Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. — a rich, austere and complex portrait of one of the most famous and admired saints in Catholicism — is to look at the greeting that Francis used:
May the Lord give you peace.
Francis said he learned this greeting from God, and Thompson writes:
This phrase was not a command or a didactic instruction; it was a prayer. Its use placed Francis within a medieval “peace movement” going back to the period of the Gregorian Reforms in the eleventh century, but its use as a greeting was revolutionary in its novelty…
“Although not a portrait in the modern sense, the fresco of ‘Brother Francis,’ in the Sacro Speco of Subiato Benedictine monastery, painted within two years of Francis’s death, if not while he was alive, resembles the earliest descriptions,” writes Augustine Thompson
Francis’s greeting did not use the imperative as a priest’s blessing would have; rather, setting aside any priestly authority, he prayed that God grant the hearer peace. Something about the greeting was so disturbing and novel that when Francis was traveling with one of his early brothers…, people reacted with confusion or anger at it….
One thing that distinguishes Francis from earlier and later medieval peacemakers was his absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms. He did not diagnose the moral roots of social disease or civil unrest. Rather, he prayed to God to remove them….Combined with Francis’s presence, [the greeting] effected an inner peace in many who heard it. That his words and presence gave a profound internal peace underlies Francis’s magnetism for the men and women of Assisi and communal Italy.
A professional historian
Okay. That’s a long quote, but I’ve used it because it illustrates or touches on a number of important points about this newly published work.
Thompson, a Dominican priest, is a professional historian, and he set out to write a biography of Francis that would find “the man behind the legends.” This means, for example, that he trusts contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous accounts more than those written later. He relies on people who actually knew the holy man rather than simply heard of him. And he is skeptical of stories that were produced to score a point in a philosophical, theological or organizational debate.
As a result, some of the most beloved stories about Francis, such as the taming of a savage wolf at Gubbio, are excluded, and others, such as the Sermon to the Birds, are presented shorn of many layers of explication.
But, most important, with this approach, the real Francis has more of a chance to emerge, as in Thompson’s commentary on the peace greeting. Continue reading