Saint Francis

Saint Francis

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by Nikos Kazantzakis

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The Francis of Assisi in these pages is a man of struggle and suffering, a man God-possessed.”—Saturday Review

“The writing . . . is direct and vigorous.”—Commonweal

“The novel is strong, deep, and moving. . . . a penetration into the mystery and wonder of life.”—San Francisco Chronicle

The protean Greek author


The Francis of Assisi in these pages is a man of struggle and suffering, a man God-possessed.”—Saturday Review

“The writing . . . is direct and vigorous.”—Commonweal

“The novel is strong, deep, and moving. . . . a penetration into the mystery and wonder of life.”—San Francisco Chronicle

The protean Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis retells the story of the most beloved of saints—Francis of Assisi, who permanently changed the way people think about following God. Drawing on the traditional stories of the saint’s life, Kazantzakis infuses the tale with a fervent vision that is uniquely his own, highlighting the saint’s heroic single-mindedness in the face of extreme physical and spiritual suffering. He portrays the saint as a great lover and inspiring leader who embraced radical poverty in the face of many obstacles and temptations while achieving a way of life marked by epic generosity.

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The publisher launches its new "Classics" line of Catholic literature with these five titles, which run the gamut from serious historical novels to humor. Eight volumes will be added annually. Each will cost from $10 to $15 and include new intros and discussion questions for teachers or book groups. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Loyola Press
Publication date:
Loyola Classics
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

John Michael Talbot

St. Francis of Assisi is one of Christianity’s most beloved figures. His conversion story, his faithfulness to the gospel, his appreciation of God’s presence in creation, and even his suffering have attracted, inspired, and intrigued believers and nonbelievers alike. Among the many artists who have explored the St.?Francis story are three of the more divergent artistic personalities of the twentieth century: the keen British Catholic wit and polemicist G. K. Chesterton (St. Francis of Assisi), the French novelist who struggled so intensely with his own personal demons, Julien Green (God’s Fool), and the vibrant, iconoclastic philosopher and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis.

In the early days of my life as a Roman Catholic, and as a Franciscan itinerant hermit, I came across St. Francis on the shelf of a layperson’s home who was offering hospitality to me in Phoenix, Arizona. I picked it up and read it during my few days there. I was captivated.

I found the book to be one of the more powerful fictional works about St. Francis. Being fiction and not a strict biography, it is filled with embellishments of the history and myth of St. Francis. Fictional treatments generally fall into one of two categories. Some simply fill in gaps in a sparsely written biography or hagiography about a saint from another era; others startle us and expand our vision beyond the familiar stories, beyond what we think we know. I believe Kazantzakis’s Saint Francis falls into the latter category. His new, even radical, interpretation keeps the story fresh and stimulating to readers engaged in an otherwise well-known biography, and it can help us see Francis’s story in a new way and confront elements of the story that we might otherwise avoid. At least it did so for me.

Kazantzakis revered St. Francis, and his book is largely faithful to the historical record, but it is also shot through with heavy doses of the writer’s complicated personal philosophy, which must be understood if we want to fully appreciate his novel.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete in 1883. In his youth, he was educated in part by Franciscans. He went on to receive a doctor of laws degree from the University of Athens, and then studied philosophy in Paris under Henri Bergson. His subsequent thought, expressed in essays, poetry, and, late in life, several important novels, was informed by a number of influences, including his own Greek identity, the Greek Orthodox faith in which he was aised, as well as Homer, Nietzsche, Lenin, Buddha, Christ, and St. Francis.

Along with being a writer, Kazantzakis had a busy professional life involved in public service. Working for his own government, as well as for UNESCO after World War II, he was involved in serving the needs of displaced persons and refugees. Kazantzakis died of leukemia in 1957. The epitaph on his tombstone reads, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

What did Kazantzakis believe? Though he left the Orthodox faith of his childhood behind as an adult, he never abandoned God. His intellectual quest was a search for the meaning of human life, which he came to understand as embodied in the persistence, vitality, creativity, and beauty of the human spirit. Human existence was for him a struggle to discover and nurture this spirit against its many enemies, including the limitations of the flesh and the reality of death. In his book of essays The Saviors of God, published in 1960 by Simon and Schuster, he wrote, “Life is a crusade in the service of God. Whether we wished to or not, we set out as crusaders to free—not the Holy Sepulcher—but that God buried in matter and in our souls.” Theologian Carnegie Samuel Calian says of Kazantzakis that his “quest for God was actually his deep and abiding commitment to the human spirit which he came so imperfectyl to designate as ‘God.’ . . . The essence of God is this unceasing struggle which rages within man.”

