Francis and Beyond

October 4: Francis of Assisi, Friar

Review by Peter Eaton

Along with Saint Nicholas, Francis of Assisi is the best-known of all saints in the Western Church. And yet, for all his popularity both among faithful Christians as well as those who do not describe themselves as religious but who see him as a symbol of environmental stewardship, the Francis of history bears little resemblance to the Francis of later myth and spirituality. These two books help us enormously in gaining a clearer picture of this elusive yet compelling figure.

Francis of Assisi
A New Biography
By Augustine Thompson, OP.
Cornell University Press.
Pp. x + 299. $29.95

Francis was a difficult, complex person — a particular and unique spiritual personality, alien to so many sensibilities, both among his contemporaries and in every subsequent generation. He was a trying patient when sick, and deeply ambivalent about his authority and his place in the community he had founded.

There is no uninterpreted Francis, and the task of the historian is to examine very carefully the abundance of evidence that survives. It is a much more difficult task than it may seem, for even the earlier date of some documents does not guarantee their reliability. All those who have written about Francis have had an agenda, including his first biographer. And much that has been written about Francis, or with Francis as a major theme, is of questionable usefulness if what one is interested in is a true portrait of the saint in all his fullness.

Augustine Thompson’s new biography is a model of all that is best in a work of this kind. It is compellingly and lucidly written, accessible both to the interested layperson as well as the scholar. This is the first critical biography of Francis by an English-speaking scholar; the other two biographies that can be described as critical are by an Italian and Frenchman. The book is divided into two parts: the biography and an examination of the sources. In a biography of this intricacy, this is the best way of organizing the work.

Thompson’s biography is now the place to begin for anyone who wants to understand Francis, his life, and the subsequent development of devotion to him, and it is not soon to be bettered.

The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi
Edited by Michael J.P. Robson.
Cambridge University Press.

Pp. xvii + 305. $29.99

Michael Robson has given us a helpful collection of essays, divided into two sections. The first section concerns Francis, his writings, his relationship to Clare, and the emergence of the movement. There is even a chapter on “Francis and creation,” which traces Franciscan reflection on the subject as far as Angela of Foligno. The second section collects essays that range through many aspects of the Franciscan heritage in the Church. Anglicans will welcome especially “The ecumenical appeal of Francis” by Petà Dunstan, a leading scholar of Anglican religious life.

As always, truth is much more interesting than fiction, even “holy fiction.” Thompson and Robson have provided us with the sort of attention to Francis that is likelier both to illumine this remarkable historical figure and to enable us to live into a more genuine Franciscan spirituality.

Francis cared about the Eucharist, the Daily Office, and poverty much more than he had anything to do with animals or nature. Francis was, contrary to the popular picture of him, a very ecclesial person in both his commitments and in his preoccupations. What might a clearer picture of Francis give us? We can at last, thanks to these books, ask the question with some confidence that we may find some reliable answers.

The Very Rev. Peter Eaton is dean of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.

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