Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi
The author of this book is a professional biographer, historian, and theologian. His subjects range from the mundane (Jacqueline Onassis) to the sublime (Francis of Assisi). Before I read the book, I was inclined to the idea that had I but one saint whose life I would want to study, it would be Saint Francis. Having now read the book, I would simply add that I cannot conceive of a biography which would surpass this one in clarity, depth, and comprehensiveness. The author gives the reader a crystal clear picture of the man, warts and all, tracing his spiritual evolution from dissolute youth to God-absorbed caregiver of society's sick, poor, downtrodden and rejected. The theme of the book is conversion as a lifelong process. It is through this theme that the author traces Francis' development. What I value most about the book is that the author has carefully researched and considered his sources, in order to reach behind the accumulated legends and pious fictions about his subject's life to the real man. Francis was widely regarded as a failure in his time, the founder of a movement of companions in service to the poor and afflicted, which, contrary to his vision and wishes, developed into a religious order, the Order of Friars Minor, complete with a Rule, hierarchy, and formal status within the Church. He himself died, disappointed and largely abandoned by the Order, except for a (very) few faithful adherents to his original intent. I will leave description here, except to add that the author punctuates his work with short but highly suggestive theological remarks. For example, concerning Francis' disappointment with the evolution of his movement into a formal religious Order, the author observes: "In the face of his profound feelings of uselessness, failure and incompetence, he threw himself into the arms of God. It was not so far from the outcry of Jesus on the cross. Francis was sealing his alliance with and his fundamental trust in the God Who had not, after all, abandoned Jesus to death. This is as close to a definition of faith as anyone could seek." (Ch. 12). Insights of this type are plentiful, and, to my mind, represent the summit of the biographer's art. I cannot praise the book highly enough.
December 25, 2013