The story of St. Francis struck a chord in Kazantzakis. He wrote in a letter that “in Assisi I lived once more with the great martyr and hero whom I love so much, St. Francis. And now I’m gripped by a desire to write a book about him. Will I write it? I don’t know yet. I’m waiting for a sign, and then I’ll begin. Always, as you know, the struggle within me between man and God, between substance and spirit, is the stable leitmotif of my life and work.”

Reading St. Francis, one sees how true this is. Kazantzakis’s Francis is a man in the midst of a battle between flesh and spirit, a battle that few others can recognize or appreciate mostly because they have, religious and lay alike, succumbed to the flesh. At times, Kazantzakis’s own philosophy threatens to overwhelm, as when his St. Francis tells his companion and narrator of the tale, Brother Leo, to “leap above the mud that is man!” (p. 270) or, in a moment that weaves together Kazantzakis’s existential and Buddhist strains, that “perfect poverty” requires him to “renounce even the hope that one day you will see
God . . . [which is] what it means to be a perfect ascetic. That is the highest form of sainthood” (p. 242–43).

But more often, Kazantzakis’s unique take on Francis helps the modern reader see with great clarity certain elements of the story that we have forgotten: the great suffering that Francis endured, the sacrifices he made, and the truly radical nature of his life. Kazantzakis’s work emphasized the human drive to live life fully and deeply—his great character Zorba the Greek continues to embody this ideal, as does, in a completely different way, St. Francis. At one point in the novel, Francis tells Brother Leo of witnessing a Passion play in Assisi, and the dissonance he experienced as a child discovering that the actor playing Christ was, indeed, only an actor and had not been crucified at all: “Now I’ve grown older, Brother Leo, I’ve grown older, and I do understand. Instead of being crucified, I simply think about crucifixion. Is it possible, Brother Leo, that we too are actors?” (p. 211).

The story of St. Francis is a universal and almost archetypal paradox. As an unquestionably radical obedient son of Roman Catholicism in a time of tumult and reform, Francis is beloved by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Christians and non-Christians. Protestants love him because of his love for living the gospel, the word, in a literal fashion. Buddhist monks will sometimes say that, while they find the monastic Cistercians more like themselves in their meditation, it is the wandering monastic beggars, St. Francis and the first Franciscans, whom they are closest to in actual lifestyle. The same could be said of the Hindu sannyasin or the Confucian-Taoist sage. Sufis and Jewish mystics also love him. So the radical roman Catholic from thirteenth century remains the most universally loved of all Roman Catholic saints all around the world.

Most of us are not called to literally give up everything and take to the highways, doing odd jobs or begging for our living. Most of us are called to “bloom where we’re planted” in the midst of our modern world. We are called to marry, raise a family, and do a good job in building up society through good honest work and moral lives. Most of us eventually accept this role as not only inescapable, but also a quite desirable way to fulfill one’s earthly duty.

And yet, the figure of St. Francis and those like him continue to captivate our imagination and move our deeper religious aspirations. From time to time we find ourselves fantasizing about selling everything, donning the sackcloth of the Poverello (little poor man), and leaving the whole crazy world behind. Most of us will never, and should never, do such a thing. But the inspiration of Francis remains powerful, for he calls us, even in the midst of the chaos and clutter of our consumerist modern world, to simplify our interior and exterior lives and focus unquestionably on God and the things of infinity and eternity.

Francis calls us, both from the historical record and from the pages of Kazantzakis’s novel, to lives of poverty in the midst of modern consumerism, chastity in the midst of modern sexual promiscuity, and obedience in the midst of modern individualism. He is also the great symbol of caring for creation in the midst of our modern abuse of the environment, and of peace in the midst of the timeless scourge of war. Francis speaks powerfully to all of these modern issues, and many, many more.

