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Nikos Kazantzakis: Francis of Assisi

Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Nikos Kazantzakis
From the novel Saint Francis (1962)
Translated by Peter Bien

“Peace, my bothers,” he cried in a voice that was supplicating, afflicted. “How can we bring peace to the world if we do not have peace in our own hearts? One war begets another, and this still another, and thus there is no end to the shedding of human blood. Peace! Peace!…”

*****

Francis…had been admiring the majestic coat-of-arms above the lintel: a lion rampant, holding a heart, and above the heart the words “I fear no one.”

Francis pointed out the bearings to me. “Apparently this noble lord fears no one, perhaps not even God. The heart of man is a pretentious idiot, Brother Leo; pay no heed to what it says, but forgive and pass on. If we were to have a coat-of-arms, what device would you suggest?”

“A lamb – a lamb eating a lion,” I replied with a laugh.

“No, lamb of God. The trouble is you’re hungry and are prepared to eat even a lion. The day will come, however, when lions and lambs shall live together in peace; therefore, do not make yourself so ferocious. If you asked me, I would have a tiny bird emblazoned on our escutcheon, a tiny, humble bird which mounts to heaven each morning – singing.”

“The skylark,” I said, recalling Francis’ words to the brothers at the Portiuncula. “The bird with the hood.”

*****

The bishop lifted his arms. “Be brief,” he commanded. “The banquet is ready.”

“The banquet is ready in heaven!” began Francis, seizing upon the bishop’s words. “The banquet is ready, my brethren; the Day of Judgment approaches. There is little time left, but even now we can still be saved, we can mount to heaven and take our seats at God’s immortal tables. But with iron armor, with spurs of gold, with silk veils, with parties and laughter and a life filled with comforts one does not mount to heaven. The ascent is rigorous, my brethren; it exacts sweat, and struggle, and abundant blood.”

*****

One day a wild hare dashed up to him and burrowed beneath his frock. We knew the terrified creature must have been running for its life, because we heard the piercing cry of a fox in the distance.

Francis stroked the hare and spoke to it with such tenderness that I was astonished. He had never spoken so tenderly to a human being.

“Put your hand over its tiny heart, Brother Leo, to see how the poor thing is trembling. Its whole body is shaking. I’m sorry, Brother Fox, but I’m not going to let you eat this hare. God sent it to me so that I could save it.”

The hare remained near him from that moment on, and the days when Francis was breathing his last, it crouched at his feet, quivering and refusing to eat.

*****

His face was resplendent, his eyes wide open and fixed upon the air. Suddenly he stirred. Calling up all his strength, he turned and glanced slowly at each of us, one by one. His lips moved; he seemed to have some final word to says to us. I went close to him.

“Poverty, Peace, Love…”

His voice was muted and extremely frail, as though coming from far far away – from the other shore. I held my breath, trying to hear more. There was nothing.

Then, suddenly, we all fell upon his body, kissing it and wailing the dirge.

At the exact sacred instant I inscribed these final words, huddled over in my cell and overcome with tears at the memory of my beloved father, a tiny sparrow came to the window and began to tap on the pane. Its wings were drenched; it was cold. I got up to let it in.

And it was you, Father Francis; it was you, dressed as a tiny sparrow.

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