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…
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.
It would be easy enough to miss the significance of “May the Lord give you peace.” It seems the sort of thing a saint would say, seems even sweet, maybe too sweet. Thompson, though, rolls out his research to show that it was anything but.
It was a radical prayer. It didn’t attempt to teach or command. It simply was. This shook people up initially. When coupled, however, with Francis’s presence and personality, it bestowed serenity on many who received it.
“The vomit of will”
In this light, Francis is no sugary well-wisher. His words carry a jolt, even as they come to provide comfort.
Neither is he someone who wants to give commands. He is not looking to lead, or even instruct. He just is.
He lives the life he feels called to live — essentially, the life of Jesus. The life of the lowest of the low, subject to everyone and anyone. (He once wrote of his fear that Franciscans would stray from obedience and “return to the vomit of their will.”) His goal was to live without his own will, to follow only God’s will. To be a model of submission for his followers.
His calling from God, Francis said, was to be “a new fool in the world.” He and his followers, Thompson writes, were to “live in the world as pilgrims and strangers.”
And, yet, Francis was a towering personality. His magnetism and example drew people to him, led people to want to follow him. He captivated bishops and Popes. He was seen as a living saint. He was a celebrity.
And he was leading a movement of thousands of followers.
Thompson often writes of Francis as conflicted. And no wonder.
His conversion had been a private experience, a reorientation of his sensibilities. His response had been to serve the lepers he had previously detested. Then Bernard and Peter arrived, moved by similar religious conversions. Francis’s response to this unexpected development was to seek help from God through a popular divination, the random opening of the missal at San Nicolo. The result was a radical call to leave everything behind…
The increasing number of followers certainly suggests Francis’s great personal magnetism. On the other hand, Francis seemed to have none of the qualities usually found in a leader, religious or otherwise. He seemed positively averse to the responsibilities that his movement’s success forced upon him…
Francis founded his movement in spite of himself.
A small black hen
Indeed, Francis’s struggles with leadership, especially as his movement became international in scope, frequently left him feeling inadequate. During one controversy, Thompson writes:
He recounted that he had dreamt he was a small black hen, and under him so many chicks were hatching that he could no longer keep them all under his wings. As that hen desperately tried to cover and protect her brood, her young kept popping out from under her and running away. The meaning was all too clear. Francis could not perform the task of mother hen that God had given him. He had failed.
Francis’s dream of himself as a hen is a reminder of how much, in the public mind today, he is seen as a saint with a special relationship with animals and nature.
There is certainly much truth in that perception, but Thompson takes pains to emphasize that Francis was no pantheist nor a vegetarian. Indeed, in contrast to other religious orders of his time, he permitted his followers to eat meat on many days when others fasted. The key thing was not to be picky — to eat what was put before them.
And, in his final illness, Francis found God’s creatures a trial to bear. Thompson writes:
The squalor [of his quarters] attracted vermin and mice, which attacked him as he tried to sleep at night. By day they infested and defiled his food. Francis became convinced that they were no ordinary vermin, but a trial sent by the devil himself.
More usually, however, Francis “took spontaneous joy” from animals, whether a sheep or a cricket or, yes, birds. Thompson’s retelling of the Sermon to the Birds story is less ornamented than the legend but richer in its psychological insight into the man.
Once while traveling near Bevagna in the Spoleto valley, Francis spied a large flock of birds in a field by the side of the road. Delighted by them, he approached and addressed them with his familiar greeting, “The Lord give you peace.” He was even more delighted that they did not fly away, even as he walked into their midst. He voiced great praise to God for this and urged his sister birds to do so too. This was something they did, singing, spreading their wings, and taking flight as he blessed them with the sign of the cross.
This incident, later elaborated into the famous “Sermon to the Birds,” exemplifies Francis’s relationship to nature: delight at its presence and greater delight when animals did not fear him, both leading to praise of the Creator who made them.
Thompson does not shy away from relating miracles if the reports of them are trustworthy, nor from writing about Francis’s stigmata.
After this vision [of an angel], Francis began to manifest strange marks on his body. On the palms of his hands and on the top of his feet, there appeared protruding bits of flesh that resembled nothing so much as nail heads. On the base of his feet and the backs of his hands, other outgrowths appeared resembling nail points. In his side, there appeared a wound that dripped blood. The phenomena on Francis’s hands and feet did not issue any blood….
These physical marks reproduced the very wounds of Christ, the same wounds on which Francis meditated daily.
Over the centuries, many writers, including Petrarch, have dismissed Francis’s stigmata as a fairy tale or tried to explain them away as a psychologically induced condition.
Thompson writes that, given the great degree of documentation about the marks, virtually all modern writers accept them as real. Even the nail-head and nail-point form of the marks in the hands and feet argues in their favor since it goes against the expected manifestation of the stigmata as a bloody laceration.
Readers who go to the lives of saints for inspiration will find much in this biography to ponder. Nonetheless, they may regret the absence of much treasured stories.
Those stories — amplifications, if you will, of the life of Francis — have value, I think. They say something about religious faith and about the way believers use, manipulate and reshape the legacies of holy people, for good and ill.
I would like to read another book that would examine such stories in these various contexts, perhaps building on Thompson’s bedrock look at Francis.
That said, I am heartily grateful to Thompson for attempting to weed through the clutter of eight centuries of documents and commentary and develop this rich, austere and complex portrait of Francis. As he writes, this is his interpretation.
It is far from the final word on the saint, of course. I doubt there will come a day when writers will not want to take on Francis.
That’s yet one more indication of the import of this short, gaunt, conflicted holy man.
Patrick T. Reardon