FRANCIS AND CELEBRITY AND THE ROAD TO PEACE
If Augustine’s long term relationship with a woman and his genius for profound self analysis make him congenial to Modern Western Man, then St. Francis’s penchant for Vainglory when he was a young man may help our Modern Westerners to know that celebrity is hollow, vain, and finally unfulfilling. Francis is, on one level, “The Poor Little Rich Boy” who gets it right.
Francis was wealthy, very wealthy, and very popular; he was also very attractive, and a natural leader. He was fastidious, loved clothes, and had great manners, possibly better than many of the nobility, who most probably did not have to worry too much about such things, as they had power. However so did the emerging nouveaux riches, who would finally emerge triumphant as the new aristocrats, whose most splendid examples would be the de Medici’s.
Francis’ father desperately wanted his son to become a knight, and Francis was at one with his father in that regard.
However, as with the most male ideas of battle, honour, love of country (These days I think there would be less patriotism and just a desire for excitement), the reality of war has a terrible effect on those engaged in battle. Francis no doubt suffered real psychological trauma following the terrible Battle of Collestrada. Bonifazio da Verona, who was commissioned to write an epic poem about Perugia’s greatness (the myth that the Perugians had created about themselves was that they were founded by Ulysses of all people!) at the end of the 13th century, describes the terrible slaughter that the Perugians inflicted on the Assisiani:
“Oh, how disfigured are the bodies on the field of battle, and how mutilated and broken are their members! The hand is not to be found with the foot, nor the entrails joined to the chest; on the forehead horrible windows open instead of eyes. That no prophet, interrogated before the battle, could have seen such omens! Oh, you of Assisi, what a sad day and what a dark hour was this!” (Fortini, A. Francis of Assisi, trans. Helen Moak; p.155)
The next quote which Arnaldo Fortini gives no reference for and may well be from the same poem sees things from Assisi’s point of view:
“Everywhere there was weeping, and some wept for their parents, and some for their sons, and still others mourned their grandsons. Very few escaped misfortune and no one was to be found with compassion for the people of Assisi.” (Fortini. p.155)
When Bonifazio was writing Francis had been canonized many years before. Neither Bonifazio nor his Perugian patrons had grasped the point of St. Francis’ conversion. It was a conversion away from self-adulation, self-glorification, to the following of the poor, despised, tortured Christ, whose kingship is founded on humility and not the abuse of power, and the desire for celebrity.
In Francis’ time celebrity came to those men who were great warriors, perfect knights, famous troubadours, and the famous women were beautiful noble women adored by knights. Nothing changes very much, but these days celebrities are famous for very little, bar the fact that they are invariably film stars, rock stars, pop stars, and sportsmen and sportswomen. Even chefs are considered to be heroes. The mind boggles. Vainglory is aided and abetted by such ridiculous phrases such as “because you’re worth it” and the dreadfully sentimental exclamation “Thank you for being you”. Could one thank somebody for being someone else.
Francis captured by the victorious Perugians spends a year in prison, and shows one remarkable characteristic kindness; kindness to a fellow knight who is disliked by all the other prisoners, and to whom Francis is unfailingly courteous and kind. It is the beginning of Francis’ conversion from being the lavishly generous host of parties thrown for his friends, the leader of one of the dance troupes, and the most popular young man of Assisi into an alter Christus, and the true moment of conversion was the meeting with the leper. This did not happen over night, no conversion happens instantaneously unless you are St. Paul. There is a slow build up, and the slow build up was Francis becoming a captive of war, then falling sick for a long time, and then beginning to see the world for what it was. Most chivalry disappears in the horrors of war, and what emerges is rape, pillage, and murder. All Francis’s idealistic dreams are shattered on the battlefield as they were in World War I and Ii where the sheer scale of senseless violence showed up the utter moral bankruptcy of most of Western Society and of global society. We have only to think of the horrors that the Japanese unleashed on the Chinese, and the terror attendant on Nazi, Fascist, and Bolshevik ideologies, to realise that the reign of Christ, The Prince of Peace was hardly in evidence, except among those who were martyrs and confessors for the Faith. Among these great men and women blaze the three evangelical counsels of Faith, Hope and Charity. Amidst the hellish worlds of the Gulags, the Concentration Camps, and the killing fields, these heroes of the Faith tell us a tale about self sacrifice, self forgetfulness, and love for neighbour that casts vainglory into the shade.
