February 2013

Kelsey Osgood


Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson

When I was a child, my nanny -- born and raised in dismal 1940s Dublin -- would take my brothers and me to a Catholic church in our town to sit by a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The stone figure held a tiny birdbath in his hands and waited patiently to feed the suburban sparrows that drank from his well. My nanny always told me that St. Francis was the saint for all the animals, but of course I didn't know what this meant other than that on St. Francis's day at her church, you could bring your pets.

I suppose this is an example of what Dominican friar and professor of history Augustine Thompson means when he writes, in the short but integral introduction to his Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, that "we all have our own Francis." Indeed, of all the Catholic saints, he may be the favorite subject of artistic interpretation, trumped only by Saint Joan of Arc. Thompson also points out in his introduction the various hagiographical routes taken by biographers: the medieval Catholic one, in which falsely attributing miracles to a saint is a sign of worship and devotion; the modern Catholic one, in which Francis morphs into an advocate for pacifism, environmentalism and animal rights; and the colorful, romantic one, in which Francis is a childishly pious Doctor Doolittle-type, as in Franco Zeffirelli's laughably musical 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Thompson's mission, as he explains to us, is "to reveal, as much as we can, the man behind the legends" by treating the many, many mythical tales and the few scattered facts we possess in a "consistently, sometimes ruthlessly, critical manner." It is clear, then, from this initial announcement that his goal is to debunk or delegitimize previous attempts at biography; it is important to note that the reader is expected to be familiar with these former attempts, as Thompson does not name these works (aside from the Zeffirelli flick) until the substantial "Sources and Debates" addendum at the end. Thompson, it would seem, imagines all readers as entering with good foundational knowledge of Francis. All these caveats and noticeable omissions and the like serve to help the reader understand that he or she is reading a history text written by someone whose motivating force is the facts, and not entertainment. In his strict historical mission, Thompson succeeds, but that ruthless, consistent, critical manner he mentions, which is the strength of the work of history, is at the expense of the literary one. Indeed, Thompson's book is so much an effort of historicity that it is bled almost entirely dry of any romance, and Thompson is such a consummate historian that he often refuses to render a guess if it can't be linked to a primary source. (This makes the text especially lacking in things like dialogue, emotional flavor, and musings on the character's possible motivations. The fact that so little actual writing by Saint Francis survives compounds this problem even further, as the voice of the protagonist is something one is sure to miss.)

Take a very small example from the text, one that caught my eye: right after his conversion, which took place when he was around twenty-three years old (he was born in either 1182 or 1183), Francis, who had moved out of his bourgeois parents' home and into a ruined church on the outskirts of Assisi, repeatedly encountered his father on the streets of his hometown. His father, a befuddled, unprepared patriarch with whom Thompson seems to sympathize, would taunt his rag-clad son. "Francis," Thompson tells us, "hired a down-and-outer named Alberto to go around with him and loudly pronounce a blessing every time his father abused him."

Now I found this to be a very interesting anecdote, and one that raised the question: why didn't Francis just bless his angry father himself? Or simply not respond at all? The latter option would have been more in line with his later teachings, in which he instructed his fellow "Lesser Brothers" to quietly and humbly accept the abuse they received on their missions abroad. One possible answer is that Francis, who never took orders but rather remained a "lay brother" his whole life, considered himself unfit to bestow blessings on his fellow man, but then why would Francis, who was beyond reverent of priests, hire Alberto, also not a clergyman, to do it?

Somehow it is not surprising at all that the Francis who emerges from the pages of Thompson's book is at once both flatter and less exciting and yet more complicated than the wistful, would-be PETA activist of popular conception. He wasn't, as many have purported, a revolutionary who wanted to do away with the pomp and circumstance of the papacy. Rather, he was obsessed with the holiness of the Eucharist and the various props used in the ceremony. At one point, in fact, he decided to leave on his own foreign mission to France, which he chose as his destination because he felt that "the Catholics in France had a greater devotion to the Blessed Sacrament than those of any other land." His teachings on things like the Eucharist and the importance of giving confession change not at all throughout his lifetime; he simply reiterates their importance in his works, and this stability could point to either a remarkable steadfastness of vision or a blind, almost insane devotion to an ideal.

And speaking of insane, it also rings somewhat predictable that Francis's saintliness had a touch of madness in it. Thompson makes the most vague of references to crises of the soul that sound suspiciously like nervous breakdowns, one right before Francis's conversion, and one later in life when he was very ill. During the second crisis, Francis regularly hallucinated that demons were attacking him. He was such an awkward public speaker that when he consented to give sermons, he often mimed them, and his fixation on not being "in charge" of the movement -- obviously a futile endeavor that the other Lesser Brothers saw right through -- led to such strange practices as assigning a novice brother to be in charge of him and then rebuking said novice brother for not being tough enough when Francis strayed. (One pities the brother who was given that Sisyphean task.)

But lest you think that Francis retains none of the na´ve, whimsical charm he's best known for, Thompson does relent to confirming a few lovely things about the Little Poor Man. He enjoyed dancing, for one, and wrote doxological poems to the celestial bodies. Indeed, as death approached his bed, "a great flock of larks circled the cell where Francis lay," Thompson writes, "filling the air with their songs. The lark was Francis's favorite bird, because, as he often said, they had a brown 'habit' and a 'hood,' just like the friar, and because they constantly sang the praises of God, just as good religious do in the choir office."

Yes, Thompson tells us here. There is magic in Francis yet.

Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson
Cornell University Press
ISBN: 978-0801450709
312 pages