St. Francis: You take nothing with you

“Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given: a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.”

Attr. to St. Francis.

There’s a Facebook version going around with only the last sentence and a dash in place of the ellipsis. There’s also a version going around that inserts this after “God’s creature”: “Let not worldly cares and anxieties or the pressures of office blot out the divine life within you [some add: or in your great task of leading humanity to wholeness.]”

The saying seems to have been made popular in the form I gave at the top of the post, right down to the ellipsis, in Jan Karon’s A Light From Heaven. When I went fishing for references, I found the usual horde of sites with no attribution given. It’s not on Wikiquote, even as a known misquotation or a dubious quotation.

But Google Books gave me a snippet view of House of Commons Debates, Official Report, Volume 1, 1988–a record of the Canadian House of Commons debates. Sadly, the snippet doesn’t show what I need, but the text on the Google Books page itself says: “I wish to take the time to commend to this House the ancient words of the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi who wrote to the rulers of the people in about the year 1220 saying: We, … [sic; I didn’t omit anything. Google Books did.] Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Google Books gives this from the Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1983: “The Mace was placed on the Speaker’s table by the Sergeant at Arms. The Reverend Angelus DeMarco, O.F.M., Pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Triangle, Virginia, … Let us never forget our purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What we are in your sight is what we are and nothing more. Let not worldly cares and anxieties or the pressures of office blot out your divine life within us, or the voice of your … (Adapted from Francis of Assisi’s Letter to the Rulers of the People).” Ellipses again belong to Google Books, not me. I’m not sure what “the voice of your” is based on.

The passage in question is most definitely not in St. Francis’s “Letter to the Rulers of the People,” (or “Peoples”) which you can read here and other places online. It’s short and it doesn’t say this or anything much like it. The Canadian version does say that it’s the words of “the followers” of St. Francis, but I can’t find anyplace that gives a reference in Franciscan writings either.

Altogether perplexing. Pending the arrival of someone more knowledgeable of Franciscan writings than I (which doesn’t take a whole awful lot), I’m going to label this one as dubious but not quite unproven.

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St. Francis and doing the impossible

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

This saying is widely attributed to St. Francis (e.g., by Nancy Pelosi in the Congressional Record for April 26, 2006, of all places), but it sounds like him only if your idea of St. Francis is a 13th Century Zig Ziglar. In other words, it fails the “sounds right” test.

A basic Google search for it turned up the usual suspects (brainyquotes, goodreads) and this blog post from a Franciscan who thinks it’s not by Francis either. Wikiquote has it on their “removed for lack of a source” list. It was placed on that list in 2010 and no one has come up with a source since.

I searched Google Books for it and the oldest hit I found was (I am not making this up) the Fall 1993 issue of Jewish Communal Service. From what I can see in the search snippet, they quote it as a well-known saying, so there is likely a source before then, but I can’t find it.

I checked all appearances of the word impossible in the EWTN copy of The Little Flowers of St. Francis (yes, I checked the pages linked from that page too) and didn’t find it.

I can find no evidence that St. Francis said it and therefore confidently say that it is a fauxtation.

St. Francis and the single candle

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light from a single candle.” Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

  1. It doesn’t sound like him to me.
  2. It’s not listed at all on Wikiquote.
  3. An Internet search for it turns up a citation on Goodreads claiming that it’s from the Little Flowers, but I checked two different editions of the Little Flowers (EWTN and CCEL), and it’s not there.
  4. Google Books finds it in:
    • The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness, where it’s an epitaph on a headstone, not attributed to St. Francis at all
    • A Dangerous Dozen, where it’s attributed to The Little Flowers without anything more precise (my guess is that this is where Goodreads got it)
    • Introduction to Computational Cultural Psychology (I am not making this up) where it’s called an “Hassidic proverb” and where this is added to it: “yet one candle can illuminate all the darkness.”
    • a bunch of other places that don’t look helpful.
  5. A search of CCEL for Francis single candle turned up 18 hits, none of them matching this quotation.

I’m calling this one fake unless someone in the comments can find an actual primary source.