My Father in Heaven has sent me.'

The priest was much astonished by this answer and he would have rebuked the young man, but that a blush then came to Francis’s cheek. And Francis looked down, astonished equally at the words his own tongue had spoken.

With a backward glance, the priest gathered his cassock about him and went into the ruined chapel. Alone now, Francis considered all the work that he had done that day; and he saw that if the work were to continue he must need both new mortar and new wood. So when the priest came out from the chapel the next hour, Francis hailed him, saying, 'Father. I need mortar, that the stones  will not fall again, and wood, that the roof will be sound.'

'The church has no money.'

'It is not money I need, but only mortar.'

'Money is the best mortar,' said the priest, and he turned his back and left Francis there.

That night Francis reflected on the words of the priest, and had no sleep. Then in the morning he went into his father’s storeroom and took from the shelves his father's best cloth. And with this he rode to Foligno where he went into the market, and sold the cloth there for twenty pieces of silver. Returned to Assisi, he took the silver down to the ruined chapel and waited.

In time, that same priest came down who had earlier spoken with Francis. Then Francis took the pouch of silver and followed the priest into the ruin.

'Father,' said Francis. 'By your leave, I would stay here both night and day and continue my work.'

The priest looked at Francis with a keen eye. And perceiving that though Francis was young and fervent, he was yet an honest man, the priest gave his permission that Francis might stay by the chapel.

Then Francis said, 'Here is money for the mortar,' and he opened the pouch of silver.

But when the priest saw the silver, he was afraid; for he knew that Peter Bernadone, Francis's father, was a man who prized money above all things. So the priest would not take the silver, much though Francis pressed it upon him (for if the priest would not buy mortar, the money was as nothing to Francis) till at last Francis threw the pouch onto a window ledge and thereafter returned to his labour.

But it was not many days before word spread throughout Assissi that Peter Bernadone was raging against his son. The loss from the storeroom had been discovered, and a merchant of Foligno had reported Francis’s trade in the market there. The worthy citizens of Assisi now joined Peter Bernadone in condemning Francis; and Francis, hearing this, knew not which way to turn. But fearing the wrath of his father, and of the worthy citizens, Francis withdrew from the chapel of San Damiano and took himself into solitary refuge in a cave of the forest. There he stayed for several days, eating the berries that grew by the mouth of the cave, and drinking the water that fell from cracks in the rock. And he prayed to God, saying, 'What wrong have I done, doing only Your bidding?' Then Francis began to doubt God's command which had summoned him to rebuild the chapel.

Day and night Francis dwelt in the cave and prayed. But after a time that doubt, which had been strong at first, began to weaken, and his soul moved closer to God. When some days had passed, his spirit grew still; and then he said to himself, 'Who must I fear, but only my Father in Heaven?' Then he left the cave and went up to Assisi where the people who saw him were amazed at the change in him; for he was lean and unkempt, and his body unwashed. Some who had been his friends now jeered him, saying, 'Is this Francis Bernadone, who in earlier days said that he would be a great man?'

Hearing the cries from the street, Peter Bernadone rushed out from his house and laid rough hands on his son and dragged him inside where he beat him. But hard though he beat Francis, and often, no word of repentance could the father draw from the son; for Francis had done what he had done in God’s name. Francis was then kept prisoner in the house, and his father held the keys.

But when in time Peter Bernadone was called away from Assisi by reason of his trade, he gave his wife Pica charge over Francis. Now Pica was a dutiful wife, but she loved her son. So when her husband had departed Assissi she went straightaway to her son’s room and released him. Francis blessed his mother, saying that she was a good woman; but though she pleaded with him, he would not now remain in the house. He left her and went down to the ruined chapel where his heart drew him; and there he laboured and sang.

When Peter Bernadone at last returned to Assisi and found his son released, he demanded of his wife what she had done. She answered him only, 'God’s will,' and would answer him nothing more.

Then Peter Bernadone set his heart against his son, and sought to bring him before the city court. But Francis would not accept the authority of that court over him, but only the authority of the Bishop.

So it happened on a cold day in winter that Peter and Francis Bernadone appeared before the Bishop of Assisi. And Peter Bernadone made his complaint, saying, 'Here is my son who is a thief, for he stole cloth from my house and sold it in the market at Foligno for his own gain.'

Then the Bishop asked Francis, 'How say you?'

And Francis answered, saying, 'The cloth gained me nothing, for that money which I made I gave to the church and kept nothing back.

The priest of San Damiano, who was there, confirmed this for truth; and he produced from his cloak the pouch of silver that Francis had thrown on the window-ledge of the chapel.

Then the Bishop said to Peter Bernadone, 'What would you have me do?'

And Peter Bernadone answered, 'Return to me that which is mine.'

But when the Bishop asked Francis to return the silver, Francis would not do it, saying that he had given the same to the Church, and that the Church might return the silver if she willed. Then the Bishop took the silver from the priest and gave it to Peter Bernadone who was much pleased to have this triumph over his son.

Here the matter might have ended, but that Francis spoke again, saying, 'Not his money only, but all that I have had of him, which is his,' and so saying he at once shed his clothes, to the astonishment of all present, and laid these clothes at the feet of his father. 'Now I shall say not my father Peter Bernadone,' said Francis, 'but only Our Father which art in Heaven.'

Then Peter Bernadone looked at Francis with a sharp eye; but Francis was unmoved, and then the father quickly gathered up the clothes from by his son's feet, and departed that place alone.

  © Grant Sutherland