But for Francis these things were not “issues.” They were simply expressions of his all-consuming love for Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Father God who created and loves all. It was simply about loving God and giving up everything to follow that love everywhere and anywhere. Some have said that Francis was mad with divine love—in the novel he asked people to come listen to “the new madness”—and he hoped to make the entire world mad with this divine love.

I believe that this is where Kazantzakis’s Francis is so powerful. His Francis is one of love and mystery and not of intellectual debate, one of mystic rapture, not of reason and logic.

As the great Franciscan mystic, theologian, and minister general of the troubled new community in the thirteenth century said, “If you want to know how such things come about, consult grace, not doctrine; desire, not understanding; prayerful groaning, not studious reading; the Spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity. Consult not the light but the fire that completely inflames the mind and carries it over to God in transports of fervor and blazes of love. This fire is God.?.?.?. Christ starts the flame with the fiery heat of is intense suffering.?.?.?. Whoever loves this death may see God.?.?.?. Let us die, then, and pass over into the darkness.”

Kazantzakis’s Francis is the embodiment of a life of such mystical love. I pray that it encourages you to live the gospel of Jesus and find the presence of God in your own life even as it did in mine.


If I have omitted many of Francis’s sayings and deeds and if I have altered others, and added still others that did not take place but that might have taken place, I have done so not out of ignorance or impudence or irreverence, but from a need to match the saint’s life with his myth, bringing that life as fully into accord with its essence as possible.
Art has this right, and not only the right but the duty, to subject everything to the essence. It feeds upon the story, then assimilates it slowly, cunningly, and turns it into a legend.
While writing this legend, which is truer than truth itself, I was overwhelmed by love, reverence, and admiration for Francis, the hero and great martyr. Often large tears smudged the manuscript; often a hand hovered before me in the air, a hand with an eternally renewed wound: someone seemed to have driven a nail through it, seemed to be driving a nail through it for all eternity.


If I have omitted many of Francis’s sayings and deeds and if I have altered others, and added still others that did not take place but that might have taken place, I have done so not out of ignorance or impudence or irreverence, but from a need to match the saint’s life with his myth, bringing that life as fully into accord with its essence as possible.
Art has this right, and not only the right but the duty, to subject everything to the essence. It feeds upon the story, then assimilates it slowly, cunningly, and turns it into a legend.
While writing this legend, which is truer than truth itself, I was overwhelmed by love, reverence, and admiration for Francis, the hero and great martyr. Often large tears smudged the manuscript; often a hand hovered before me in the air, a hand with an eternally renewed wound: someone seemed to have driven a nail through it, seemed to be driving a nail through it for all eternity.

Everywhere about me, as I wrote, I sensed the saint’s in­visible presence; because for me St. Francis is the model of he ­dutiful man, the man who by means of ceaseless, supremely cruel struggle succeeds in fulfilling our highest obligation, something higher even than morality or truth or beauty: the obligation to transubstantiate the matter that God entrusted to us, and turn it into spirit.

Nikos Kazantzakis

Father Francis, I who take up my pen today to write your life and times, unworthy that I am: when you first met me, remember, I was a humble beggar, ugly, my face and head covered with hair. From the eyebrows to the nape of the neck I was nothing but hair. My eyes were frightened and naive; I stuttered, bleated like a lamb—and you, in order to ridicule my ugliness and abasement, you named me Brother Leo, the lion! But when I told you my life story you began to weep, you clasped me in your arms, kissed me, and said, “Brother Leo, forgive me. I called you ‘lion’ to ridicule you, but now I see that you are a true lion, because only a lion has the courage to pursue what you are pursuing.”
I had been going from monastery to monastery, from village to village, wilderness to wilderness, searching for God. I did not marry, did not have children because I was searching for God. I would hold a slice of bread in one hand and a fistful of olives in the other, and though I was famished, I always forgot to eat, because I was searching for God.

I walked so much my feet became swollen; I asked the same question over and over again until hair sprouted on my tongue! Finally I grew tired of knocking on doors and holding out my hand, first to beg for bread, then for a kind word, and after that for salvation. Everyone laughed, called me a visionary, and chased me away—pushed me until I arrived finally at the edge of the abyss. I was weary; I began to blaspheme. I’m human after all, I said; I’m tired of walking, of going about hungry and cold, of knocking on the gates of heaven and seeing them remain closed. And then, as I was on the verge of despair, one night God took me by the hand; he took you by the hand also, Father Francis, and brought us together.

