When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.
Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.
Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.
How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.
How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.
It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.
He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.
I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.