When thinking of the Middle Ages, many will hold that the essence of asceticism was rejection of the world and complete condemnation of life lived in the world. This judgment is sometimes found in history books, but it is not entirely true. Suffice it to look at the few remaining letters of St. Francis of Assisi.
One in particular, written to a friar who asked to be relieved of his office, can help understand how deeply rooted Francis was in the world and in history. It was probably written between 1221 and 1223, four years before his death, but it is a “pearl” that reveals the personality of the saint, how he kept the Gospel in his heart, and how he actually lived it in daily relationships.
It is a document that, more than others handed down to us over time, reveals the true character of Francis and allows us to understand how attentive he was to others: helpful, understanding, and at the same time able to apply the word of the Lord to the concrete issues of life. If one compares the Francis of this letter with that of several subsequent texts – for example, with the image given by the Fioretti – the difference is enormous. It is known, however, that these texts, written more than a century after Francis’ death, exalt his status and holiness in an excessive and sometimes legendary way, as embodying “an ascetic model that is unattainable, more to be admired than imitated, because his acts and choices were those that only he could make.”