A Feature Review of
Francis of Assisi: the Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint
Reviewed by Alden Bass.
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“Saint” is conspicuously absent from Francis’s name in this new biography of the Poor Man of Assisi, an absence especially conspicuous considering that the author literally wrote the book on medieval saints (Sainthood in the Middle Ages, 1987). While André Vauchez omits the term to signal that his treatment will be historical rather than hagiographical, one is reminded of Dorothy Day’s quip: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Vauchez goes to great lengths to avoid dismissing the Poverello by focusing on Francis the man rather than Francis the Saint, and one comes away from his book not only with a new understanding of Francis, but also with a renewed appreciation for the relationship between sanctity and authentic humanity.
The book is appropriately subtitled “the Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint,” since it treats not only the biography of Francis, but also his reception through the centuries. The volume is divided into four parts. The first provides a historical sketch of Francis’s life. Part two examines the quarter of a century immediately following his death, the period in which the Franciscan movement exploded. The third part forms a reception history of Francis himself, focusing on medieval interpretations and modern critical understandings of the Poverello. The final section of the book examines the theology of Francis, providing a fresh synthesis of Francis’ teachings and the implications of his life; this final part includes chapters on scripture, the church, creation, anthropology, and the experience of God.
Like the “historical Jesus”, the historical Francis is a protean figure, conforming the ideals of his readers. In the middle ages, he was revered as an ascetic, stigmatic, and paragon of Catholic orthodoxy; in the modern period, he was a romantic hero and mystic; and in our time, Francis has become an environmentalist, an interreligious dialoguer, a model of simplicity, and an ecumenical saint. By returning to the original documents which Francis and his contemporaries wrote, Vauchez hopes to provide a more objective and scientific assessment of Francesco di Bernardone.
What image does Vauchez discover? Though his father was a merchant, Francis came from modest social status. As a young man, he was inspired to perform heroic deeds by French ballads of knights errant. Initially, this impulse moved him to participate in the political and military conflicts of the day, but after his conversion at age 22 it was redirected toward service in the upside-down kingdom of God. According to Vauchez, the change in his life is more accurately a “turnaround” than a “conversion,” since his journey was a “progressive passage from knightly values to a program of life founded on the Gospel” rather than a brutal rupture (22). More than anything, it was his encounter with lepers that led to his turnaround. Francis’s work among the lepers was a not primarily a Mother Teresa-type social program to ease suffering, but rather a theological insight into his own condition of sinfulness. Seeing his own spiritual condition mirrored in the physical malady of the lepers profoundly affected Francis, to the point where he could no longer bear the tensions of his middle-class life. From this point forward, Francis associated with the miserable, the despised, and the marginalized, because he believed Christ himself had identified with these people. The reversal of values and radical inclusivity indicated by his ministry to lepers was the determining factor in Francis’s calling (133).
Many men and women from all social strata were attracted by Francis’ renunciation. Since Francis demanded that anyone who wanted to join him sell all their goods and give the money to the poor, educated clerics, wealthy landowners, and indigent peasants who answered the call found themselves on equal footing, united by the common desire to “follow the humility and poverty of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (47). Francis believed that the surrender of possessions both brought about humility and also eliminated the root of violence in relationships between humans. He dreamed of an “economy of poverty” which would be characterized by “liberality and the redistribution to disadvantaged persons of all that was not strictly indispensable to the survival of community” (107). He sold the only book he had – a copy of the New Testament – to give the money to a poor woman.
The compensation for poverty was fraternity. The “little brothers” had to rely totally on each other, especially since their embrace of poverty often entailed a break with their biological families. In Francis’s new economy, the common life was founded on a shared structure of authority. Unlike other forms of religious life at the time, the early Franciscans were non-hierarchical. There were to be no distinctions based on birth or wealth. This led to problems within a generation, as those who entered the order with previous experience of power and authority were reluctant to submit to the brothers of lower station. This internal tension between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, eventually led to the abandonment of Francis’s ideals of poverty and powerlessness.
In the second and third sections of the book, Vauchez unfolds the stories of Francis’s multiple legacies in the medieval and modern periods. He is clear that Francis’s original vision for the Poor Men of Assisi was quickly overshadowed by institutional structures within the Church and within the order itself. Renunciation of power and fundamental role of poverty were pushed to the side, even within Francis’s lifetime. Vauchez refers to this period immediately after his death as the “Second Death of Francis,” as the brothers lost connection with their founder on a spiritual level. In the centuries which followed, various legends grew up around Francis, such as his preaching to the birds and his pacification of the wolf of Gubbio. Vauchez considers the historicity of these well-known episodes, then tries to connect them to themes within Francis’s life and theology. Even though many of the most famous events in Francis’s life were exaggerated or invented, many of them point to some quality of the Poor Man.
In the final section of the book Vauchez considers the theological insights of Francis. Francis left few written works – the Canticle of Brother Sun, his Letter to the Faithful, the earlier and later Rules, and the Testament (included in an appendix) – less than 100 pages total. From this meager record Vauchez reconstructs some of the key theological themes which inspired Francis. Concerning the experience of God, Vauches writes: “God was, above all, for him a presence tied to expressions of physicality and to an experience that begins in the senses, passes into the body, and leads to the soul” (253). Concerning Scripture, Francis sought to make an “absolute norm of behavior” from the Gospel (266). Concerning nature, Francis believed that “between the human person and the animal, as in relationships between human beings, exclusion is at the origin of violence, whereas a fraternal and welcoming attitude makes the object aware of the joy of being included and invites that individual to make peace” (276). This last part of the book could easily stand alone as a book unto itself.
Vauchez succeeds in presenting a more human Francis. The Poverello remains enigmatic at some points – despite his devotion to peace, he did not challenge the Crusades –yet for the most part Francis is portrayed as a man profoundly devoted to the example of Jesus in the midst of political, economic, social, and interpersonal turmoil. In the face of the arrogant and greedy Babylon which was 13th century Italy, Francis affirmed the fundamental Christian values of humility and poverty, not as a “supersaint” filled with superhuman powers, but as a sickly man who discovered the meaning of spiritual poverty from a bunch of bleeding lepers. André Vauchez concludes his book by giving Francis a new moniker – prophet, a man “out of step and sometimes even at odds with the dominant tendencies” of his time. And as a prophet, Francis continues to beckon us away from heroic sainthood toward a more authentic humanity.