Francis of Assisi: a pair of reappraisals

Joan Acocella of The New Yorker reviews two recent books on St. Francis of Assisi, and, in the best tradition of long form book reviews, gives us a crash course on the subject at hand. Of particular interest is the dispute over Francis’ legacy.

The schism that opened between Francis and the centrist members of the order has never healed. The minute he died, the Church redoubled its campaign of annexing this revered man. Within two years of his death, he was canonized, and work began on the basilica to be raised in his honor in Assisi. It eventually became a vast complex. In addition to a double church—one structure laid on top of the other (Francis’s crypt was placed in the lower church)—there was a sort of palace to house visiting dignitaries. Popes stayed there. Later, stained-glass windows and the now famous frescoes by Giotto were added.

This was the Church’s tribute to the man who never possessed more than one tunic and who forbade his men to own even the roof over their heads. With the construction of the basilica, Franciscan poverty, the order’s foundational precept, became a pious fiction. Soon the superiors were allowed to handle money; priests within the order were given privileges denied to lay brothers; the yearly “general chapter” was restricted to the friars’ representatives; and so on. It is hard to think of a single important Franciscan principle that was not violated. Vauchez calls this period Francis’s “second death.”

Some of Francis’s companions survived him for many years and remained true to his code, as did other, later recruits who joined the order because of the code. From these loyalists came the so-called Spirituals, who loudly opposed any abandonment of Francis’s rules. The Church eventually disciplined them. In 1323, the Pope declared that anyone who claimed that Jesus and his disciples lived in absolute poverty (part of the inspiration for Francis’s rule) was guilty of heresy. Some of the Spirituals were put to death.

What images come to your mind when you hear Francis’ name? Why? Do you think they are true to the spirit of the man, or are they the creation of later writers with agendas of their own?

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4 Comments
  1. Elizabeth Miel

    When I hear the name of St. Francis I think of some of the wonderful Franciscans I have known especially Brother Richard Jonathan Cardarelli of the Society of St Francis

  2. Sara Miles

    From a sermon on St. Francis I preached last year:

    ….In church, it’s as if the sun never burns anyone, and the earth never smells bad. In church, it’s as if all of Creation is a soft-focus nature movie in which animals with big soft eyes trot obediently onto Noah’s Ark or gaze tenderly at the baby Jesus… and never eat each other, or look gross, or make a mess. It’s the tyranny of cuteness.

    Francis was not a sentimental animal-lover of the cute-puppy kind. He was the kind of holy man technically referred to as a nutcase. While you may have been taught to think of him as that sweet lawn figurine with the bad hairdo holding the birdbath, Francis was in fact a wacked-out mystic, a compulsive anorexic and self-mortifier, a bleeding stigmatic with no boundaries whatsoever. And a passionate lover of all creation.

    Francis may well have been a fool, an infant; not wise or intelligent. But Francis wanted to follow God. And somehow he understood that the most important thing was God’s love for his whole creation, without exception. God’s love for the sun and moon and wind, the leper with open sores, the angry soldier, the scary wolf menacing the townspeople. Francis saw that God had made all these things, and loved them all, and that God had said they were all very good.

    Francis, the dog, the fool, also understood that God is not an idiot. I mean….do you think that God doesn’t see how we throw up on the living room carpet? How we snarl and growl and bite each other? How we make a mess in the beautiful garden God has planted for his people?

    Really: do you really think God loves us because we’re cute?

    And so Francis, whose unsentimental love of God’s creation I yearn to follow, thought that he, too, should love the apparently unlovable. That he too should kiss lepers, and hang out patiently with people who hated him, and be kind to unattractive, slobbery, mean animals. He thought he should look with great attention at the world and the creatures God made, and try to see what it was that God loved in us all….and then act on that love.

    Francis was not a saint, in the sense that saints are supposed to be as inoffensive as kittens in a Sunday School book. He was bossy and crazy and beautiful and visionary, and he yearned more than anything else to join his life, through Christ, to God’s great work—which is restoring all of creation, as it really is, to wholeness.

    “I have been all things unholy,” said St. Francis before he died. “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”

    And so on Francis’ day we bless the animals: the smelly ones, the scary ones, the cute ones––all of them beloved. We bless the sun and the earth and the hurricane winds–– all part of God’s creation, even when they hurt us. We bless each other, unholy and holy, ugly and sublime, in the name of our brother and teacher Francis, who said simply, “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”

    Amen.

  3. tgflux

    I find myself thinking of Bill Clinton’s words (re “Lincoln”) last night at the Golden Globes: about Commitment v Compromise. Francis had one kind of commitment, (some of) his Franciscan successors had compromise. At either end of the dichotomy, were they too extreme? I can’t say.

    JC Fisher

  4. barbara snyder

    Terrific post – and great questions.

    Still thinking about ‘em – but for now: I, too, think of Franciscans….

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