At the beginning of the month I finished this new biography of St Francis of Assisi. I’ve been meaning to write down a few thoughts about it, but it keeps getting pushed to the back burner. But now that our new pope has taken the name Francis, suddenly it has acquired a new urgency. In the past two days I’ve recommended this book to two different friends who confessed that they weren’t all that interested in Francis.
The book is Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. (That’s right. A Dominican wrote the book on Francis.) Thompson is quite the scholar, though he tucks all the notes away at the end, making it easy to just read the biography section of the book through without worrying about those details if you dont want to mess with it. The notes do explain why he approached the various sources in the way he did, which he thinks are authoritative and which more legendary.
The Francis he portrays isn’t the stereotype you might think of when you hear Francis. There are hardly any animal stories, for one, and the focus is on how Francis was inspired to choose several Gospel passages about poverty and live them literally. But the focus of Francis’ spirituality, especially later in his life, is not poverty but the Eucharist.
I’m going to be lazy and crib from Amy Welborn’s review
It is the St. Francis we know – a penitent committed to living the Gospel and conforming himself to the Crucified – but also one we may not be as familiar with.
This book gave me much to think about – and when we get closer to its publication date, I will post on it again, but for now, I’ll share these three points:
What Fr. Thompson has done, I think, is to work hard to clear away the narrative of inevitability that so often (and understandably) affects biographies of Francis – or any figure. Since we know how the story ends, it is a real challenge not to tell – or read – the story with that end in mind. In this book, we walk with Francis and see things as he saw them at the moment – as much as possible. As I read this book, I felt a bit as I did when I read the diaries of Dorothy Day – with the person, in the moment, responding to God’s grace in all of their limitations and hope.
He presents a clarifying and rather different definition of poverty in Francis’ spirituality – again, working to separate what Francis really said and did from later controversies.
This is very important, and perhaps will be the most revealing and one of the more controversial aspects of the book: He places the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the proper and reverential celebration of both squarely at the center of Francis’ concern.
As I read I marked a couple of brief passages from the book that serve to highlight those points:
The locus of Francis’s “mysticism,” his belief that he could have direct contact with God, was in the Mass, not in nature or even in service of the poor. Thus his harsh words for those who ignored the Eucharistic presence are unique: he never used such language about peace breakers or those who oppressed the downtrodden, deeply as those sins pained him. Francis always preferred to speak in actions and gestures rather than words: he expressed his reverence for churches by sweeping and cleaning them. In response to clerical failure to keep the Host in honorable containers, Francis once tired to have his friars bring precious pyxes to all the regions where they were active. He asked that these be used to reserve the Host when other decent containers were lacking. One can imagine the effect of Francis’s poor followers, with their miserable habits, presenting silver pyxes to parish clergy for the reservation of the Sacrament.
Now Francis meditates on how the Word of the Father, exalted above all creation, humbled himself to take flesh from the Virgin, an act which was “to choose poverty.” This is the only mention of poverty in Francis’s letters of 1220-21, and this “poverty” is not linked to giving up property, simplicity of life, or living only for the day. Francis identifies this poverty with the very physicality of the human condition taken on by the Word.
Nor does Francis dwell on that “poverty” in itself. Rather, he passes to how the Word made flesh gave himself tp his followers on the night before his Passion, when he took bread and wine, and, by the words, “This is my Body” and “This is the Blood of the New Testament,” gave himself over to his disciples as food. Jesus’ act of self giving is, again without elaboration, linked to his sacrifice and death on the Cross for sinners. The Chalice of his Blood given to the disciples is the same one Jesus spoke of in his prayer to the Father: “Father, let this chalice pass from me,” as his “sweat became as drops of blood flowing down upon the earth.” At that Last Supper, then, Jesus initiated the Eucharist so that, as victim on the altar of the Cross, he could “give us an example, so that we might follow in his footsteps.”
The Last Exhortation highlights a theme that is consistently present in Francis’s postconversion llife: the imitation of Christ’s act of self-offering, which becomes real and tangible “in all the churches of the world,” above all in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Christ at the Last Supper commanded his disciples to do as he did, to speak his words over the bread, and so, in eating it, receive his True Body. To take into one’s self the Living and Crucified Body during communion, to venerate it at the elevation during the Mass, and to do so worthily, was to experience the true poverty that was embraced by the Word: human flesh, torn and suffering, bleeding and dying, for others.
I highly recommend this beautiful book. The actual biography is only 141 pages, a quick read. I haven’t spent much time with the notes, but do look forward to reading them one day. I hope that our new Holy Father, Pope Francis will lead many people to rediscover this most misunderstood saint.