It is a collection of stories and traditions about St Francis of Assisi and his companions in thirteenth century Italy. It was originally composed by Brother Ugolino di Monte Santa Maria, but was later edited by an anonymous author. It gives an exquisite picture of the religious life and spirit of the early Franciscans. The spirit of simplicity, humility, and joyful obedience of St Francis and his jubilant followers, who tramped the thirteenth century plains and hills of Italy, winning the hearts and minds of countless citizens of their day is wonderfully captured in the book. It is not a biography or even a historical chronology of Francis or his movement. It is rather a collection of incidents drawn together, in a straightforward and moving style, and captures the buoyancy and childlike innocence of the early medieval spirit and brings one into the Christlike presence of the saint.
Francis understood his vocation in simple gospel terms. The Little Flowers recounts how one day, after Mass at the church of San Nicolo, Francis and Brother Bernard prayed to the Lord that He reveal to them through the Scripture His path of obedience for them. Opening the text, their eyes fell on the words: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” They opened the Scripture a second time and read: “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor wallet, nor bread, nor money.” And then a third time: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Closing the Bible Francis exclaimed to Bernard that this was the counsel of Christ and they should go and do perfectly what Christ commanded them.
Francis exerted a strange attraction on the people of his time. One day Brother Masseo asked him: “Why after you? Why after you? Why does all the world seem to be running after you? You are not a handsome man. You do not have great learning or wisdom. You are not a nobleman. So why is all the world is running after you?” Francis rejoicing in the Spirit, answered that it was perhaps because of all men he had the least to boast about. Therefore, God had chosen what is foolish to shame the wise. Francis’s pure vision of gospel life was rooted in poverty and the joy of simple living close to the earth. Once, Francis called all of his friars, nearly five thousand brothers, to an open meeting on the plain at Saint Mary of the Angels. Several prominent people, including St Dominic were present as observers. When everyone had assembled Francis rose to preach, encouraging the brothers in their life and not to have “any care or anxiety concerning anything to eat or drink or the other things necessary for the body, but to concentrate only on praying and praising God because He takes special care of you.” St Dominic wondered how the friars would survive in that way. Then he saw from all the surrounding countryside people arrived, bringing food and drink. A great celebration followed as the friars praised God for His gifts. To read the Little Flowers today is to discover a man in love with God, lost in the joy of relationship to Christ. It is also to be carried across time into the presence of Francis and his followers who did so much for Christ and His Church.
(Professor of Church History
at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)