Monday, April 25, 2016

The Source of Joy: The Little Flowers of Saint Francis

This book is recommended for Lenten reading for Level 3 Year 1 students by Mater Amabilis. An ebook is available for free, but I opted to purchase this Paraclete Heritage Edition (used copies are quite reasonably priced) because paper books just seem to work better in our homeschool. This particular edition is introduced, annotated, arranged chronologically, and rendered into contemporary English by John M. Sweeney.

Originally published in Latin, The Little Flowers was almost immediately translated into Italian in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. It wasn't available at all in English until 1864. Before it was published, the stories were passed on orally by the Franciscan brothers. (A few additional stories were added by one of the Italian translators, but those weren't in our edition.)
The Little Flowers tells the story of St. Francis and his earliest companions--the men and women of the early Franciscan movement. They are teaching tales, intended to motivate the reader toward holiness. There is never a question as to the sanctity of the subject of these tales; they are not the subject of objective history.
The early stories focus on St. Francis and his first companions, but the second part is mostly about "modern" friars (stories 42-53), those of the time when the Fioretti was compiled or written. The more modern stories are presented in an attempt to defend themselves within the order at a time when it was divided into (mainly) two cohorts. They include multiple references, for example, to purgatory even though it was not a formal doctrine until long after St. Francis's death.

This book is essential for understanding St. Francis.
There is no document or collection of documents that has had as much impact on our collective and cultural understanding of Francis of Assisi and the personality of the early Franciscan movement as The Little Flowers.
The editor debated about changing the title as he felt it both didn't reflect the original Latin and because he thought people were not drawn in by the title. First Son, a twelve year old boy, protested on the very first day because of the title. He wanted no part of flowers! I shared a little of the introduction (which I had assigned) and encouraged him to have an open mind.
What makes these stories relevant today is the power with which they grab hold of the reader, sometimes by the fantastic claims they make for the life of St. Francis and his first followers, to change one's life before God. Hyperbole--if that's what it's called--has always been a rhetorical device and a symptom of deep believe; and it can be a tool of transformation.
Once First Son started reading the book, he loved it. The brief chapters glow with the early fervor of St. Francis and his followers. Stories of preaching in underwear, enduring hardships, and battling the devil inspire thrilled my sixth grade son.

One of my favorite stories is The source of joy, or, St. Francis and Brother Leo walking in the freezing rain. St. Francis, walking behind Brother Leo, calls out to him repeatedly, telling him everything the source of joy is not such as being "an example of holiness and integrity to the world," working miracles including "the dead to rise again after four days," knowledge of man and Scripture, and winning the conversion of others. Brother Leo finally begs St. Francis to tell him the source of joy.
"When we arrive at St. Mary's," Francis began, "and we're soaked by the rain and chilled to the bone, completely drenched with mud and so very hungry, and we ring at the gate and the brother on duty comes to the gate and says, 'Who are you?' We will say, 'We are your brothers.' But if he argues with us and says, 'You aren't telling me the truth. I don't trust you. You might steal from us. Go away!' then he won't open the gate and we'll have to stand outside in the freezing snow and cold until night falls.["]
He continues, saying they'll endure more insults.
"If we bear all of this with patience and receive his insults with joy and charity in our hearts--write this down too, brother: that is the source of joy!["]
He says, "We bear it all because we love him."

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