“Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.” —St. Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures.
Death dates are commonly celebrated in the Church. In fact, every day on the calendar is dedicated to a relatively small handful of saints. This is due to the fact that we have thousands of saints and beati but only 365 days (and 366 every now and again) on our calendar. That means there’s definitely going to be some doubling up. Even Christmas, one of the holiest days on our liturgical calendar, isn’t safe. In fact, St. Anastasia of Sirmium, an early and very important Christian martyr, has the second Mass on Christmas morning dedicated to her.
That’s pretty cool beans considering she’s sharing top billing with the Our Lord Himself.
October 4 is the day the Church sets aside to celebrate St. Francis of Assisi’s dies natalis — his birth into eternal life. Francis is easily one of the Church’s most beloved and venerated saints. Thus, even the vigil of his death is celebrated in style.
October 3 is the vigil of his passing over and bears a special name — his Transitus.
The word is derived from the Latin meaning “passage,” “crossing” or “going over.”
The feast has always been an important part of Franciscan spirituality. Ideally, a Christian shouldn’t be afraid of death — or as Francis called it, “Sister Death.” Francis faced his own end with what could be described as joyful aplomb. A gentle turning to God in the final, ultimate mystery — the passing over or, should I say, the turning over, of one’s soul to its Lover and Author.
Though many people fear death, it should be remembered that the Creator didn’t create death:
God did not invent death, and when living creatures die, it gives him no pleasure. He created everything so that it might continue to exist, and everything he created is wholesome and good. There is no deadly poison in them. No, death does not rule this world. (Wisdom 1:13-14)
And thus, we have hope. And hope brings us to Eternal Life. (Titus 1:2)
The Transitus specifically remembers the Poor Man of Assisi at his holiness moment — the moment in which he met His God. It calls together the friars, sisters, nuns and secular members of the Franciscan family at which Francis might give us his one, last, perfect lesson.
In some of the earliest Franciscan documents, the saint’s reliance upon prayer and his community as he lay dying:
While he was staying in the palace of the Bishop of Assisi, blessed Francis, realizing that he was getting sicker by the day, had himself carried on a litter to the church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula. For he wished to give back his soul to God in that place where, as has been said, he first knew the way of truth perfectly.
Although racked with sickness, blessed Francis praised God with great fervor of spirit and joy of body and soul, and told him: “If I am to die soon, call Brother Angelo and Brother Leo that they may sing to me about Sister Death.” Those brothers came to him, and, with many tears, sang the Canticle of Brother Sun and the other creatures of the Lord, which the Saint himself had composed in his illness for the praise of the Lord and the consolation of his own soul and that of others.
[Armstrong, Regis J. Francis of Assisi – The Founder: Early Documents, vol. 2 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents) “The Assisi Compilation.” May 1, 2000. #5. pp. 120-121]
Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first and some would say, best, biographer, described il Poverino’s final moments in his Second Life:
St. Francis spent the last few days before his death in praising the Lord and teaching his companions whom he loved so much to praise Christ with him. He himself, in as far as he was able, broke out with the Psalm: I cry to the Lord with my voice; to the Lord I make loud supplication. He likewise invited all creatures to praise God and, with the words he had composed earlier, he exhorted them to love God. Even death itself, considered by all to be so terrible and hateful, was exhorted to give praise, while he himself, going joyfully to meet it, invited it to make its abode with him. “Welcome,” he said, “my Sister Death.”
Doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure, is said to have been presented to St. Francis of Assisi when he was an infant. He grew up to become a friar, a theologian and then a Cardinal. He described Francis’ death in his Major Life:
When the hour of his death approached, Francis asked that all of the brothers living with him be called to his death bed and softening his departure with consoling words, he encouraged them with fatherly affection to love God. He spoke of patience and poverty and of being faithful to the Holy Roman Church, giving precedence to the Holy Gospels before all else. He then stretched his hands over the brothers in the form of a cross, a symbol that he loved so much, and gave his blessings to all followers, both present and absent, in the power and in the name of the Crucified. Then he added: “Remain, my sons, in the fear of the Lord and be with him always. And as temptations and trials beset you, blessed are those who persevere to the end in the life they have chosen. I am on my way to God and I commend you all to His favor.”
With this sweet admonition, this dearly beloved to God, asked that the book of the Gospels be brought to him and that the passage in the Gospel of St. John, which begins before the Feast of the Passover be read. Finally, when all God’s mysteries had been accomplished in him, his holy soul was freed from his body and assumed into the abyss of God’s glory, and Francis fell asleep in God.
Thomas of Celano continues his narrative in beautiful, intimate detail. It’s no longer a death scene centering around a beloved man — instead, it’s an agapic love feast:
As the brothers shed bitter tears and wept inconsolably, the holy father had bread brought to him. He blessed and broke it, and gave each of them a piece to eat. He also ordered a Book of the Gospels to be brought and asked that the Gospel according to Saint John be read to him starting from that place which begins: Before the feat of Passover. He was remembering that most sacred Supper, the last one the Lord celebrated with his disciples. In reverent memory of this, to show his brothers how much he loved them, he did all of this.
[Thomas of Celano. “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul.” The Second Book. Chapter CLXIII, p. 387.]
Bl. Jacqueline de Settesoli (1190–1273) one of Francis’ lay followers, was present for Francis’ death as were many of his other closest companions. He renamed her “Brother Jacoba” so that their visit wouldn’t cause scandal.
He asked for the noblewoman to come and bring him her almond cookies of which he was very fond. He wanted one more taste of them as he believed death was a time to celebrate. It signified that his long search for the Creator Who loved him into existence would finally be over.
