“Francis of Assisi: Messenger for Today’s World” by Robert Waldron. New City Press (Hyde Park, New York, 2019). 107 pp., $19.95.
“St. Francis of Assisi: His Life, Teachings and Practice” by Jon M. Sweeney. St. Martin’s Essentials (New York, 2019). 109 pp., $14.99.
“Francis of Assisi: The Hidden Story” by Chiara Mercuri, translated by Robert J. Edmondson. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts, 2019). 222 pp., $23.
By Kathleen Finley
Francis — the saint not the current pope — holds an endless fascination for Christians of all times, and our generation is no exception. These three books give us different but ultimately complementary views of the man from Assisi whom his contemporaries may well have thought of as “crazy Frank.”
Robert Waldron gives us a rather contemplative look at St. Francis through the lens of both different stanzas from Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures” and also various considerations of Giovanni Bellini’s painting of “St. Francis in the Desert,” also called “St. Francis in Ecstasy.”
Although some may find his look at Francis somewhat superficial, he reminds us: “Our modern culture has reduced Francis to a gentle man who preached to birds. But he was far from sentimental. Yes, he was gentle and charming, and indeed possessed a mystical rapport with animals, particularly birds. But more importantly, within the Catholic Church he initiated a spiritual rebirth long before Martin Luther. Francis indeed obeyed the command heard from Christ in the church of Damiano: ‘Rebuild my church.’ And only a man who was committed, tough and courageous, who did not fear poverty, disease and abuse, could accomplish what Christ had asked of him.”
Jon Sweeney, who has written extensively about St. Francis, gives the reader an excellent overview of Francis, helping us see why Francis was the way he was and what that means for us. The introduction by Father Richard Rohr reminds us that Francis was a doer and for that reason has often been dismissed as more of a lightweight than a thinker.
Sweeney helps us to see Francis as someone who can jump-start our spiritual engines. He was part of a larger change, prior to the Reformation a couple centuries later, which was remaking religious life, much to the consternation of church officials.
“The model of the monk as one who has a specialized religious vocation was breaking down, and new and independent ways of expressing a religious vocation were being founded,” writes Sweeney. “Both men and women began to withdraw from the world in ways that were apart from established religious foundations. … It became common to see oneself as a faithful disciple of Jesus, even while practicing faith outside of church walls and apart from an established monastic order.”
Into this environment steps an idealistic and somewhat naive young man with a flair for the dramatic at times. “When the whole town, for instance, gathered in the piazza in front of the bishop’s house to watch Francis’ father demand from Francis the money he’d stolen by selling his father’s fabrics and giving it to the poor, what did Francis do? He could have made up with his dad in private. He could have simply apologized. But the fabrics were gone, the money given away, so Francis stripped in front of everyone and gestured grandly, saying, ‘Take it all back. I have only one father now — in heaven.'”
Sweeney shows us plenty of paradoxes in Francis. While he could indeed be dramatic, he also was an introvert and simple in his way of life. He was radical in the most literal sense of the word in going back to the roots of Christianity, and yet he was balanced and cautioned his followers about being too strict in their disciplines and asceticism. He was courageous in living his faith, willing to go to see the sultan in the Holy Land to try to make peace, and yet open in his faith, describing his encounter with a leper as a turning point for him.
He also invited his followers and us to be open to nature and its goodness in a way that no one else had, especially not the monks of his time, who largely stayed in their rooms of wood and stone.
Both Sweeney’s and Chiara Mercuri’s books help us see Francis in his rural setting, where everyone knew everyone else in an unchanging world compared to the increasingly urbanized centers, teeming with change. Besides experiencing the connection with nature in a rural setting, he also lived on the cusp of a time when widespread illiteracy was giving way to learning in books, not always resulting in greater wisdom.
In Mercuri’s biography, we watch a Francis whose legacy was already being dismantled in part while he was alive and even more after his death, resulting in an early biography and documents that gave a skewed picture of Francis and his impact.
Thomas of Celano, his first official biographer, unfortunately didn’t know much of the context in which Francis had lived. “Thomas described one solitary man who became a saint over against his city, whereas in reality, as was well known in Assisi, there had been an entire community, an entire generation, that, step by step, had become renewed following after Francis.”
But not all his followers could handle the radical nature of Francis’ vision.
“Poverty, (some friars) said, should be understood as a mystic poverty and not as a material poverty: possessions cannot harm humans, but only their spirit. Others found it harmful to renounce study and science, to refuse advancements in position in the church hierarchy, abstaining from influence on the big decisions of the time. Still others saw the obligation to do manual labor … as a useless hindrance with respect to activities such as preaching and the care for souls, maintaining that the latter were more efficacious and urgent.”
And yet others saw Francis’ advice to dispose of books, including liturgical ones, to help the poor as fanatical.
More recent scholarship has resulted in recovering scrolls written by Brother Leo, one of the early companions of Francis, as well as other documents from early companions who describe themselves as “we who were with him.”
Those sources have provided more clarity about the complexity of preserving the legacy of Francis in light of the attempts spearheaded by St. Bonaventure to “clean up” Francis’ image. Bonaventure was attempting to translate Francis’ vision into a world of universities and scholars, and in the process his distinctiveness and radical vision was watered down. “The ecstatic saint of Bonaventure appears to us … without any defined personality, without backbone, as it he had not strength of his own, did not try to impose his vision of the world and did not stubbornly persist on his path. He was a simple spectator to the events that flowed around him, without his involvement except with tears and resignation.”
With the help of these early documents and historians like Mercuri, we have a fuller appreciation of Francis of Assisi, a figure who continues to fascinate and challenge us even today.
Kathleen Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including “Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses,” “Building a Christian Marriage: Eleven Essential Skills” and “The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace,” and previously taught in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.