Sadly today many priests and religious are seduced by pop psychology and accept as gospel such dangerously silly charlatan inspired programmes such as the Enneargram, Myers Briggs, and worse still Reiki healing courses. All these are aids to vainglory and the wrong love of self. It is all narcissism and Narcissus has nothing to do with Christ, but if we are stupid enough, like this mythic creature, to spend our lives gazing at our gifts and beauty we will be lucky enough to turn into a flower, we will more likely turn into devils. It is by gazing on the crucified Christ that we will be transformed more and more into the image of the God Man. There is nothing better than that, and hopefully many can, and will change if Christ is truly preached in all his resplendent glory and truth.
So the vice of vainglory is, as far as one can see, the inversion of giving glory to God; not that God needs anything, but in giving God the glory, we ourselves become glorified. This then is the wonder of the Gospel, that it is precisely in dying to self that we gain eternal life, which is our giving glory to God whose glory is unparalleled. It is like little streams flowing into a vast ocean, or better still it is rather like rain that is the moisture taken up from the Earth and then deposited back again. All then is grace and glory, when the soul is turned to Christ, and this is particularly true of Our Lady, who is glorious because she is full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit.
Francis had to empty himself of his ego, but this did not happen immediately. After the breakdown of his health and possibly a nervous breakdown, he returned to his father’s shop, but dreams of glory still haunted him. He was determined to enlist as a knight under the leadership of that great paladin, Count Gautier de Brienne whose court at Lecce was the epitome of the all that was chivalric and noble, a mirror so to speak of Arthur’s Avalon. He was an extraordinary man to say the least, and in him we can see what Francis wanted to be, namely a more than an ordinary knight.
We have seen Francis caught up in the war with Perugia, which was bloody, brutal, and vengeful, but in Gautier we see the ideals of knighthood, but we cannot deny the terrible violence. What was the cause of this violence? Greed and Power. This had been the state of things ever since that fatal day when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor and thus beginning The Holy Roman Empire, which in turn led to a tremendous struggle between the Emperor and the Papacy as to who was in control of the Church. Even the great Innocent III makes one gasp at his extraordinary power, and grip of the political situation. One cannot imagine the Patriarchs of Constantinople employing such political astuteness and sophistication. If we wish to enter this exotic and startling World we can do no better than enter it once again through the eyes of Arnaldo Fortini who opens such a wonderful door into this world of Medieval chivalry, violence, and extraordinary heroism.
We first get a glimpse of it when Fortini describes Pietro Bernardone going on one of his many trips to the great fairs at Champagne where he sold his cloths and bought new and wonderful things, and told new and wonderful stories.
Not withstanding the difficulties of communication, no period in the past was more effective in drawing people together than the Middle Ages. Next to the Crusades, from which warriors came together from every part of Europe, the Champagne fairs were responsible for a great diffusion of cultures, customs, religious and political ideas. The merchants learned of extraordinary events taking place, and on their return they told their fellow citizens about them. One can understand why so many Assisi people would have loved to linger in the shop on the Via Portica.
There Pietro undoubtedly indulged himself in stories about exotic places, exciting ports on fantastic seas, legendary castles on top of inaccessible mountains, plains crossed by great rivers.
He would have talked about the Cistercian abbot who, when asked by King Richard if Jerusalem would be liberated, replied that the moment had not yet come for that consolation.
He would have brought back the report that the King of Sicily, Tancred, had celebrated with great magnificence the wedding of his Son, Roger, and Irene, daughter of the emperor of the Greeks.
