Archive for May 2014

Francis of Assisi, by Augustine Thompson, O.P.

May 12, 2014

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
–Joseph Brodsky, “December 24, 1971”

This is probably not the book to pick up if you don’t know much about St. Francis of Assisi. Thompson’s goal was to get past the pious legends and evaluate the facts of the saint’s life as well as can be done eight hundred years later: “We are fortunate to have a great mass of stories, anecdotes, reports, and writings about Francis dating from his own century, most of which scholars now consider in some or all respects ‘legendary.’ This life is the first sustained attempt in English to treat these medieval sources for Francis in a consistently, sometimes ruthlessly, critical manner. The goal is to reveal, as much as we can, the man behind the legends.” There is a “Franciscan Question,” not unlike the search for the “historical Jesus,” and Thompson devotes a ten-page essay in the notes to the state of the question.

Thompson does not rule out miracles. Though the Wolf of Gubbio is mentioned only to say that he won’t be mentioned (not even as a metaphorical brigand and “wolf,” as some now argue), miracles do appear, most notably the stigmata, which were witnessed by many. Unlike the marks on St. Padre Pio, the stigmata on St. Francis actually resembled nails protruding from his flesh. Thompson also recounts several stories of physical and spiritual healings brought about by Francis.

The book is best in the first chapters on the early life of the saint and his seemingly involuntary accretion of a movement around himself. Finding refuge ┬áin abandoned churches and chapels, the Franciscans took on the cleanup of these holy places as their calling. They called out “Peace and Good” to all they met, and this caused some dispute over whether it was a blessing and whether they were qualified to give it.

Francis himself, in his stubborn devotion to the hard demands of the Gospel, was the rule for the rest before there was a Rule for their order that was not yet an Order. The original “rule” was the result of sortes biblicae–picking three verses from the Bible at random: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mk 10:17-21) “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Lk 9:1-6) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24-28)

Yet Thompson sees Francis as a man of the Church without question and orthodox. The pilgrimage to the court of Innocent III by Francis and his first followers resulted in their being tonsured, Thompson concludes, so that the Franciscans were clerics early on. There is no question in Thompson’s account that Francis was ordained a deacon and served the liturgy with devotion, saying his daily Office.

He seems to have had no talent for organization or desire to be a leader of a growing movement; others whom he attracted had those gifts, such as Brother Elias, appointed by Francis as superior (though Francis continued to give direction). It was normal in religious orders to be vegetarian, but Francis would not impose this on his brothers. Rather, he saw greater virtue in eating what was available and put before you, as if abstaining was a kind of epicurianism. An episode, either inspiring or horrifying, involves Francis demanding to be disciplined for eating meat, though it was not against the rule. His “superior” tearfully followed through with imposing the penance that Francis demanded–leading Francis by a rope into the crowded main piazza of Assisi, where he piled ashes on the Saint’s head and Francis confessed his fault in public.

The familiar story of Francis and the Sultan receives delicate treatment. In Thompson’s view, Francis escaped death because he was careful never to speak ill of Islam in his preaching to the Sultan, but only positively preached of Christianity. Others stepped over that line and did not return.

The text barely exceeds 140 pages, and the notes are just as long. Another pass by an editor would have been useful, as some stories are repeated apparently without purpose.

Assisi roof (Wikimedia Commons)

Assisi roof (Wikimedia Commons)