Of my father and myself—which had been the lucky one?
I, singing free as a skylark and feeling God to be so very near—or he, who continued to be concerned with his money and his nonsense? (58).
I picked up I, Francis in a little bookshop on South Chicago St. in Hot Springs, SD. It’s a wonderful little book that shows a deep familiarity with Francis on the part of Carlo Carretto and invites the reader into friendship with Francis. Carretto presents the book as a modern monologue from Francis, who recounts his biography to us. Carretto’s Francis conveys several themes: the illusory natures of divisions amongst peoples; the importance of silence; the witness of nature to peaceableness; the wickedness of industrialism and consumerism; and the importance of meekness, humility, and poverty.
Francis grew up the son of a businessman, who had mapped out Francis’ life; he was to continue in his father’s footsteps. His mother was a Christian. During his youth, he was pressed into military service in defense of Assisi, but he “ended up where you always end up if you do not grasp war maneuvers very well—a prisoner” (4). The next year was spent in that prison and often in illness. Once he regained his freedom and his health, Carretto’s Francis “had been given new eyes” (5). The vulnerability he experienced created a feeling of nearness to God.
He grew close to persons trapped in poverty, and became an expert in the “law of reciprocal containers,” which says, “Find it where it is and put it where it isn’t.” Carretto’s Frances goes on to say that this law “should be the rule of the politicians at all levels of government, but . . .” (10). Suffice it to say that Francis was taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Francis’ father was scandalized, and the people of Assisi thought Francis had gone out of his mind. Francis even began to dress in tatters, so his father decided to take him to the bishop.
This was the scene of a major conversion event: Francis stripped naked before the bishop, giving his clothes to his father, and said, “From this moment forth I am no longer Francis, son of Peter di Bernardone, but Francis, child of God!” (11). In hindsight, Carretto’s Francis is surprised by the strength he had to be in solidarity with the poor in this very public way.
Francis began to spend time at a dilapidated church, St. Damian, in prayer and meditation. There, one day while he was looking at the cross hanging over the altar, he heard Christ say, “Francis, repair my house! You can see it is in ruins.” (Here, Carretto includes a playful footnote from his Francis that advises the reader not to “get all hung up” on things he saw—such as Christ’s mouth move—because the sight of such things “takes place entirely in the realm of faith, hope, and love, and . . . is utterly personal” .) He venerated the cross out of appreciation for this mystic moment.
Francis, of course, thought the instruction was to repair the dilapidated St. Damian’s, so he began repurposing stones from in and around Assisi in the effort to restore it.
Through the act of begging for stones and perceiving Christ’s humility on the cross, Francis began to understand that “poverty did not consist in helping the poor, it consisted in being poor” (18). And so he wished to draw closer to God through true poverty, as Jesus had done during his life. And here, the first bit of prophetic speech appears; Carretto’s Francis advices those who seek perfect poverty to work to change peoples’ hearts so that justice will be just and so that the impoverished, having experienced the fruits of justice, do not become the new oppressors themselves (21).
Francis understood perfect poverty in his encounter with the leper, of whom he was afraid but in whom he saw the image of Christ. Carretto’s Francis came to realize, “The curse was not in poverty, it was in wealth. It was in power, which hardened and poisoned hearts. Poverty was not creation’s mistake but its last page, perhaps the most important page, the one that placed men and women before mystery and obliged them to seek after God and the supreme gift of self.” For Carretto’s Francis, “true freedom began” when he came to understand this mystery of poverty.
Thus Francis began to have companions who joined in the mysterious life of poverty with him, living out the gospel as faithfully as they could. Carretto’s Francis notes that “[r]eligion in my day was badly lived,” (26) and so he and his companions went out into the world begging for food and preaching the gospel in order to show its goodness. Along the way, he received Clare, who he had known in his youth. She quickly affirmed that she wanted to live in perfect poverty, so Francis helped her set up a convent of her own.
For Carretto’s Francis, nature began to reveal the goodness of God. And it revealed the deep mystery of life too, which “was a sacred space spread out around me by God out of respect for my littleness and my liberty” (44). This gratitude for mystery and the godliness revealed in nature moved him to compose his Canticle of Creation.
Carretto moves his memoir of Francis back to the church and to the instruction to “repair” it, noting that Francis “quickly realized that the Lord’s words must have meant something much more vast” (53). He realized the invitation was to witness against the lavishness of the hierarchy of his day. He went to Rome to receive the Pope’s blessing for his new Order, while there he despaired the wealth that he saw. However, on his journey back to Assisi, he was troubled by the “mystery of the holy and sinful Church, at once indefectible by divine promise, and capable of scandalizing. And indeed it did scandalize, by its riches and might” (56).
As he thought about this, he came to the conclusion that he was being called also to compassion. Carretto’s Francis says, “All of a sudden there it was. We were to imitate Jesus—to do as he had done. . . . Had I not been saved? And this was why I was so happy—because I had been saved. And now who was I, who had been saved, to criticize those who had not had the same grace? (57).
(One hears echoes of this in the language of Pope Francis today.)
