Saint Francis of Assisi Converts Three Murderers and The Heavenly Vision of One of Them
The Sacrament of Penance also called Reconciliation, Forgiveness, Confession, and Conversion.
As St Francis went one day through the desert of Borgo di San Sepolcro, and was passing by a castle called Monte Casale, he saw a young man of noble mien, and elegant in appearance, coming towards him, who thus addressed him: “Father, I would willingly be one of thy monks.” St Francis answered: “My son, thou art young, noble, and delicate; perhaps thou wouldst not be able to endure poverty and hardships.” The young man said again: “Father, are you not men, like me? If you, then, can support these things, through the grace of God I shall be able to do so likewise.” This answer greatly pleased St Francis, and giving the young man his blessing, he received him immediately into the Order, and gave him the name of Brother Angelo. And this young man was so remarkable and so distinguished, that shortly after he was named Guardian of the Convent of Monte Casale. At that time there were three famous robbers in that part of the country, who did much evil in all the neighbourhood. Coming one day to the said convent, they asked Brother Angelo, the guardian, to give them something to eat. The guardian, reproving them harshly, answered thus: “Cruel robbers and murderers, you are not ashamed to deprive others of the fruits of their labours, and you have the audacity to come here and devour that which is given in charity to the servants of God – you who are not worthy of the earth which bears you, for you neither respect man nor the Lord who made you. Go about your business, and do not appear here again.” Then the robbers went away in anger, much troubled by these words. Shortly after, St Francis arrived at the convent with a sack of bread and a little vessel of wine, which he and his companion had begged; and the guardian related to him how he had sent away the robbers. On this St Francis reproved him sharply, saying that he had behaved most cruelly, for sinners are brought back to God more easily by kindness than by harsh words. “Wherefore,” said he, “our Master Jesus Christ, whose Word we have promised to observe, says that the whole need not a physician, but they that are sick, and that he came not to call the just, but sinners, to repentance; for which reason he often sat down to meat with them. As, then, thou hast acted against charity, and against the Gospel of Christ, I command thee, in the name of holy obedience, to take with thee this sack of bread, which I have begged, and this little vessel of wine, and go after the robbers, over the hills and across the valleys, until thou meet with them. And when thou hast found them, give them from me this bread and wine; and then, kneeling down before them, thou shalt humbly confess thy fault, begging them, in my name, not to do evil any more, but to fear God and never again offend him. If they consent to this, I promise to provide for all their wants, and to give them continually both meat and drink; and when thou hast told them this, thou shalt humbly come back here.” Whilst the guardian went on the errand of St Francis, the latter began to pray, asking God to touch the hearts of the robbers and bring them to repentance. The obedient guardian, having found out their retreat, presented to them the bread and wine, and said and did what St Francis had commanded; and it pleased God that as the robbers ate the bread of charity which St Francis had sent them, they reasoned thus among themselves; “Alas for us, miserable men that we are! What pains await us in hell; for not only have we robbed, beaten and wounded our neighbours, but we have likewise taken away their lives, and yet for all these cruel deeds we feel no remorse of conscience, and no fear of God! and behold this holy friar who is come to us, for a few unkind words, which we merited most justly, has humbly confessed that he was wrong, and has brought us likewise bread and wine, with a most gracious promise from the holy St Francis. These men indeed are holy religious of God who merit his Paradise, and we are sons of perdition, worthy of the pains of hell; and each day we add to our perdition, and we know not whether yet, because of our sins we have committed hitherto, we can find mercy in the sight of God.” One of them having spoken thus, the other two answered, saying: “Most certainly thou speakest truly; but what are we to do?” “Let us go,” said one of the others, “to St Francis; and if he gives us a hope that our sins may find mercy in the sight of God, we will do what he shall command us to save our souls from the punishment of hell.” This counsel pleasing the others, they agreed to go immediately to St Francis; and having found him, they thus addressed him: “Father, because of the multitude of our sins we dare not look for mercy from God; but if thou hast a hope that he may have pity on us, we are ready to do what thou shalt order, and do penance for our sins with thee.” Then St Francis bade them stay, and with much kindness and charity comforted them, giving them many proofs of the mercy of God, and promising them to ask the Lord to have pity on their sins. He told them that his mercy knows no bounds, and that were their sins without number the mercy of God is even greater, according to the word of the Gospel and of the Apostle St Paul, who says our Blessed Lord came into the world to save sinners. The three robbers on hearing these words resolved to renounce the devil and his works; and St Francis received them into the Order, in which they did great penance. Two of them died shortly after their conversion, and went to heaven; but the third survived, and, reflecting on his sins, he did penance during fifteen years. Besides the ordinary fasts which he observed with the brethren, he fasted at other times three days in the week on bread and water, went barefooted, wore no other vestment but his tunic, and never slept after Matins. During this time St Francis passed from this miserable life. The converted robber having continued to do penance for many years, it so happened that one night, after Matins, he was visited by such a strong temptation to sleep, that he could neither pray nor watch according to his custom. At last, finding it impossible to resist any longer, he threw himself on his bed to sleep. No sooner had he laid down his head than he was rapt in spirit and led up into a very high mountain, on the side of which was a deep precipice bordered with sharp stones and large rocks all broken to pieces, so that the precipice was frightful to look at; and the angel who conducted the brother pushed him with such violence, that he fell into the abyss, and rolling down from stone to stone and from rock to rock, he reached the bottom shattered all to pieces, as it seemed to him. As he lay on the ground in this pitiable condition, the angel said to him: “Arise, for thou hast a much longer journey to take.” And the brother answered: “Thou art both cruel and unreasonable. Thou