He would have said that in Champagne there were knights whose prowess surpassed that of all others. When they went out to war, led by their lord, Thibaut, count of Troyes, their armour shone so that all the region seemed to be burning. Thibaut’s brother had taken the cross and become king of Jerusalem. A short distance from Troyes, on the top of a rocky hill, in sight of a valley through which a great river ran, stood a castle called Brienne. There lived Count Erard, married to Agnes de Montbéliard; they had two sons, Gautier and Jean. Erard had gone on the Crusades and had died in the siege of Saint Jean d’Acre. It had fallen to his son Gautier to gather up his bloody body and bury it with his own hands. Gautier was the son most famous for audacity, grace, loyalty, good sense. (Fortini. pp. 94-95)
Fortini describes Francis listening spell bound to his father’s marvellous stories, and they are indeed truly wonderful, in that one is indeed filled with wonder. These great warriors were celebrities whether you liked them or not, unlike the stars of today who are celebrities for doing what appears to be nothing, apart from talking about themselves in flattering terms, and talking of others in most unflattering ways; so much for reality T.V. which is inflicted on anyone who has a television. It is the apotheosis of the sordid, the silly, and the pathetic. Let us return again to the heroic age in which Francis lived.
When Francis was only five something that happened that shocked Christendom to its very foundations. Jerusalem fell to Saladin after being under Christian rule for eighty-four years. Luckily Frederick Barbarossa the Emperor who had wrought havoc, rapine, and murder throughout much of Italy was now reconciled to the Pope, Clement III, and he took the Cross to reclaim the Holy Land.
After defeating the sultan at Iconium, he made ready to march to march on Jerusalem. But June 9, 1190, while crossing the river Salef, he was swept away by the current. And with his death, the old struggle between the pope and emperor, now Frederick’s son, Henry VI, who succeeded his father, was rekindled.
Henry VI was as violent as his father, and may, if he had lived proved himself as great, however it would be left to his son, Frederick II to assume the mantle of his grandfather’s greatness. Clement III must have wondered how he had had he bad luck to have sorted things out with the fearsome Barbarossa only to be confronted by another tyrant in the making. Let us return to Fortini’s dramatic narrative.
And with his death the old struggle between Pope and emperor, now Frederick’s son, Henry VI, succeeded his father, was rekindled.
The preceding year, 1189, the king of Sicily, William II, had died. The Sicilian Norman party feared that the Germans would get the upper hand if Constance (the Empress), his aunt succeeded him.(Fortini.pp.105-106)
At this point we needed to refer to an earlier section of Fortini’s life of St. Francis that deals with this complicated marriage, and its resultant effects on the Church’s relationship with the Empire.
One of Barbarossa’s most ambitious schemes was to marry his son Henry to Constance, daughter of Roger II of Sicily. The king of Sicily at the time was William II, Constance’s nephew, who in 1166 had succeeded his father, William I, Constance’s brother. William II was without heirs, and he had made a promise to his vassals that at his death he would recognize his Aunt Constance as successor to the throne.(Fortini. p.103)
It all seems quite like the family eccentrics of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but of course the whole thing was a political nightmare. The then Pope Urban III was not amused.
Pope Urban III fiercely opposed the marriage of Constance and Henry. Traditional church politics held that the autonomy of the south was necessary to prevent the excessive expansion of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire to the detriment of the Papal States. The Church also relied on the Normans of the Sicilian kingdom for protection against the German Emperors.( And well they might given the murder, rapine, and violence that were meted out to so many of the Italian city states. )
For all that, the emperor succeeded in his scheme. On January 27, 1186, Henry and Constance were married in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. At the same time the patriarch crowned Henry king of Italy.
Urban III suspended the patriarch and the other bishops who had attended the ceremony. Henry replied by invading the lands held by the church. Barbarossa laid siege to Verona, where the pope was secluded.
