Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saint Francis

By Robert West, 233 pages,

Robert West's Saint Francis is not a hagiography that paints an icon-like saintliness around Francis. He examines the spiritual and psychological path of the saint, using original sources and some imaginative fiction.

West excels at showing the intense struggle, as the wealthy merchant's son gradually let go of his romantic visions of worldly knighthood and the party-life with his fellow drunkards of Assisi. Saint Francis had been no saint before he became a saint.

Francis struggled intensely, and went through periods of spiritual ecstasy, especially after momentous occasions as when he gave all his possessions back to his father in front of the bishop and truly embraced Lady Poverty. Over time, he sobered up from his spiritual highs and began attracting followers by preaching with simple language.

On the book's plus side, readers get a sense of the weaknesses of the saint and his real humanity. He needed to be the poorest of the crowd. If another mendicant came along who renounced the world more fervently than Francis, and loved the lepers and other outcasts more, St. Francis would immediately make a dramatic gesture to regain his top position as the poorest of the poor.

On the book's negative side, the author fails to give readers the big view of Francis in his society. While he does give enough information at the personal level, including the ridicule that the earliest Franciscans received, and the irascible nature of Pietro Bernardone, the saint's father, readers get almost no sense of the truly revolutionary work of the Franciscans, who were an example of poverty in a Church at its medieval wealthiest.

Neither do readers get a sense of the larger opposition to this ecclesiastical wealth, and why the Franciscans, unlike other penitential movements such as the Waldensians, were able to convince the Church that they were faithful.

West does give a sense of the intense struggle Francis fought over the issue of poverty, an issue that the saint never totally resolved. Francis strove for total destitution for himself and his order. When he and his brothers had occupied a ramshackle old building or a cowshed for 2 weeks, they would move on. Essentially vagrant and homeless, their form of asceticism could not be easily folded into the institutional nature of the Church.

Francis and his ideals were protected by the bishop of Assisi, some members of the papal curia, and Pope Innocent III, who himself gave much to the poor. Accounts vary as to whether this pope immediately took to Francis and his companions.

Through visions and dreams, which were important in medieval Christianity, powerful men were told by God of how Francis would totally renew the corrupt Church and eventually bring people throughout the world to Christ. Perhaps this reflects the churchmen's anxiety over their corrupt ways, and their desire for a simpler Church.

West gives readers a good sense of the success of Francis and the Franciscans at reforming the Church and renewing Christ's ideal of poverty and self-renunciation. The author also shows that this process took a deep toll on the saint, as he essentially died for his Lady Poverty.

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