“Brother” Jacoba, arrived in Assisi with her two sons and a surprisingly large retinue to visit Francis. She stayed with him until the very end.
Francis of Assisi died Saturday, October 3, 1226.
A tradition started among Franciscans to commemorate the Transitus by preparing and sharing almond confections to call to mind that Jacoba was a comfort to the saint in his final moments.
The few days that remained to him before his passing he spent in praise of God, teaching his beloved companions how to praise Christ with him. As best he could, he broke out in this psalm, With my voice I cried to the Lord. With my voice I beseeched the Lord. He also invited all creatures to the praise of God . . . Even death itself, terrible and hateful to everyone, he exhorted to praise, and going to meet her joyfully, invited her to be his guest, saying: “Welcome, my Sister Death!”
To the brothers he said: “When you see I have come to my end put me out naked on the ground as you saw me naked the day before yesterday. and once I am dead, allow me to lie there for as long as it takes to walk a leisurely mile.” The hour came. All the mysteries of Christ were fulfilled in him, and he happily flew off to God.
[Thomas of Celano. “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul.” The Second Book. Chapter CLXIII, p. 388.]
St. Francis of Assisi remains a powerful symbol and voice in the lives of millions of Catholics. At the Transitus celebrations, Catholics who call Francis “friend” come together to remember and take example from his life. Francis is called the “Alter Christus” or “Other Christ” because he gave himself over completely to Jesus and the Cross. He willingly took on Jesus’ “light yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Adrienne von Speyr (1902–1967) was a Swiss Catholic spiritual writer, physician and theologian who had authored more than 60 books on spirituality and theology, in addition, she was a mystic and stigmatist. She wrote a particularly moving passage about the Assisian saint in a book that was already effusively written about other spectacular saints:
I saw St. Francis at first in his old age, at prayer and sickly, of an indescribable cheerfulness and purity and humility. Everything in him, everything that constituted his life, all his difficulties, are now transfigured and have become translucent. And this happened through prayer. The things that occupy him no longer contain anything at all that is purely personal, not a trace of annoyance or injury or resentment for the unjust things inflicted on him. God alone is left, as well as perfect service in the indescribable happiness of one who serves and in uninterrupted contemplation.
[von Speyr. Adrienne. Book of All Saints. “Francis of Assisi.” Trans: D.C. Schindler. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2008.]
The Patriarch Job lamented, “If mortals die, can they live again?” (Job 14:14). Death is inevitable but not final. Death, no longer victorious over us. It no longer has its sting. (1Co 15:55-57) Death has no sway over the Christian who truly embraces Christ. We need not worry as Jesus Christ has conquered death. (Jn 11:25-26)
Christians maintain that a lifelong process of spiritual conversion to God, the self-emptying destruction of self and a dedication to peacemaking and abjuring injustice will prepare us to meet our Maker with a clean conscious. And though all of our sins are as scarlet, the love by which God created us will surely heal us.
Though we naturally avoid death in our normal, everyday lives, the end of our mortal existence isn’t meant as a threat or punishment. Death is impossible to avoid nor should anyone want to. It is a reward for a life well-lived. Very few of us will see death coming. Thus, it’s important to be spiritually prepared for it. (1 Thessalonians 5:2, Revelation 16:15) There might be pain. There might be tears. But, for the Christian, there can never be fear. A holy death is something for which we pray to God. Or, at least, it should be. It’s the path by which we come to learn about our true nature as human beings.
Our mortality as humans is what ultimately defines us. We are, after all, called “mortals” for a reason. But there’s literally nothing to fear in it for I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below—there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
Thus the man who had attained Christ’s stigmata on La Verna, had parleyed with Sultan Malik-al-Kamil, hoping to end the Crusades, tamed the wild wolf at Gubbio, created the first Nativity crèche, preached to birds and had founded three orders for men and women which revolutionized the relationship between the Believer and the Church found himself at the end of his life, blind and in excruciating pain. And all he wanted as he lied dying naked on the ground was to pray with the friends and worship the Lord of All…and maybe share a cookie with them.
In life, St. Francis of Assisi embraced Nature and everything in calling it a Brother or Sister under God — after all, are we not all Creatures made by the one Creator?
He sacramentalized poverty and died owning nothing perfecting the Christian life thus inspiring millions thus giving the Master his investment back a thousand fold. (John 4:38, Mat 25:14-30)
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For those in the mood to celebrate Francis’ Transitus in as traditional a manner as possible, I offer a recipe from my grandmother’s kitchen. She herself had a great devotion to him and so, I can assure you this recipe contains within it, a great deal of love.
Italian Almond Cookies
Yields: 3 dozen cookies
¼ cup Amaretto (optional … in place of liquor, you can substitute ½ teaspoon rum extract)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
⅔ cup brown sugar
2 large egg whites
2½ cups blanched almonds (additional 36 almonds set aside for garnishing)
Set eggs out for about an hour to get them to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Lightly grease 2 large baking sheets.
Pulverize 2½ cups almonds in a food processor.
Add ⅓ cup sugar to the almonds. Mix until well-blended. Scrape down sides as necessary. Set aside.
Whisk egg whites. Add salt while whisking until soft peaks form.
Gently add ⅓ cup sugar to the egg whites.
Keep whisking egg whites and sugar mix until stiff, shiny peaks form.
Gradually fold in ground almond to the sugar/egg mixture.
Add almond and vanilla extracts.
Add either the Amaretto or rum extract to the mixture now.
Using your hands, roll mixture into little 1-inch balls.
Place each ball about 2 inches apart on baking sheets and flatten each slightly.
Top each cookie with one of the almonds set aside for garnishing.
Bake until cookies are golden brown (about 25 minutes.)