seest that I am about to die from my fall, which has shattered me all to pieces, and thou tellest me to arise.” On this the angel, coming near him, touched him, healing all his wounds. He then showed him an immense plain, full of sharp and pointed stones, covered with thorns and brambles, and told him that he was to run all over the plain, and cross it barefooted till he reached the other end, where was a burning furnace, which he was to enter. And the brother having crossed the plain with great pain and suffering, the angel ordered him to enter the furnace, as it was meet for him to do. The brother exclaimed: “Alas, what a cruel guide thou art! Thou seest that I am nearly dead, having crossed this horrible plain; and to rest me thou commandest me to enter this burning furnace”; and looking up, he saw all around many demons with iron pitchforks in their hands; and as he hesitated to obey the angel, they pushed him into the furnace. When he was in the furnace, he looked around and saw one who had formerly been his companion burning all over from head to foot; and he said to him: “O my unhappy companion, how camest thou here?” And he answered: “Go a little farther, and thou shalt find my wife; she will tell thee why we are damned.” Then the brother, going a little farther, saw the said woman surrounded with flames; and he said to her: “O unfortunate and miserable woman, why are thou condemned to suffer such a cruel torment?” “Because,” she answered, “at the time of the great famine which St Francis had foretold, my husband and I cheated the people, and sold them wheat and oats in a false measure. It is for this that I am condemned to burn in this dreadful place.” Having heard these words, the angel who conducted the brother drew him out of the furnace, and said to him: “Prepare thyself now for a very horrible journey.” Then the brother answered him sorrowfully: “O cruel guide, thou hast no compassion on me. Thou seest how I am almost burnt to death in this furnace, and thou preparest for me another horrible and dangerous journey.” Then the angel touching him, he became whole and strong; after which he led him to a bridge, which it was impossible to pass without great danger, for it was slightly built, very narrow, and very slippery, without any parapets, while underneath there flowed a terrible river full of serpents, scorpions and dragons, which produced a great stench. Then said the angel to him: “Go over the bridge, as by all means thou must cross it.” And the brother answered: “How can I cross it without falling into that dangerous river?” The angel said to him: “Follow me, and place thy foot where thou shalt see me place mine, and thou shalt cross it safely.” Then the brother walked behind the angel as he had ordered him, and reached the middle of the bridge, when suddenly the angel flew away, and leaving the brother, went on to a very high mountain at a great distance from the bridge. When the brother saw whither the angel had flown, being without his guide and looking down, he saw all those terrible animals with their heads out of the water, and their mouths open ready to devour him, if he were to fall into the river; and he trembled much with fear, not knowing what to do or what to say, as he could neither go back nor go forward. Seeing himself in such tribulation, and having no refuge but in God, he bent down, and clinging to the bridge, with all his heart and with many tears he recommended himself to the Lord, praying him to have mercy on him. Having finished his prayer, it seemed to him as if wings were growing out of his back, and he waited with great joy till they should be large enough to enable him to fly away from the bridge, and go to the spot whither the angel had flown. After waiting a little time, his impatience to leave the bridge became so great that he tried to fly; but his wings not having reached their growth, he fell on the bridge, and the feathers came off; upon which he clung again to the bridge, as he had done before, and recommended himself to God. Having finished his prayer, it seemed to him as if the wings were growing again; but losing patience a second time, he tried to fly before the wings were fully grown, and falling down on the bridge as before, the feathers came off. And seeing that it was his impatience to fly away which made him fall down thus, he said within himself: “If my wings begin to grow a third time, I will most certainly wait until they are large enough to enable me to fly away without falling.” And having come to this decision, he saw the wings begin to grow for the third time, and waited so long that they might attain their growth, that it seemed to him as if more than a hundred and fifty years had elapsed between the first growth of his wings and the third. At last he arose for the third time, and exerting all his strength, he flew up to the spot whither the angel had flown before him; and knocking at the gate of the place into which he had entered, the porter asked of him who he was and whence he came. To this he answered: “I am one of the Friars Minor.” The porter said to him: “Wait a little whilst I go and fetch St Francis, to see if he knows thee.” While the porter was gone to fetch St Francis, the brother began to examine the wonderful walls of the palace which appeared so luminous and so transparent, that he could see through them the choirs of saints, and what they were doing. As he was struck with wonder at this sight, St Francis came towards him, with Brother Bernard and Brother Giles, followed by a great multitude of saints, both men and women, who had followed him in life, and they appeared to be innumerable. Then St Francis said to the porter: “Let him come in, for he is one of my friars.” As soon as he had entered, he felt such consolation and such sweetness, that he forgot all the tribulations he had gone through, as if they had never been. And St Francis, taking him inside, showed him that thou return to the world; thou shalt remain there seven days, during which thou shalt prepare thyself with great devotion and great care; for after the seven days I will come and fetch thee, and then thou shalt be with me in this abode of the blessed.” St Francis wore a most wonderful cloak adorned with beautiful stars, and his five stigmata were like five stars, so bright that all the palace illumined by their rays. And Brother Giles was adorned with a blazing light, and he saw there many other holy brothers whom he had not known in the world. Having taken leave of St Francis, he returned, much against his will, to the world. When he awoke and came back to himself, the brothers were singing prime; so that the vision had lasted only from matins to prime, though it seemed to him as if many years had elapsed. He related to the guardian all the vision from beginning to end. After seven days he fell ill of a fever, and on the eighth day St Francis came to him, as he had promised with a great multitude of glorious saints, and conducted his soul to life eternal in the kingdom of the blessed.