Now I sit in my cell and watch the springtime clouds through my tiny window. Below in the courtyard of the monastery the heavens have descended: there is a fine drizzle, and the soil is fragrant. The lemon trees in the orchards have blossomed; in the distance a cuckoo calls. All the leaves are laughing: God has become rain and is raining on the world. O Lord, what joy! What happiness! Look how earth, rain, and the odors of dung and the lemon trees all combine and become one with man’s heart! Truly, man is soil. That is why he, like the soil, enjoys the tranquil caressing rains of spring so very much. My heart is being watered. It cracks open, sends forth a shoot—and you, Father Francis, appear.

All the soil inside me has blossomed, Father Francis. Memories rise up, time rolls back its wheel, and there, brought back to life, are the sacred hours we spent journeying together over the face of the earth, you in front and I following timor-ously in your footsteps. Do you remember where we first met? I was so hungry that night, I staggered as I entered the celebrated city of Assisi. It was August and the moon was immense. I had already enjoyed this noble city many times, glory be to God, but that night Assisi was something else entirely: it was unrecognizable. What miracle was this? Where was I? Houses, citadel, churches, towers: all were hovering in the air, floating in a pure-white sea, beneath a purple sky. It was dinnertime when I entered the city through the newly built St. Peter’s gate. The moon was just rising—full, brilliantly red. It was gentle, like a kindly sun; and from high up at the citadel, the Rocca, a serene waterfall spilled down onto the bell towers and housetops, filling the ditches with milk until they overflowed, flooding the narrow lanes, which ran like brooks, and making the faces of the inhabitants so radiant that everyone seemed to be thinking of God. I stopped, swept away by the sight before me. Is this Assisi? I kept asking myself, making the sign of the cross. Can these be houses and people and bell towers, or is it possible that, while still alive, I have entered paradise? I held out my hands; the moon filled my palms, a moon sweet and gelatinous, like honey. I felt the grace of God running over my lips, my temples—and then I understood. I uttered a cry. Some saint—yes, without a doubt some saint had come this way. His smell was in the air!

Sloshing through the moonlight, I climbed the twisting lanes until I reached the Piazza San Giorgio. It was Saturday night and a large crowd had gathered. There was singing and raucous shouting, mixed with the sound of mandolins and the intoxicating aroma of fried fish, jasmine, rose, and kebobs sizzling on the coals. My hunger increased beyond bounds.

“Hey, good Christians,” I called, approaching one of the groups of celebrants, “who in this renowned city of Assisi can give me alms? I just want to eat, sleep, and then leave in the morning.”

They looked me over from head to toe, and laughed.

“And who do you think you are, my beauty?” they answered, guffawing. “Come closer and let us admire you.”

“Maybe I’m Christ,” I said to frighten them. “Sometimes he appears on earth like this, like a beggar.”

“You had better not repeat that, not if you know what’s good for you, poor fellow,” one of them said. “We won’t have anyone spoiling our party. Quick now, move on! Otherwise we might rise up, every single one of us, and crucify you!”

They laughed again; but then one, the youngest of the group, felt sorry for me.

“Pietro Bernardone’s son Francis, old ‘Leaky Palms’: he’s the one who’ll give

ou alms. And you’re in luck. Yesterday he returned from Spoleto with his tail between his legs. Go and find him.”

At that point an ugly, gawky giant jumped forward. He had a mouselike face, a jaundiced complexion, and was called Sabbatino. We met again a few years later when he too became one of Francis’s disciples, and, barefooted, we journeyed together over the roads of the world. On this night, however, the sound of Francis’s name made him cackle maliciously:

“Why do you think he went to fight at Spoleto, all fitted out in his gold and plumes? It seems he wanted to do great deeds, have himself invested as a knight and then come back here to play cock of the walk. But the Almighty knows what’s what. He gave him a bang square on the head, and our proud rooster returned home with his feathers plucked.”

He jumped into the air, clapping his hands.

“We even made up a song about him,” he said with a chuckle. “Ready, lads—all together now!”

And suddenly they all began to clap their hands and sing at the top of their voices:

He went to Spoleto, la-la la-la
He went to Spoleto for wool,
He went to Spoleto, ta-ra, ta-ra
And got himself sheared to the full!