Again there was war. Once more the feudal lords whose power had been threatened or usurped hoped for a full restoration of the feudal regime. The emperor encouraged their hopes by annulling at a stroke all the territorial and jurisdictional gains of the coummunes and he restored to the feudal lords all their ancient privileges. (Fortini. p.104)
As we have already seen Jerusalem fell the next year, and three years later Barbarossa was dead. So Italy torn apart between the feudal lords, and the emerging communes, who were dominated by the middle classes, clashed in their different ways with the Papacy. In this chaos heroes did emerge. In 1189 the Normans, with papal backing, wrong footed Henry and Constance by proclaiming Tancred, the illegitimate son of Roger, Duke of Apulia, as King of Sicily. Clement III must have welcomed his own death as a happy release from the violent politics of the age and so it was left to the new Pope, Celestine III an eighty-five year old to crown Henry and Constance Emperor and Empress in St. Peter’s in 1191. But there was trouble ahead! Now that Henry was Emperor he was going to take his revenge on Tancred. However his army was almost entirely wiped out by the plague. He returned to Germany and Constance, betrayed by the people of Salerno, found herself Tancred’s prisoner, but death is no respecter of persons. Tancred dies in February 1194, and Henry wreaks his vengeance on Salerno.
The anxiety with which the Italian cities followed the new war is attested by a document of the Cathedral of Assisi that contains an account of the fall of Salerno in September 1194 to the imperial army, which was led by Guglielmo marchese of Monferrato. The feudal lords rejoiced, foreseeing a return of Frederick’s days. The capture of Salerno was held up as a salutary example to all the enemies of the emperor or his vassals.
The ancient Norman capital, totius principatus quasi metropolis, “the most metropolitan of all the cities ruled by the prince,” the beautiful city that had seen the splendours of the court of Robert Guiscard, became nothing but a heap of ruins. Horrible things were told about the numbers of men murdered, women raped, palaces destroyed, hostages sent to Germany.
Thus the emperor washed away Salernos betrayal of his wife, Constance. (Fortini. p.106)
The hostages that the vengeful Henry took to the Abbey of Hoemburg in the Alsace were Tancred’s widow Sibilia and their three daughters. The fate of their brother William was terrible. Let us return to Fortini for a description of the way Christians treated each other in this Age of Faith.
That same year of 1197 marked a reprise of the imperial horrors in Southern Italy. Jailers and executioners devoted themselves to the invention of new tortures. The boy king, William III, son of Tancred was blinded and atrociously mutilated. The tomb of Tancred was violated. Margaritone and the archbishop of Salerno were killed together with many others loyal to them. Some of them were sawed in two, others crowned with crowns of red hot iron. The savage slaughter was carried on in a frenzy of blood and torturing that could only be matched, in the opinion of Gregorovius, in the history of certain oriental sultans. (Fortini. p. 117)
Into all this mayhem rode the dazzling knight of every lady’s dreams, and the hero of every young man aspiring to knighthood and valour, especially alluring for that romantic dreamer of dreams, Francis. Gautier of Brienne comes to the rescue and frees Queen Sibilia and her three daughters who had for four years remained in prison in the Hoemburg. Sibilia then appealed to the Pope to restore the ancient Norman kingdom of Apulia and Sicily. The Pope, none other than the colossal Innocent III sent Sibilia to the King of France, Philip Augustus, who asked for a knight to save the day, and give the kingdom back to Sibilia.
