A Deeper Look at the Best Books on St. Francis
by Trevor Thompson
This is the latest in an on-going series of “playlists,” in which we recommend books around a particular theme. This one offers another, deeper look at the best books on St. Francis (the subject of our first playlist earlier this month).
“Making a mixtape (or playlist) is the opposite of indifferent. It’s heartfelt, purposeful — often a subtle form of flirtation. … [The playlist] is a way of making yourself known, an interpersonal form of show business, of making news, of replicating sounds and words you find important. It’s like poetry, because poetry is what you can’t say in any other way.”
– David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
(Our 2009 Book of the Year. Read our Review…)
*** Watch for more ERB playlists in the coming weeks and months, and for a forthcoming essay on playlists as a way of doing theology.
Use the comments below to let us know what you think…
Are there books that should be added to or deleted from this list?
It is thought to be the case that Francis is the most biographed person of all of history. If this is the case, it is no doubt because of Francis’ holy and eternally compelling witness for living the gospel life. But the number of biographies is also, quite frankly, because his image and mission are highly contested. The argument about the “true Francis” gleaned from the variety of written sources and oral traditions coupled the wider historical-cultural critical work parallels the argument about the historical Jesus in so many ways. Before Francis even dies, he himself is torn by the many versions of this so-called Franciscan life that were circulating around Europe. As the history of Franciscan life unfolds, the drama is thick, chock-full of contentious feelings and deep fractures, even bloody sanctioned murder. So, leaning into a top-10 list for Francis might be a more serious and risky venture than one imagines.
I will offer my “remix” playlist using genre-type classifications, dividing these works into five groupings. I am conscious that with all typologies, there are weaknesses in classification, and of course, plenty of overlap, but this was a helpful way to consider all the strands of influence on me from this “poor one” we call Francis. Francis is so deeply a part of my imagination, and so I offer this list to you with all the excitement, care, and vulnerability that I made and shared those cassettes of jams back in the day.
1. Books that highlight Francis’ more radical social embodiment of the gospel life and freely use the language/lenses of Catholic social teaching (including care of creation), liberation theology, and labor/work
- Boff, Leonardo. St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation. Trans. by John W. Diercksmeier. New York: Crossroad, 2006. [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
- Crosby, Michael. Finding Francis, Following Christ. New York: Orbis, 2008. [ Amazon ]
- Dennis, Marie, Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor. St. Francis and the Foolishness of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002. [ Amazon ]
- Flood, David. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Movement. Quezon City: Franciscan Institute of Asia, 1989. Out of print, but a great work if you can get your hands on it!
- Flood, David, and Thaddée Matura. The Birth of a Movement: A Study of the First Rule of St. Francis. Trans. by Paul Schwartz and Paul Lachance. Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975. [ Amazon ]
- Flood, David. The Daily Labor of the First Franciscans. St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute Press, 2010. [ Amazon ]
2. Books that see in Francis a model for human transcendence and psycho-social-spiritual liberation
- Cron, Ian Morgan. Chasing Francis. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006. [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
- Horan, Dan. Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith. Phoenix: Tau Publishing, 2012. [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
- Leclerc, Eloi. Francis of Assisi: Return to the Gospel. Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1983. [ Amazon ]
- Rohr, Richard. Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001. [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
3. Books that take a more historical (less hagiographical) and more “orthodox” approach to Francis’ life
This last grouping, unlike the first two, tends to keep Francis more rooted in the wider medieval ecclesial milieu, emphasizing more continuity with the church, her mission, and her practices. And I must admit, although I still like David Flood a lot and have been shaped to some degree by themes related to all of these authors, I am ultimately more rooted in the historical, textual, and “orthodox” approach of this grouping right now in my life. Isn’t this the way it is…our affinities to certain tastes change over the course of time??
- Cunningham, Lawrence. Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004. [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
- Legoff, Jacques. Saint Francis of Assisi. New York: Routledge, 2003. [ Amazon ]
- Manselli, Raoul. St. Francis of Assisi. Trans. by Paul Duggan. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988. [ Amazon ]
- Thompson, Augustine. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
This is where I would place Vauchez’s new text from your list.
4. Books/articles that engage the image and mission of Francis from a more scholarly angle.
Some of the texts of the third category are rooted in this scholarly work, but this fourth category would encompass the academic programs, the academic journals, and the scholarship that, although remains a small and relatively unknown area, is quite a strong and up and coming specialty field. The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi (Cambridge Companions to Religion) edited by Michael J. P. Robson definitely gets at some of the key scholars working in the field of Franciscan studies right now. The Franciscan Institute Publications is the central source for these more scholarly works, although more and more frequently scholars themselves are interspersed in a variety of places. It is worth noting that much of the current energy around Franciscan scholarship, I think, arises out of the Second Vatican Council’s call to Catholic religious communities to return to their sources and original inspirations of their founders. Out of this renewed energy, all of the major Franciscan sources (like Francis and Clare’s own writings and all the early major hagiographies) were reedited, translated into English, and published in widely available volumes, and there emerged a whole “think-tank” devoted to what is being called the “Franciscan Intellectual Tradition” where books, conferences, and formation opportunities took life. Like I said, for the Franciscans, this aggiornamento and resourcement already had a long and tumultuous history; and the story continues to unfold. Of course, Sabatier’s book is also one that scholars feel dramatically shaped the contemporary scholarly conversation. Finally, I should not fail to note that scholars like Kenneth Baxter Wolf in his book The Poverty of Riches is also providing an interesting reconsideration of Francis of Assisi and his gospel life.
5. Books/art that offer a more imaginative representation of Francis
We must not fail to mention what perhaps is a fifth category that would take us away from all this serious stuff, a grouping for our more fantastical and artistic Franciscan representations. In this category we could find the text you mentioned called the “Little Flowers – the Fioretti.” The myriad of Franciscan legends told in so many children’s books and pietistic literature remain for many folks what is most familiar, comforting, and meaningful about Francis. Perhaps, there’s more “true” meaning in the story of the wolf of Gubbio than the scholars think. Lord knows that I am also indebted to the many paintings (classic and contemporary), poems, theatrical performances, and musical compositions that attempt to bring the spirit of Francis to life through the creative and sacramental imagination. It’s hard to imagine knowing Francis without Giotto, El Greco, Zeffireli, or Messiaen. I also fondly recall the beautiful opportunity one year where I had two experiences of putting this imaginative process to work: one, where my wife and I worked with Franciscan poet Murray Bodo on creative writing and poetry rooted in this Franciscan tradition – and two, where I journeyed with Franciscan painter Br. David Haack painting some of my own images of Francis and his gospel life. Although I haven’t yet written my own biography of Francis, these opportunities to put Francis’ spirituality to my own word and images were my first foray into moving beyond just listening to mix-tapes and making my own music.
Of course, all of this focus on books would have made Francis terribly uncomfortable; after all, it was written in the early version of the Franciscan Rule of Life that the brothers not carry books beyond what was necessary to pray the prayers of the church. Ultimately, for Francis and these early Franciscans, it was a joyful life lived in the footsteps of Jesus that was the best music. I think we’d all agree about that.
Trevor Thompson is Director of Pastoral Ministries at The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh, NC.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com