The sight of the wine and titbits made me feel faint. I leaned against a doorpost, gasping for breath.

“And where is this ‘Leaky Palms,’ this Francis—may God protect him! Where can I find him so that I may fall at his feet?”

“Go to the upper part of the city,” the young one directed me, “You’ll see him there under a window, serenading his lady.”

I set out, perishing with hunger, and began to climb up and down the narrow streets. I could see smoke rising from the chimneys. People were cooking—all sensible people—and I smelled the odors. My entrails were drooping like naked grape stems despoiled by birds and mice. Unable to endure it any longer, I began to blaspheme. “Oh, if only I wasn’t looking for God,” I murmured in a rage, “if only I wasn’t looking for God, how I’d loll in the lap of indolence! What a joy that would be! I’d do nothing but eat gigantic slices of white bread, and roast pig, which I love so much, or rabbit smothered in oil and garnished with scallions, bay leaves, and cumin. And to cool my insides I’d down a jugful of red Umbrian wine. Then I’d visit some widow and let her warm me: people say a widow’s warmth is the ­sweetest in the whole world. Certainly a brazier can’t compare.?.?.?. But what am I to do since I’m searching for God!”

I was walking as fast as I could in an effort to get warm. With a sudden impetus I broke out into a run in order to breathe clean air again, to save myself from the temptations, from the odors and the widows. Finally I reached the heights of the citadel, the famous Rocca. The proud walls had been thrown down, the doors reduced to charcoal; nothing remained but two crevassed towers. The weeds had already climbed over them and were protruding from the spaces between the stones. The people had revolted a few years before, unable any longer to endure their lords, and had charged this hawk’s nest and destroyed it. I felt like circling the ruins in order to enjoy the misfortune of these rulers who had gorged themselves with food and wine (until our turn had come), but a bitter, smarting wind was blowing, and I felt cold. I descended at a run. The lamps in the houses had been extinguished; the people were snoring. They had eaten well, drunk well, and now they were snoring. These respectable homeowners had found the God they were seeking, found him on earth, just as they wanted him: their own size, complete with children, wives, and all the best things of life—while I, the visionary, roamed the streets of Assisi barefooted, hungry, shivering, and beat on the doors of heaven, cursing one moment and lustily repeating the Kyrie eleison the next in order to keep warn.

Toward midnight, I heard guitars and lutes in the vicinity of the bishop’s church. Probably some young men serenading their sweethearts. One of them was singing. I approached on tiptoe and hid in a doorway, glued to the wall. There were five or six youths outside of Count Scifi’s mansion. One of them, much shorter than the others, a long plume in his cap, was standing with crossed arms, his head thrown back, his eyes pinned on a grated window. He was singing, while the others around him, enraptured by his voice, accompanied him on their guitars and lutes. And what a voice that was! O God, how sweet, how passionate; how it implored and commanded! I don’t remember the song and can’t record it here to preserve it for posterity; but I do remember well that it was about a white dove that was being pursued by a hawk, and that the youth was calling the dove to come and take refuge in his bosom.?.?.?. He sang softly, tranquilly, as though afraid he might wake the girl, who must have been sleeping behind the grated window. You couldn’t help but feel that he was singing not to the girl’s body, which was asleep, but to her soul, which was lying awake. My eyes had filled with tears. I was troubled: where had I heard that voice before—the sweetness, the entreaty, the command? Where and when had I heard that invitation: the hawk in screeching pursuit, the dove twittering in terror; and, far, far away, the sweet, inviting voice of salvation?

Slinging the guitars and lutes over their shoulders, the youths got ready to leave.

“Let’s go, Francis,” they called laughingly to the singer. “What are you waiting for? You think your little countess will throw you the rose, do you? She hasn’t opened her window yet, and she isn’t going to tonight either!”

But the singer, without answering, set off before the others in order to turn the corner and go down to the square, where songs from the open taverns could still be heard. At that point I darted out in front of him. I was terrified at the thought of losing him, for I had suddenly felt that my soul was a dove, and the hawk Satan, and that this youth was the bosom in which I could find refuge. Removing my tattered, threadbare robe, I spread it beneath his feet for him to walk over. His entire body emitted an odor, a fragrance like honey, like wax, like roses. I smelled it and understood: it was the odor of sainthood. When you open a silver reliquary, that is how the saint’s bones smell.