Here is Sibilia, who has asked out help and who promises to give her daughter --- who carries as dowry Sicily and all that region of Italy known as Apulia --- in marriage to the one who will have the spirit to reconquer this land with arms and to avenge the injuries suffered. Nor should any one of you hold that such a feat is impossible, because I myself judge that it can be done in a short time and with a happy outcome. And, God willing, I myself should undertake this expedition to become the avenger of kings, the saviour of the peoples, the vindicator of tyranny.! (Fortini, p. 142)
Not surprisingly Gautier’s bravery obtained for him the hand of the heiress to Tancred’s realm, namely the eldest daughter of Tancred and Sibilia. Philip Augustus and his court attended the wedding. It was said of the marriage that it was “a marriage of valour and hope”. On one level this was true, for after his many almost miraculous victories Gautier was able to re-establish Tancred’s court at Lecce, and if anything it was even more wonderful than it was before. It was the epitome of Courtly Love, with brave knights riding out into battles and then returning to feast, and joust, and dance with the noblest and beautiful ladies. It, not surprisingly came to an end. It seems that Gautier was betrayed, then mortally wounded, and died before his enemy Diopoldo, whose invitation to become his ally was met with Gautier’s contempt and Diopoldo’s anger; rather than live Gautier tore off his bandages and dies. His passing was likened to Roland’s. Thus did the great knight and Paladin, Gautier depart this world.
Ironically Francis never did get to join Gautier. He was going to go to join Gautier’s army. Firtly he took pity on a knight, who was nearly naked and gave him his magnificent clothes, and then not long afterwards “as he lay asleep, God in his goodness showed him a vision of a magnificent palace full of armour, bearing Christ’s cross as its coat-of-arms. He would let him see that the kindness he had done a poor knight would be repaid with an incomparable reward. And so when Francis asked to whom all this belonged, he was told from heaven that it was all for him and his knights. (Bonaventure, Legenda Major; chap. 1. 3).
Francis could not interpret the dream, and felt it foretold a marvellous knightly career. Ironically it prophesied one of the greatest explosions of sanctity in the Church, both East and West. It was only when God spoke to him in a second dream that Francis realised that God’s will for him was something utterly different.
“He set our shortly afterwards but when he reached the next town, he heard God calling him by his first name as he lay asleep, and saying, “Francis, who can do more for you, a lord or his servant, a rich man or a beggar?” When he replied that a lord or a rich man could do more, he was asked, “Then why are you abandoning the Lord to devote yourself to a servant? Why are you choosing a beggar instead of God who is infinitely rich?” “Lord” replied Francis, “what will you have me do?” And God told him, “Go back to your own town. The vision which you saw foretold a spiritual achievement which will be accomplished in you by God’s will.” (Bonaventure, Legend Major; chap. 1.3)
From then on St. Francis was a changed man, and so begins the complete transformation from vainglorious and glittering knight into a perfect disciple of Christ, The Prince of Peace. He would come to this by dying to self, and it would cost him dearly. He who was terrified of leprosy would find himself kissing a leper, who asked for alms. He who loved clothes and fashion would find himself wearing sackcloth, and for one who was fastidious to a fault would find himself living in utter poverty, eating anything that would come his way. Of the original twelve companions of Francis, some were great Assisi men like Bernard of Quintavalle, but others like Angelo Tancredi, were great knights. He was very wealthy and “adorned with every courtesy and kindliness”. These knightly traits were transformed by an utter dedication to “Lady Poverty” and enabled the Gospel of Peace to be preached.
It would be hard to know of any movement in the Church that weaves romance, knightly values into the warp and weft of the Gospel so marvellously. This remarkable aspect of Francis’ life, long forgotten sprang to life again in the 1960’s and has experienced an unfortunate eclipse with a loss of identity among the major branches of the Franciscan Friars. God willing they will rediscover the urgency of preaching and living the Gospel, and being apostles of peace.
