October 4 – Paul the Simple; Francis of Assisi

Paul the Simple (d. ca. 339) was a sixty-year-old Egyptian farmer when he caught his beautiful wife in the hayloft with another man (they were not baling hay) (unless that’s what the kids called it in those days). I’m sure you’ll agree that this the sort of thing that can ruin your entire afternoon. Subsequently, Paul decided to become a hermit, and headed straight to the desert abode of (St.) Anthony the Great (Jan 17) and asked to be monkified. Anthony said, “At your age? It’d kill you. Go to a regular monastery.” Then he locked himself in his cell for five days to fast. When he came back out, Paul was still there. “Oh all right,” said Anthony.

That night at dinner, supper, tea, Abendessen, or whatever it is in your idiolect, Anthony ate a crust of bread, but gave Paul three. Paul cautiously ate one. “Go ahead, have another,” Anthony said. “I will if you will,” said Paul. “One is enough for a monk,” said Anthony. “Then one is enough for me, for I wish to become a monk.” Thus did Paul pass the first test. Anthony set him many more ascetic labors—fasting, vigils, singing Psalms, doing hard work, listening to Nickelback. Paul passed them all, so Anthony gave him his own cell.

In time Paul became known as a boffo (to use the ecclesiastical term) exorcist. Once when Anthony met a demon-possessed boy, he said, “I do not have the power to cast this one out. Go find Paul the Simple.” The lad’s parents did, and Paul was able to cast it out. His name became a byword (obviously) for simplicity of heart among the monks of the desert, and indeed unto this very day.

Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) is one of those hyperfamous, hyperpopular saints that make novice hagiographers tremble. Get one little detail wrong and poof! there goes your movie deal. But I am nothing if not intrepid.

Giovanni’s mother was French, so his Italian dad called him “Francis,” which means (roughly) “French guy.” He misspent his youth with rich-kid friends, but he also had a heart for the poor. Once when marketplacing his father’s cloth (he was a dyer), Frank was approached by a beggar, to whom he gave everything he had in his pockets (except the lint). His friends teased and his dad was displeased. Later he became a soldier, got nabbed by the enemy, and spent a year in captivity. Between this and a near-fatal illness, he had a conversion experience that put him on his famous road of poverty, humility, sanctity, and funny haircuts. His friends mocked him and his father clocked him, then disowned him. He forsook his father and his fancy clothes in a public ceremony admirably recorded by Zeffirelli.

Embracing a life of poverty, he preached salvation to the poor, collecting thereby a band of followers. He gave them a simple rule (“Follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and walk in his footsteps”), and they all went to Rome to be made an order*. The pope gave them an informal blessing, and told them to come back when their numbers got bigger. They did and they did. Francis also founded the Poor Clares, centered around his dear friend Claire of Assisi, as well as the “Third Order*,” a group of lay brothers.

Francis was also a great lover of animals. In one story, a wolf had been attacking humans and sheep and so on. Francis called it, it laid down at his feet, and he told it that it although had been wicked, he would like to make peace. So the wolf followed him into town, and he brokered a deal in which the wolf would no longer attack, and the townspeople would feed it. He also preached to the birds, and is often depicted with one in his hand or on his shoulder. He is the patron saint of environmentalists, animal welfare societies, and, of course, birds.