He turned and looked at me, smiling.

“Why did you do that?” he asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know sir. How do you expect me to know? The robe left my shoulders of its own accord and stretched itself on the ground for you to walk over.”

He remained standing where he was. The smile had left his face.

Did you see some sign in the air?” he asked me, leaning forward, troubled.

“I don’t know, sir. Everything is a sign—my hunger, the moon, your voice. Better not ask me: I’ll begin to weep.”

“Everything is a sign,” he murmured, looking about him uneasily.

He held out his hand. His thick lips moved as though he wanted to question me but could not make up his mind to do so. His face had melted away under the strong moonlight, his hands had become transparent. He took a step forward, coming closer to me. I leaned over to hear what he was about to say, and felt his alcoholic breath in my face.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he whispered angrily. “I have nothing to say to you. Nothing!”

He began to walk again, quickening his pace. He motioned me to follow him.

I trotted behind him in the moonlight, looking at him. He was dressed in silk, with a long red plume in his velvet cap and a carnation in his ear. This man isn’t searching for God, I said to myself; his soul is wallowing in the flesh.

And all at once my heart took pity on him. I held out my hand and touched his elbow.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “but there was one thing I wanted to ask you, and it was this: You eat, drink, dress yourself in silks, sing beneath windows. Your life is one continuous party. Does this mean you lack nothing?”

The youth turned abruptly and drew his arm violently away to prevent me from touching him.

“That’s right, I lack nothing,” he replied with irritation. “Why do you ask? I don’t like having people question me.”

“Because I pity you, sir,” I said in reply, fortifying my heart.

When the youth heard this he tossed his head arrogantly.

“You, you pity me!”

He laughed, but a moment later, in a low, panting voice: “Why do you pity me—why!”

I did not answer.

“Why!” he asked again, leaning forward and gazing into my eyes. “Who are you—dressed like that, like a beggar? And who sent you to find me here on the streets of Assisi in the middle of the night?”

He grew furious. “Confess the truth! Someone sent you. Who?”

Then, receiving no answer, he stamped his foot on the ground:

“I lack nothing! I don’t want to be pitied, I want to be envied. . . . I lack nothing, I tell you!”

“Nothing?” I asked. “Not even heaven?”

He lowered his head and was silent. But after a moment:

“Heaven is too high for me. The earth is good, exceptionally good—and near me!”

“Nothing is nearer to us than heaven. The earth is beneath our feet and we tread upon it, but heaven is within us.”

The moon had begun to set; a few stars hung in the sky; the sound of impassioned serenades came thinly from the distant neighborhoods; down below, the square was buzzing. The air of this summer night was filled with aromas and with love.

“Heaven is within us, my young lord,” I repeated.

“How do you know?” he asked, giving me a startled look.

“I suffered, went hungry, thirsty—and learned.”

He took me by the arm. “Come home with me. I’ll feed you and give you a bed to sleep on. But don’t talk to me about heaven—it may be within you, but it’s not within me.”

His eyes flashed with anguish; his voice had grown hoarse.

We went down to the marketplace, where the taverns were still roaring.

Drunken young men were streaming in and out of one of the low houses, in front of which was a small red lantern. Donkeys laden with vegetables and fruit had begun to arrive from the villages. Men were setting up tables and arranging bottles of wine, brandy, and rum on them. Two tightrope walkers had started to drive in poles and stretch their string.?.?.?. The preparations for the Sunday bazaar had already begun.

Two drunks spied Francis in the moonlight and began to laugh clandestinely. One of them removed his guitar from his shoulder. Glaring at Francis derisively, he started to sing:

You build your nest so high in vain:
The bough will break,
You’ll lose the bird,
And be left with only the pain.

Francis listened, motionless, his head bowed.

“He’s right,” he murmured, “he’s right.”

Courtesy demanded I remain quiet, but, bumpkin that I am, I opened my mouth and asked, “What bird?”

Francis turned and looked at me. So much suffering was in that gaze, I could not keep myself from clasping his hand and kissing it. “Forgive me,” I said.

His expression sweetened. “What bird? Is it possible I know?” He sighed deeply.