It is in those graced meetings, which seem not very important, that God works some of his greatest miracles. We need only think of Christ’s meetings with Andrew, Matthew, the woman at the well, and Nicodemus, that we realise that it is the apparently chance conversation where the Holy Spirit speaks with a radiant power that is lost when transmitted via the media, and this would be especially true of T.V. evangelists. Such a meeting was when a former SAS soldier Ben Griffin bumped into a US Navy veteran Barry Ladendorf in London bookshop who was Veteran for Peace, and so Veterans for Peace was born in Britain. Now two years down the line, there are 30 or so Veterans for Peace in Britain from all the forces. This, God willing, is something truly wonderful. For if we do not make peace, if we do not become apostles of peace, whose Prince is Christ the King of the Universe, and whose Kingdom is Peace beyond our wildest dreams then our governments and heads of states will sadly, and blindly lead us not towards that glorious Kingdom of Peace where The Father dwells in unapproachable light and where the love of the Spirit informs everyone and everything, then we will drag our benighted world every closer and closer towards the portals of Hell. This The Most Holy Trinity will not allow, and so on this great and sadly neglected feast of The Trinity let us send up a prayer that we Christians will earnestly begin to live the life of The Trinity. How do we do this by making The Church, and all Christians citizens of the Kingdom of Peace. All our actions and thoughts must be imbued by the Life of The Trinity.
Francis gives us the most perfect exhortation of how to live this life, which we find in the 23rd and final chapter of his early rule of 1221.
“We should wish for nothing else and have no other desire; we should find no pleasure or delight in anything except in our Creator, Redeemer, and Saviour; he alone is true God, who is perfect good, all good, every good, the true supreme good, and he alone is good, loving, gentle kind and understanding; he alone is holy, just, true, and right; he alone is kind, innocent, pure, and from him, through him, and in him is all pardon, all grace, and all glory for the penitent, the just, and the blessed who rejoice in heaven.
Nothing, then, must keep us back, nothing separate us from him, nothing come between us and him. At all times and seasons, in every country and place, every day all day, we must have a true and humble faith, and keep him in our hearts, where we must love, honour, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and acclaim, magnify and thank, the most high supreme and eternal God, Three and One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator of all and Saviour of those who believe in him, who hope in him, and who love him; without beginning and without end, he is unchangeable, invisible, indescribable and ineffable, incomprehensible, unfathomable, blessed and worthy of all praise, glorious, exalted, sublime, most high, kind, lovable, delightful and utterly desirable beyond all else, for ever and ever.”
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Living the life of the Trinity is living the mystery of Love itself, that utter and total self-giving of each of the three persons. The Father generating his Son from all eternity, and the outpouring of them both so totally that that love is a person, namely the Holy Spirit. Words fail to describe this mystery, but it is seen perfectly in the life of Christ, the Second Person of The Trinity, and is seen to a finite degree in the lives of the saints. If we are to move towards the Kingdom of the Trinity then we must look to Mary, the Mother of God, who is the mirror of the Trinity, and whom St. Francis says of her “The Virgin made Church”. Perhaps countless Christians fail in their following of Christ, because they have forgotten that the Kingdom of God, is the domain of The Father and The Son, and The Holy Spirit, and that it is in this Kingdom that true peace resides. It is not the peace of pleasure, leisure, of having a good time, of being on good terms with one’s family, neighbours and friends. No it is the peace that comes to us from the Father’s gift of his Son to us, and then the gift of them both, The Holy Spirit who brings harmony and newness to our lives, as has recently been pointed out to us by Pope Francis, who is calling the World back to the Gospel as St. Francis did in his day.
So let all Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Tyrants, Dictators fall down before this great mystery of the Trinity and in humility lay down at the Divine Throne their vainglory, their weapons, and their power, and admit that they were created in the image of Eternal Love, who is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in so doing learn the liberating joy that St. Francis felt when he lay down his arms, and became the little poor man of Christ, whose herald and troubadour he became, giving to us all a glimpse of what Heaven on Earth could ,through his extraordinary movement, which though halting and weary at the beginning of the 21st century still has life and fire in it which God willing the Holy Spirit will fan into a mighty flame. Let us ask the prayers of St.Francis, the great prophet of peace, to still the heartless and wicked storms of human and demonic violence that are sweeping so relentlessly across the World today, and may his great cry be ours today, which draws the curtain aside to reveal the glories of Heaven; May the Lord give you Peace.