The most awesome sentence which has been pronounced against our times may well be this: We have lost our innocence. To say that does not condemn the progress of science and the technical advances of which our world is so proud. Such progress is, in itself, admirable. However, we must recognize that the progress was not achieved without a significant loss on the human level. Priding ourselves on our science and our techniques, we have lost something of our candor.
We hasten to add that there was more than mere candor and innocence in our ancestors. Christianity had taken over the ancient and earthy wisdom of peasants─a wisdom born of contact with the soil. There was, no doubt, more earth than Christianity in the hearts of a fair number of our ancestors, more indolence than grace. But mighty roots existed and the impetus of faith, like human loyalty, rested on vital ties─ instinctive and extremely powerful─which were neither shaken nor exhausted.
In losing this simplicity, we have also lost the secret of happiness. All our science and technology leave us disquieted and alone. Alone, facing death. Alone, facing our own inconstancy and that of others, lost in the vast human herd. Alone, we wrestle with devils who harass us. When suddenly we comprehend our condition, we realize there is nothing which can give us a joy-filled life unless we go back to draw from the original source─which also carries us back to our youth. The word of the Gospel has never seemed so weighted with human truth. “Unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:3).
On the road which leads to the spirit of childhood, a person as guileless and peaceful as Saint Francis of Assisi has something to say to us, something essential and decisive. This saint of the Middle Ages is astonishingly near to us. He seems to have felt and understood our problems in advance. It was he who wrote, “Hail, Queen Wisdom, may God save thee with thy sister, pure Simplicity.” Oh, we know it only too well; there can be no wisdom for us who are so rich in science unless we return to pure simplicity. Who then could teach us the meaning of pure simplicity better than the Poor One of Assisi?
It is the wisdom of Saint Francis that this small book intends to evoke: his soul, his basic attitude before God and humanity. We have not sought to write a biography but have aimed only at a true glimpse of him with a fidelity that is less literal, more introspective and more profound than that of a simple historical narrative. One may approach a life such as that of Saint Francis from the outside, beginning with actual facts, then seeking step-by-step to penetrate eventually the soul of the saint. This is the ordinary method, always necessary; but when one proceeds thus and succeeds in grasping something of the treasures within, one may then attempt to describe this bounty and make it discernible. At this point, perhaps, one ought to resort to a mode of expression more akin to art than to history proper lest one betray the richness perceived.