“No, I don’t, I don’t know,” he groaned. “Stop asking me questions! . . . Come!”

And he grasped my hand tightly, as though afraid I might leave him.

But I, how could I leave him, where could I go? From that moment on, I was constantly at his side. Father Francis, was it you I had been seeking year after year? Was that why I had been born: to follow you to listen to you? I had ears, but no tongue—so I listened. You told me what you told no one else. You took me by the hand, we went into the forests, scrambled up mountains, and you spoke.

You used to say to me, “Brother Leo, if you weren’t with me I would tell it all to a stone, an ant, a tender olive leaf—because my heart is overflowing, and if it does not open and spill forth, it may break into a thousand pieces.”

I know things about you, therefore, that no other person knows. You committed many more sins than people imagine; you performed many more miracles than people believe. In order to mount to heaven, you used the floor of the inferno to give you your momentum. “The further down you gain your momentum,” you often used to tell me, “the higher you shall be able to reach. The militant Christian’s greatest worth is not his virtue, but his struggle to transform into virtue the impudence, dishonor, unfaithfulness, and malice within him. One day Lucifer will be the most glorious archangel standing next to God; not Michael, Gabriel, or Raphael—but Lucifer, after he has finally transubstantiated his terrible darkness into light.”

I listened to you, mouth agape, thinking what sweet words these were and asking myself if this meant that sin, even sin, could become a path to lead us to God; if even the sinner, therefore, could have hopes of salvation.

I am the only one, also, who knows about your carnal love for Count Favorini Scifi’s daughter Clara. All the others, because they are afraid of their own shadows, think you loved only her soul. But it was her body that you loved earliest of all; it was from there that you set out, got your start. Then, after struggle, struggle against the devil’s snares, you were able with God’s help to reach her soul. You loved that soul, but without ever denying her body, and without ever touching it either. And not only did this carnal love for Clara not hinder you from reaching God, it actually helped you greatly, because it was this love that unveiled for you the great secret: in what manner and by what kind of struggle the flesh becomes spirit. All love is one; it is exactly the same whether it be for wife, son, mother, fatherland, or for an idea, or God. A victory, even though on love’s lowest rung, helps form the road that will lead us to God. So, you fought the flesh, vanquished it mercilessly, then kneaded it with your blood and tears and after a terrible struggle that lasted many years, transformed it into spirit. And didn’t you do exactly the same with all your virtues and all your vices? They too were flesh, were Clara. Weeping, laughing, tearing your heart in two, you turned them into spirit. This is the road; there is no other. You led the way and I, panting, followed you.

One day as I watched you rise from the bloodstained rocks, moaning, your body one great wound, my heart took pity on you. I ran to you and clasped your knees. “Brother Francis, why do you torture your body so?” I cried. “It too is one of God’s creatures and must be revered. Don’t you feel sorry for your blood, your blood that is being spilled?”

But you shook your head and answered me, “Brother Leo, with the world in the state it is today, whoever is virtuous must be so to the point of sainthood, and even beyond; whoever is a sinner must be so to the point of bestiality, and even beyond. Today, the middle road is no more.”

And on another occasion when in desperation you looked to the earth and it wanted to devour you, to heaven, and it refused to help you, once again you turned to me, and I shuddered when I heard your words:

“Listen, Brother Leo,” you said. “I’m going to tell you something very grave. If you cannot bear it, Lamb of God, then forget it. Are you listening?”

“I’m listening, Father Francis,” I answered. I had already begun to tremble. You placed your hand on my shoulder as though trying to steady me and prevent me from falling.

“Brother Leo, to be a saint means to renounce not only everything earthly but also everything divine.”

But as soon as you uttered those blasphemous words, you became terrified. Bending down, you seized a handful of dirt and thrust it into your mouth. Then, placing your finger over your lips, you glared at me in horror. A few moments later you cried:

“What have I said? Did I speak? . . . Quiet!”

And you burst into tears

Every evening beneath the light of the lamp I took aim at each of your words, each of your acts, and pinned them down securely one by one so that they would not perish. A single word from your lips, I said to myself, may save a soul. If I fail to record it, fail to reveal it to mankind, that soul will not be saved, and I will be to blame.

