The most common image we have of St. Francis of Assisi and his first followers is a bunch of tree-huggers prancing through the woods and talking to birds about environmental stewardship. While a benign, bird-petting Francis is a great mascot for Christians who want to be nice, it's not who the great St. Francis really was.
In reality, Francis had high standards for honor and goodness. Initially, he sought honor and glory on the battlefields of Italy's perpetual and bloody inter-city wars.
One night, he dreamt of a room full of beautiful and shining tools of war. A voice told him all these would belong to him and his knights. On waking, he joyfully marveled that he would one day possess such fine weaponry and have knights and soldiers of his own to command. It was a dream come true — a prophecy of great things to come for Francis Bernardone.
The next night, however, God spoke to Francis, asking him, "Francis, who can do better for you, the lord or the servant, the rich man or the poor?"
Francis promptly answered it would be the noble lord who had authority over the very lives of men and the rich man who could effortlessly acquire whatever he wanted.
God answered him, "Why, then, do you leave the Lord for the servant, the rich God for a poor mortal?"
Francis, as a soldier with new orders, asked, "Lord, what will You have me do?"
He was commanded, "Return to your own country. The vision you have seen betokens that which shall be spiritually wrought, and is to be fulfilled in you not by mortal counsel, but by divine."
This would be Francis' first lesson in perfect joy. Fast-forward several years, and Francis had been using the spiritual weapons provided to him by God: poverty, chastity and obedience.
In a humorous exchange with Brother Leo, one of his holy companions, Francis explained the meaning of perfect joy.
On a winter day, when they were walking from the city of Perugia to their monastery outside Assisi, Francis began to lay out his divinely infused understanding of perfect joy.
"Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give in all lands a great example of holiness and edification, write down and note carefully that this would not be perfect joy."
You could imagine Brother Leo silent and trying to understand why his spiritual father would not think a holy example from the friars would not be perfect joy.
The saint continued:
O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.
He went on:
O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.
You can imagine Francis stopping and grabbing poor Brother Leo by the collar, shouting:
O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! If the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters — write that this would not be perfect joy.
The saint, becoming solemn, continues, "O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy."
Poor Brother Leo, now thoroughly confused and exasperated, asked, "Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy."
The good saint composed himself and, as master of the spiritual life, proceeded to teach the gentle brother about perfect joy:
If, when we shall arrive at St. Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, "We are two of the brethren," he should answer angrily, "What you say is not the truth; you are but two impostors going about to deceive the world and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say"; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall — then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who makes him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.
And if we knock again, and the porter comes out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, "Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!" and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy. And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, "These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve"; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick — if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for Him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.
The knight of Christ finished his lesson, "Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt," adding "for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God."
Francis had found his perfect joy, not in creatures or even what the world considers honorable, but in what the world considers with contempt, the Cross of Jesus Christ. He concluded his lesson to Brother Leo by quoting St. Paul: "I will not glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."