THE FIRST FOLLOWER

The Little Flowers of Saint Francis
Brother Bernard: The First Follower

All are welcome to join us in reading and praying with one of the ‘Little Flowers of Saint Francis’, a beautiful series of legends and stories that reflect upon the life and times of the Poor Man from Assisi. In this story, we learn about Bernard of Quintavalle, a young lawyer and nobleman who becomes the first follower of the saint. Servant of God Bernard of Quintavalle, pray for us! Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

The First Follower

The first companion of Saint Francis was Brother Bernard of Assisi, who was converted in the following manner. At this time, Saint Francis was wearing a secular habit, even though he had already turned his back on the world; was wholly despised by men, was mortified by acts of penance so that he was looked upon as a fool by many people; and was driven away with stones and insults by his family and friends. Saint Francis bore these trials patiently, as if he we had been deaf and dumb.

Among those who reviled him was Bernard of Assisi (a.k.a Bernard of Quintavalle), who was one of the richest, most noble, and most learned men in the community. Blessed by wisdom, Bernard began to consider within himself the great patience of Saint Francis: in the way he suffered abuse and shunned the world; and in the way he became for committed to his life of poverty during these two years of abuse.

In this way, Bernard began to think and to say within himself: ‘It cannot be otherwise! Francis must enjoy the great grace of God!’ So, Bernard invited Francis to eat with him one evening and to pass the night in his great home. Bernard resolved to test the faith of Francis. Bernard prepared a bed for Francis in his own chamber and insisted that a lamp burn throughout the night. In order to conceal his holiness, Francis fell upon the bed and feigned sleep. Likewise, Bernard pretended to sleep by snoring loudly as if in a deep slumber. Believing that Bernard was actually asleep, Saint Francis rose from the bed and began to pray by raising his eyes and hands toward heaven with greatest devotion. With fervor, he repeated over and over again, ‘My God, my God!’ He prayed, shed many tears, and repeated this simple prayer many times until morning.

By the light of the burning lamp, Bernard watched these acts of devotion and was inspired by the Holy Spirit to change his life. In the morning, Bernard said to Francis: ‘Brother Francis, I am ready in my heart to give up the world and to follow you!’ Hearing these words, Francis rejoiced and said: ‘Brother Bernard, because your words are so great and important, we must ask our Lord Jesus Christ for advice. We must beg him to show us His will. And we must beg Him to teach us how to live. Therefore, let us go to the bishop’s house, where there is a good priest. Let us attend Mass. Let us pray throughout the day. And let us pray that God will show us His will by opening the missal three times and by listening to His Word.’ Bernard agreed to this plan because he had promised in his heart to do as Francis commanded.

Francis and Bernard went to the bishop’s house, attended Mass, and remained in prayer throughout the day. Francis begged the priest to make the sign of the cross and to open the missal three times in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the first opening, these words appeared, which our Lord said to the young man who asked about the way of perfection: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me (Matthew 19:21).’ At the second opening, these words appeared, which Christ spoke to the apostles when He sent them to preach: ‘Take nothing for your journey; neither staff, nor script, nor bread, nor money (Luke 9:3).’ By these words, Christ wished to teach them that all trust should be placed in God and all attention should be turned to teaching the Holy Gospel. At the third opening, these words appeared, which Christ spoke directly to those who wanted to be disciples: ‘If any man would follow Me, then let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me (Mark 8:34).’ After hearing these words, Saint Francis said: ‘Behold the advice that Christ gives us! Go now and accomplish what you have read! And blessed be our Lord Jesus Christ, who has showed us the way to live according to the Gospel!”

At this point, Brother Bernard departed. Despite being very wealthy, he sold all of his holdings and properties. With great joy, he distributed all of the proceeds to the sick, widows, orphans, prisoners, hospices, monasteries, and pilgrims. In all way, Saint Francis helped him faithfully and wisely. But one person, Sylvester, who watched as so much was given away, said to Francis: ‘You did not pay me enough for the stones that you purchased from me in order to repair the church (San Damiano). Seeing that you now have so much money, you must pay me more.’ Saint Francis, astonished by this avarice, but also a true follower of the Holy Gospel, put his hands into Brother Bernard’s sack of money and filled them with coins. He gave these coins to Sylvester and said: ‘If you want more, I will give more to you.’

Sylvester seemed satisfied with his handfuls of gold. However, later that evening, he reflected upon what he had said and done. In light of the generosity and holiness of Brother Francis and Brother Bernard, Sylvester convicted himself of terrible greed. For two consecutive nights, he slept fitfully. He dreamed over and over that from the mouth of Saint Francis came a golden cross that extended from east to west across the horizon. Deeply touched by this vision, Sylvester gave away everything he owned and also became a follower of the poor man. For the rest of his life, he lived with great grace and holiness. And he spoke with God as one friend speaks with another.

Likewise, Brother Bernard enjoyed God’s grace so much that he was often held in contemplation by God’s power. Saint Francis said often that Brother Bernard was worthy of much reverence because he was more truly the founder of the community of brothers; he was the first to begin living evangelical poverty by reserving nothing for himself and giving everything to the poor. In this way, Brother Bernard placed himself in the arms of the Crucified Christ, whom we praise and thank for ever and ever! Amen!

About Brother Bernard

Bernard of Quintavalle (d. 1241) is remembered as the first follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. He was the scion of a wealthy family and was trained as a lawyer at the University of Bologna. After his conversion, Brother Bernard was entrusted by Saint Francis with challenging missions: preaching to affluent and sophisticated audiences in Bologna and Florence; accompanying Saint Clare to the monastery of Saint Angelo after her conversion; and asking the pope for permission to allow the new fellowship of friars to live the gospel life. His family home still stands in Assisi (although it is now closed to the public). Bernard of Quintavalle is one of five followers of the “Poverello” who are buried with him in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

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About Us

Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with members, friends, and followers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages to more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a tax exempt non-profit charitable corporation. All donations support our ministry and our tax deductible. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for faith formation, prayer, and pilgrimage in the Franciscan spiritual tradition, please contact Cliff Garvey at cgarvey@assisiproject.com. May the Lord give you peace!

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