I had taken up my quill to begin writing many times before now, but I always abandoned it quickly: each time I was overcome with fear. Yes, may God forgive me, but the letters of the alphabet frighten me terribly. They are sly, shameless demons—and dangerous! You open the inkwell, release them; they run off—and how will you ever get control of them again! They come to life, join, separate, ignore your commands, arrange themselves as they like on the paper—black, with tails and horns. You scream at them and implore them in vain: they do as they please. Prancing, pairing up shamelessly before you, they deceitfully expose what you did not wish to reveal, and they refuse to give voice to what is struggling, deep within your bowels, to come forth and speak to mankind.

As I was returning from church this past Sunday, however, I felt emboldened. Had not God squeezed those demons into place whether they liked it or not, with the result that they wrote the Gospels? Well then, I said to myself, Courage, my soul! Have no fear of them! Take up your quill and write!?.?.?. But I immediately grew fainthearted once again. The Gospels, to be sure, were written by holy apostles. One had his angel, the other his lion, the other his ox, and the last his eagle. These dictated, and the apostles wrote. But I?.?.?. ?

I had remained hesitant in this way for many years, carrying about your sayings faithfully transcribed one by one on skins, scraps of paper, the bark of trees. I kept repeating to myself, Oh, when shall I grow old? When, unable to walk anymore, shall I settle down in a monastery and in the calm of my cell receive from God the power, Father Francis, to arrange your words and deeds on paper as a saint’s legend, for the salvation of the world!

I was in a hurry because I felt the words coming to life and jostling each other on the bits of skin, the scraps of paper, the bark of the trees. They were being smothered, and had begun to revolt in an effort to escape. I felt Francis too, felt him prowling outside my monastery, homeless and exhausted, his hand outstretched like a beggar’s; felt him slip into the cloister, unperceived by anyone but me, and enter my cell. Just the other evening, as I was bent over an ancient parchment reading the ives of the saints, I felt someone in back of me. The north wind was blowing; it was cold, and I had lighted my earthenware brazier, the holy superior having given me permission to keep a bit of fire in my cell because I had grown old and lost my endurance. The saints’ miracles had encircled me, were licking me as though they were flames. I no longer touched the earth; I was hanging in the air. It was then that I felt someone in back of me. Turning, I saw Francis huddled over the brazier.

“Father Francis, have you abandoned paradise?” I cried, jumping to my feet.

“I am cold, I am hungry,” he answered. “I have nowhere to lay my head.”

There was bread and honey in the cell. I ran quickly in order to give him some and calm his hunger. But when I turned, I saw no one.

It was a sign from God, a visible message: Francis roams homeless over the earth; build him a home! . . . But once again I was carried away by fear. I struggled within myself for a long time and then, having grown weary, leaned my head against the parchment and fell asleep. I had a dream. It seemed I was lying under a blossoming tree with God blowing over me like a fragrant breeze. The tree was the tree of paradise, and it had blossomed! As I gazed at the sky through the flowing branches suddenly a group of minute birds, just like letters of the alphabet, came and perched in the tree, one on each branch. They began to chirp, at first singly, one by one, then in pairs, then three together. Afterward, hopping from branch to branch, they formed groups of two or three or five, and twittered away ecstatically. The whole tree had become a song, a sweet, tender song full of passion, desire, and great affliction. It seemed as though I was already deeply buried beneath the springtime soil, my arms crossed upon my breast, and that this flowering tree was issuing from my bowels, the roots invading my entire body and suckling it. And all the joys and sorrows of my life had become birds and were singing.

I awoke. I still felt the chirping within my bowels; God was still blowing over me.

It was dawn. I had slept the entire night with my head on the parchment. Rising, I washed and changed to clean clothes. The bell was ringing for matins. I made the sign of the cross and went to the chapel, where I glued my forehead, mouth, breast to the floor, and received the sacrament. When Mass was over I ran back to my cell, not speaking to anyone lest I soil my breath. I flew; angels were holding me up. I did not see them, but I could hear the rustle of their wings to my right and left. I took up my quill, crossed myself—

And began, Father Francis, to record your life and times.
May the Lord help me and be my guide!

Meet the Author

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) was a prolific author of poetry, plays, articles, and novels, including The Last Temptation of  Christ, Zorba the Greek, and The Greek Passion.

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