Friday, January 25, 2013

The Search for the Historical St. Francis of Assisi

Placard at an anti-mining demonstration
Next month I’m going on a personal pilgrimage/retreat/vacation to Italy and plan to spend five days in Assisi. Because of my Franciscan roots, my association with the Dubuque Franciscans, and the Franciscan aspects of my spirituality, I’m trying to read a number of books about Francis.

A few days ago I finished Augustine Thompson, O.P.’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.  I found the book intriguing, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who just wants an introduction to Francis and his spirituality.

Thompson is trying to separate Francis from the many legends that grew up around him after his death. Examining the early sources and their historical contexts, he edits out many of the stories that I have come to love, including the story of the Wolf of Gubbio.

But he does not do it haphazardly. In fact, more than half the book is filled with his notes.

His methodology, I think, has some drawbacks, which I will comment on later. Yet several aspects of Francis’ life and spirituality come to the fore.

The centrality of the Eucharist for Francis becomes very clear in the author’s commentary on Francis writings. Francis was disturbed at the poor state of churches, with the lack of care for altar linens, and for the disregard that some had for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Living as I do in Honduras where there is a deep respect for the Eucharist, I really treasure this aspect of Francis’ witness.

In his analysis of Francis’ ideas on poverty, Thompson emphasizes not material poverty per se, but the poverty of being at the bottom, of being one of the minores, the little ones. Though the author doesn’t refer to it directly, it seems that Francis took this position in the light of his understanding of Jesus as found in Philippians 2, a God who emptied himself to become a slave, a servant.

In addition, though Francis urged the friars to beg, Francis first recommended that they work with their hands to obtain what they need. Francis, though from the nouveau rich class, came to know the worth and the importance of manual work.  He saw the dignity of the manual laborer. In a world where manual labor is often looked down upon, it is important to recover the dignity of all work, even the “humblest” and often the most necessary.

The author's description of Francis' last years, where he suffered greatly, reveal a real person, who got upset with his caregivers, not a plaster saint who suffered everything with ultimate patience and a smile. Francis comes across as a real person, with his idiosyncrasies and occasional ill temper.

These are important aspects of Francis that Thompson’s book brings to the forefront.

Yet, I think the author has taken a too narrow approach to what constitutes a “true” or “factual” story about Francis. He rightly looks closely at Francis’ writings as well as at the earlier writings of his followers. But he seems to reject many stories because they seem to him to be fashioned in the style of the hagiographies of the thirteenth century. He also rejects some stories because they seem to be too related to the late thirteenth century controversies among the Franciscans, especially between the Conventuals and the Spirituals, over the question of poverty. In my mind, he seems to take this principle of interpretation of the texts too narrowly.

I am glad I read this work. It is part of the Franciscan equivalent of the search for the historical Jesus, with all the advantages and dangers of such an approach.

A different approach to finding the truth about Francis in the midst of different accounts is Paul Moses’s The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, a book I recommend.

I am now reading André Vauchez’ Francis of Assisi: The life and aftermath of a medieval saint. Though it is also a search for the real Francis, it seems to have a different tone, as can be noted in this quote (page 32):

Francis does not flee the world. On the contrary, he rushes to plunge himself into it in order, like his Lord, to conquer it and to reintegrate back into society the poor and all those whom power and money have excluded from it.

I’ll be reading more books as I prepare for my visit to Assisi, including Nikos Kazantsakis’ novel Saint Francis, which I read many years ago.

When I’m in Assisi I will try to re-read one of my favorite books on Francis, a retelling of his life from the 20th century perspective of a Little Brother of the Gospel, Carlo Carretto’s I,Francis. It’s not a biography per se, but a series of meditations on Francis for today.

In all this, I’m hoping that God will open my heart to hear what Francis is saying to me today about following the crucified Jesus, God becoming flesh and giving himself in the Eucharist as our daily food.


Several other interesting books related to Francis that I've read in the past year or so are:
  • Ian Morgan Cron,  Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale.
  • Jamie Arpin-Ricci, C.J., The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, and Life in the Kingdom 
  • Linda Bird Francke,  On the Road with Francis of Assisi: A Timeless Journey through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond. 
  • Ilia Delio, O.S.F.,  Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis.  
  • Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M.,  Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis. 
  • Dominic Monti, Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars.

Some books I found good are
  • G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi
  • Julien Green, God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi. 
  • Lawrence S. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life. 

Two other books I hope to read soon are
  • Leonardo Boff,  Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation
  • Daniel Horan, OFM, Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith


Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

So glad to see that my book made your reading list. I hope it was a blessing. Peace!

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Jamie, I particularly appreciated several aspects of you book. The term "intentional relinquishment" and the translation of John 1:14 "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood" reinforced my spirituality of a God who moves in with us, humbling Himself, and calls us to share in a life of relinquishment - and sharing with the poor.