Tricky Tuesday: A Holy Mystery - Saint Francis the Fire Handler

Updated: Apr 7

For some saints' immunity to fire seems to be a special mark of grace, while for a few less exalted men and women the same immunity seems a natural and habitual thing. One saint who handled fire as easily as other men handle a shovel or a walking stick was Francis of Paola, who died in 1507.

Francis was born of Italian peasant stock, and many of the stories about him are set in ordinary, workaday situations. Once, for example, he came into a blacksmith forge just as the smith was finishing a shoeing job, to inquire about some work he needed to be done. Would there be enough iron left over, Francis asked. The smith indicated a large scrap of red-hot iron that remained, and Francis, without more ado, bent over and picked it up. “By your leave,” he said to those screaming at him in horror to stop, “I am just holding it to warm myself.”

An illustration of Saint Francis
An illustration from an old book depicts the humble Saint Francis of Paola, who often used his miraculous immunity to fire in mundane ways. He was canonized in 1519.

On another occasion Francis seems to have conferred his immunity to fire on someone else. A lime kiln used in the construction of new monastic buildings near Paterno Calabro had been fired and seemed in danger of collapse. The entrance was perhaps too small for Francis himself to enter, for he instructed a small monk to go into the furnace and prop up the ceiling with a stick. The monk did as he was bidden, suffered no injury, and the kiln was saved. (In this case, Saint Francis must have extended his immunity not only to the monk but to the stick used as a prop.)

Another example of the way that Francis applied his unworldly immunity to worldly tasks occurred when he helped some men in the process of making charcoal. They had covered their stack of wood with earth so ineptly that flames were breaking through in several places. While the men fetched more earth to plug the holes, Francis used his bare feet to control the flames.

It was not, however, such stories as these that first brought Francis to the attention of church officials but his reputation for leading a life of extreme austerity and deprivation. In due course two church dignitaries were sent to examine and test him.

“It is quite easy for you to do these things,” they told him, “because you are a peasant and used to hardship. But if you were of gentle blood you would not be able to live in this way.”

Francis replied: “It is quite true that I am a peasant, and if I were not, I should not be able to do things like this.” A large fire was blazing nearby. He reached into it with both hands and scooped up some burning sticks and red coals. Holding them, he said to the canon: “You see, I could not do this if I were not a peasant.”

The canon then prostrated himself on the ground and sought to kiss Francis’s hands and feet, but the saintly peasant would not allow it.

Source: Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, pp.174-75

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