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OF THE WONDERFUL CHAPTER HELD BY ST FRANCIS AT ST MARY OF THE ANGELS, AT WHICH MORE THAN FIVE THOUSAND FRIARS WERE PRESENT
The faithful servant of Christ, St Francis, once held a general chapter at St Mary of the Angels, at which chapter more than five thousand friars were present. Amongst them also was St Dominic, the head and founder of the Order of Friars Preachers, who chanced to be on his way from Bologna to Rome: for having heard of the chapter which St Francis had called together in the plain of St Mary of the Angels, he went there with seven friars of his Order. A certain Cardinal also, much devoted to St Francis, to whom the saint had foretold that he would one day be Pope, came expressly from Perugia to Assisi, and everyday he went to visit St Francis and his brethren. Sometimes he sang Mass and preached to them; and each time the said Cardinal visited the holy company he experienced much pleasure and devotion. Seeing the friars all seated in the plain round St Mary of the Angels, in groups - here forty, there a hundred, and elsewhere eighty, all occupied in conversing about God, or in prayer, or in works of charity - seeing them all so silent and so grave, and wondering how such a multitude could be so orderly, he was moved to tears, and exclaimed, with great devotion, “Truly this is the field of God; this is the army, and these are the knights of the Lord.” No vain or useless word was to be heard in all that multitude; each group of friars was engaged either in prayer, or saying their office, in weeping over their sins and those of their benefactors, or in reasoning on the salvation of souls. Many tents made of mats had been pitched in that field, divided in groups, according to the different provinces from whence the friars came; so that this Chapter was called the “Chapter of mats”.
The friars had no other beds but the bare ground, with here and there a little straw; for pillows they had stones or pieces of wood. For which reasons they were held in much devotion; and so great was the fame of their sanctity, that many came to see and hear them from the court of the Pope which was at Perugia, and from other parts of the Valley of Spoleto. Many counts and barons, many knights and other gentlemen, many Cardinals, Bishops and Abbots, many priests and much people, came to see this great and holy and humble congregation; for the world had never yet witnessed so many holy men assembled together; and most especially they went thither to see the saintly founder; and father of the Order, who had taken from the world so many gifted men, and had formed so beautiful and devout a flock to follow the steps of the true Pastor, Jesus Christ. The chapter being assembled, St Francis, the father of all those holy men, expounded with great fervour of spirit the Word of God, speaking to them in a loud voice that which the Holy Spirit dictated. Now the subject he took for his sermon was this: “My children, we have promised great things to God, and God has promised even greater things to us. If we observe what we have promised him, we shall certainly receive what he has promised to us. The pleasures of this world pass quickly away, but the punishment which follows them is eternal. The sufferings of this world are trifling, but the glory of the life to come is without bounds.” And, preaching on these words most devoutly, he comforted the brethren, encouraging them to holy obedience, to reverence for holy Mother Church, to charity among themselves, to pray God for all people, to bear with patience the adversities of life, to be temperate in prosperity, to keep angelic purity and chastity, to be at peace with God, with men and with their own conscience, to love, to observe, and to practise holy poverty. He then added: “I command you all here present, through holy obedience, to take no thought what you shall eat or what you shall drink, or of aught else that is necessary to the body, but only to meditate, to pray, and to praise God, casting on him the thought of all the rest, for he has you all in his especial care; and let each of you receive this command with a happy heart and a joyful countenance.” St Francis having finished his sermon, all the friars began to pray. Yet St Dominic, who was present, wondered much at this order of St Francis, considering it as indiscreet, for he could not understand how such a great multitude could exist without taking thought for the body. But the heavenly Pastor, our Blessed Saviour, wishing to show the care he takes of his lambs, and with what singular love he loves his poor servants, put into the hearts of all the people of Perugia, of Spoleto, of Foligno, of Spello, of Assisi, and of all the neighbouring country, to take meat and drink to that holy congregation; and presently men came from all these places with horses, and asses, and carts laden with bread and wine, with beans and cheese, and other good things of which the poor of Christ had need. Besides all this, they brought napkins and knives, jugs and glasses, and all that was needed for such a multitude; and those who could carry most and serve the best rejoiced greatly, and the knights, barons, and other noblemen, who were present, waited on the brethren with great devotion and humility. St Dominic, seeing this, and knowing of a certainty that it was the divine providence of God which had provided for them thus, acknowledged most humbly that he had unjustly accused St Francis of giving indiscreet orders; and going to him, he knelt humbly before him and confessed his fault, adding: “The Lord truly hath especial care of all these holy servants of poverty. I knew it not till now, and henceforth I promise to observe holy evangelical poverty; and, in the name of God, I condemn all friars of my Order who shall seek to have possessions of their own.” And St Dominic was greatly edified by the faith of the most holy Francis, by the obedience and poverty of so large and well-ordered a chapter, and he blessed the providence of God, who had given them every grace in such abundance. In that same chapter also it was revealed to St Francis that many brethren wore on their flesh small hearts and bands of iron, for which reason many were ill and hindered in their prayers; and St Francis, like a discreet father, gave order, under holy obedience, that all who wore such things should take them off and place them before him - and more than five hundred little hearts and bands of iron were placed before him - some destined to be worn round the arms, and others round the waist - and all together formed a large heap, which St Francis ordered to be left in that field. The chapter being ended, he encouraged them all in well-doing, warning them to avoid sin in this wicked world, and sent them to their divers provinces, with his blessing and that of God, filled with spiritual joy and consolation.
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