Carretto’s Francis is not saying that what’s good for him may not be good for others; no, he desires all to know Christ through poverty and charity. But he comes to understand that compassion is the way into people’s hearts. He understands that he in his poverty is the blessed one and not the one who has to worry with his money—as the quote above about his father affirms. He goes on to say,
The only thing we have to fear is pride, the wish for advancement, and the wish to judge our brothers and sisters—to strike down with our judgments those who are already bitterly struck down by the absence of God and the sorrow sin leaves behind (58–59).
And so the beatitude that confers blessedness upon the merciful became “the light of [Francis’] path.”
Until now, I had not well understood in what the mystery of the Church consisted: sinfulness, and infallibility; bad example, and assurance along the road; fearful blindness in the shepherds, and the certainty of reaching the Promised Land with precisely these shepherds (59).
For Carretto’s Francis, these two aspects of the church were a matter of faith.
It was a matter of believing that the Church had already been founded, and that we should trust in the Spirit that guided it as he had guided Moses, as he had guided David, as he had guided Peter, and as he now guided Innocent III, whom we had seen in all his weakness but a few days before (60).
Next, Carretto’s Francis reflects on nonviolence and its primary place in the Christian life. He says, again, that the basis of such life is love. So nonviolence is an outcropping of the life of love. He summarizes his thoughts on nonviolence by saying simply: “Speak of nonviolence, be apostles of nonviolence, become nonviolent” (75). We are called to be nonviolent because of the Spirit’s work of conversion; we are nonviolent because “[e]ven Nineveh was converted, and saved” (76).
Carretto’s Francis rightly observes how government is wholly violent, saying that “[t]he pity is that it is always the same ones who govern: the powerful, the rich, the professional politicians” (76). Carretto’s Francis suggests we look to the weak to lead because they “see humanity’s problems better” and because “they would not commit such horrors” as warfare and the destruction of nature. Again, Carretto’s Francis speaks prophetically, “The sad part is, you measure everything by money, and this is a mistake” (77). Moreover, he continues, “you ought to admit that you have been wrong, and that you continue to be wrong, that you are bunglers. And what is worse, that you prostitute yourselves for money” (78).
The solution to this prostituting? Love one’s neighbors and, instead of consuming nature greedily, “[m]ake the land a garden, and the garden will become an Eden, and will give you what you seek: bread and peace” (79).
Violence stops when fear stops. Francis’ encounter with the wolf of Gubbio shows this to be true. Carretto’s Francis says that the miracle was not that the wolf was tamed by Francis’ smiling caress but that the townspeople came out to offer it food and water; the miracle was the cessation of murderous fear (80–81).
If Carretto’s Francis can have the courage to approach an angry wolf, he demands we have similar courage. “Just think,” he says, “what would happen one day if you became nonviolent, and took the huge sums of money you spend to defend yourselves against fear and used it to help the people you fear” (81).
Such courage sustained Carretto’s Francis, but he nonetheless experienced the dark night of the soul. Late in life, Carretto’s Francis wondered whether he’d gotten it all wrong. Had his Order left him behind. He “desired to live like the sparrows, without amassing anything. And now the pantries [of the Franciscan houses] were getting bigger and bigger” (84). The Franciscans themselves were suffering divisions. Some friars were signing up for crusades in the Holy Land such that not even his peaceful encounter with Sultan Malek-el-kamel gave Carretto’s Francis hope. All these things made him question whether he’d been wrong all along. He “felt beaten, defeated, conquered” (86).
But he head the Lord say, “Francis, accept. As I accepted” (89). And so Francis did, and he began to pray for an understanding of the love Jesus had while hanging on the cross. Carretto’s Francis drew encouragement from the observation that “[o]n the human level, Christ’s life was a failure. But on the level of his love, it was the masterpiece that gave new life to all creation. By dying for love, Christ had exalted the whole world. Death had been vanquuished” (89–90).
While he prayed he “saw a seraph” and felt something “being branded into [his] flesh.” He goes on to say that he could feel pain in his hands, feet, and heart. He felt blood running down his body. He then says,
I could bear the pain no longer—and yet I was buoyed up by a presence that made me happy. I understood then that I had arrived at the mid-point of true happiness. The solution for every anguish. The open door of paradise (90–91).
Carretto’s Francis afterward was not concerned with whether or not others believed he had the stigmata, nor was he interested in displaying his wounds. “What was of value is that the fire of the Holy Spirit had come within me, the same fire as had consecrated Jesus Christ on Calvary” (91).
He went away knowing that he and everyone and everything would be saved.
For Carretto’s Francis, death was approaching. He took great strength from the fact that Jesus had said he was the door and that “[t]he door is the same on both sides” (92). He came to realize that the things on this side of the door were only given value by the things on the other side. We must live the life of the other side even now so to be ready to pass through the door. As he lost strength he was taken back to places that were special to him, and received his “Easter communion” in the Portiuncula, a small church very special to him.
Afterwards, he was asked to be taken out and placed “naked on the naked earth,” which “afforded some alleviation for [his] pain. It was like a familiar embrace, once again beginning to press [him] close. But this embrace I sought no longer. The true embrace, I now awaited from him—my Most High Lord” (98).
And Carretto’s Francis “entered the gate” (98).
Carretto concludes his book with a brief liturgy of the hours made up of quotes by and special Psalms from St. Francis. He says that he hopes to have “brought [St. Francis] very near” to the reader (99). Indeed, Francis seems like a dear friend after having read this book.