A Review of
The Enthusiast: How the Best Friend of Francis of Assisi Almost Destroyed What He Started
Jon M. Sweeney
It is ironic that a man who left behind so few written records has become the subject of an almost limitless degree of scholarship. Ever since the first “official” biography of Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano in 1229, scholars have been attempting to describe, interpret, and make sense of the man nicknamed the Poverello (or “Poor Little One”) and the Franciscan movement he birthed. Contemporary biographers recognize the extent to which Francis has already been analyzed and so they generally begin their books with a lengthy justification for the presence of yet one more book on the subject. Jon Sweeney is no exception. In his prologue to The Enthusiast, Sweeny acknowledges the existing breadth of information about Francis, but argues that each generation tends to understand and even form Francis in its own image. Accordingly, Sweeney justifies The Enthusiast by arguing that it tells the well-known story from a uniquely different perspective, namely, through the lens of one of the most difficult and complex relationships in the life not only of Francis but of the Franciscan movement.
Sweeney’s need to justify another book about Francis is clear because he has made a cottage industry out of the subject. For example, in 2015 he edited an anthology of key Franciscan works entitled The Complete Francis of Assisi: His Life, the Complete Writings, and The Little Flowers; he authored a 2014 biography entitled When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages; and he has authored prayer books based on the writings of both Francis and Claire. Sweeney and his publisher, however, went to great lengths in the pre-publication press to assure potential readers that The Enthusiast is a standalone book not dependent on familiarity with any of Sweeney’s other writings.
But why am I harping about the deluge of Francis books? After all, the cover of The Enthusiast clearly states that this is “the untold story of Elias of Cortona” and a tale of how the “best friend of Francis of Assisi almost destroyed what he started.” Indeed, Elias is a fascinating character, worthy of book-length treatment. Elias was a highly controversial leader among the Franciscans, particularly in the years following Francis’s death. Elias caused great consternation among the friars with his extravagant lifestyle, his insistence on constructing a less-than-humble basilica in Assisi to house Francis’s remains, and his tyrannical rule as Minister General of the Franciscans. By 1239 the friars were in revolt against his rule, leaving Gregory IX little option but to depose Elias as Minister General. Eventually, Gregory also excommunicated Elias after Elias took sides with Emperor Frederick II, who was in open conflict with the pope. Elias’s story is even more interesting because despite all of his flaws and errors, he was a beloved associate of Francis. Additionally, Claire, who many argue embodied the true spirit of Franciscanism after Francis’s death, similarly retained a curious sense of connection and even loyalty to Elias throughout her life.
The problem with The Enthusiast, however, is that the story of Elias comprises a relatively small fraction of the book. Certainly Elias’s relationship to Francis is a red thread throughout that book, but that thread is quite thin in most chunks of the book both because of the dearth of overall historical documentation concerning Elias and the fact that during many stretches of Francis’s life he and Elias were serving in different parts of the world. Accordingly, only about a quarter of The Enthusiast deals directly with Elias. The rest is what I would characterize as a rather standard entry-level biography of Francis of Assisi.
Based upon how the book is being marketed and packaged, I anticipated and expected a much fuller and deeper treatment of Elias and was disappointed that it largely consists of yet another Francis biography. If your shelf is already full of books of that nature, you probably do not need yet another one. But if you are new to Francis and do not pick up The Enthusiast expecting it to focus entirely on Elias of Cortona, then you will be rewarded with a book that is well organized and written in an informative, entertaining, and accessible style. Sweeney included a helpful collection of thumbnail biographies for the main characters and a chronology of the key events described in the book. I also appreciate the overall perspective that Sweeney brings to his subject matter; he clearly holds much affection for Francis, but he simultaneously acknowledges the ambiguity and unrealistic idealism of Francis that made the long-term preservation and institutionalization of his movement a daunting challenge. Sweeney also evidences a healthy skepticism toward the usual hagiography of Francis, arguing that Francis’s stigmata was in reality a symptom of a non-disfiguring form of leprosy.
Even Elias receives balanced treatment from Sweeney, who affirmatively notes that Elias was responsible for “immortalizing his friend [Francis] beyond what was imaginable for any saint before him” and transformed the Franciscan order “into one that would easily grow into the largest in the Catholic Church.” Nevertheless, Sweeney quite rightly adds that “Elias also nearly destroyed the movement his friend began. Its work and spirit were transformed into something that Francis would have had trouble recognizing as his own.”
Sweeney thus leaves us with a tantalizing question: after Francis’s death, did Franciscanism persevere because of or in spite of Elias? After reading the book, I am not sure how Sweeney would answer that question, but I credit him for at least raising it and hope that others will take it up. Certainly it is not a question that one can answer by looking at just one piece of the puzzle, even one as fascinating as Elias. Indeed, nearly eight centuries after his death the Poverello continues to cast an enormous shadow over his Church, his order, and his world. I suppose then that it should not surprise us that he likewise dominates a book that purports to be about Elias of Cortona.
Scott E. Schul is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serves Grace Lutheran Church in State College, Pennsylvania as the Pastor of Education and Outreach Ministries. He is a husband, father of two children, a singer and multi-instrumentalist, and enjoys theology, history and writing. He authors daily “Devoto” devotionals at www.facebook.com/GLCStateCollege.