I really like saints. This is fortunate, because I am a Catholic and can therefore experience the fullness of communion with those brothers and sisters in Christ that have gone before us. I have my extra-special favorites and my preferred companions, and then there are saints that I’m pretty apathetic about. For me, St. Francis is one of the latter.
Let me explain. Not everyone can appreciate every personality, and with only the knowledge that he loved animals (which I don’t) and was kind of a hippie (which I’m not, although I do enjoy recycling), I didn’t see much room for him in my personal cloud of witnesses. Nevertheless, I am always open to learning, and I do like saints in general, so I was eager to read Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, O.P. I’ve never read a whole biography about just one saint, and I was amused at the prospect of a Dominican writing a book about a Franciscan. I came away pleased and edified.
Biographies can only take so many angles. This one goes chronologically, breaking down Francis’s life into its major phases: the little we know about his affluent family background, his conversion, the accidental beginnings of the Franciscan order, its growth and consolidation, and Francis’s death. Thompson does an excellent job of telling a compelling story while sticking to the facts. Events proceed in order of time, but he repeats important elements and reminds us of what came before and what is to come. I felt like I was re-watching a favorite movie (or even just Titanic) in that, even when I knew what was coming, it was very enjoyable to dig deep into the journey.
Thompson definitely carries a skeptical tone throughout the book. He acknowledges the legends, but sticks with more verifiable stories, noting how far removed many of the early hagiographers (saint-book-writers) were from Francis himself. It’s easy to say that Francis clearly did something for its spiritual value when you never knew him personally enough to recognize the actions of a cranky, dying old man. When you think about St. Francis, you probably imagine those garden statues with him “preaching to the birds” and his dramatic refusal of his father’s wealth. The real stories are less sensational and definitely more humble. Francis’s love of animals was based on his love of all God’s creatures. He is known to have loved the presence of birds, encouraging them to sing their melodies in praise of their Creator. He also loved lepers. He did reject his family’s wealth, but that naked moment in the square was the last straw, not the first. They’d tried to drag him home from his life of penance a few times already, and their distaste of him was more about his affinity for working with the lepers than his life of self-imposed penance. His writings on penance and his desire to depend wholly on God seem to be pushed aside in the popular mind in favor of a focus on nature and poverty.
Perhaps the most hotly contested point in my previous understanding of St. Francis is that dubious quotation about preaching the Gospel at all times and using words “when necessary.” That’s not an excuse to avoid explicitly talking about the faith. No one can prove he actually said that, first of all. Furthermore, although it is true that Francis never wanted to preach, he had to anyway. The initial papal approval of his order came with an unexpected command to preach penance. He had been on board with living penance before he went to see the pope, but having to preach it made him uncomfortable for the rest of his life. his reluctance to preach was a personality trait, not a recommendation to his followers. Francis had a deep love of the Eucharist and concern for the careful celebration of the sacrament. He saved scraps of paper bearing Scripture or the name of the Lord so they would not fall into misuse. I’d never heard about any of that before. As I suspected, there is much more to Francis than the soundbites of Catholic pop culture.
Overall, I was reminded of the uncanny skill of Dominicans in teaching, and I was also reminded that a story of conversion to Christ can rarely be summed up in a few paragraphs in an anthology. There is so much more to St. Francis than I even know now. I am delighted at the prospect of finding out more about some of my old buddies, and I think I have a new friend in Francis.
Many thanks to Cornell University Press for providing a free copy of Francis of Assisi for me to review. I received no other compensation in exchange for this review.
Up next: The Love That Satisfies, by Christopher West