This is a repost from almost a year ago. I have pulled out this book again in preparation for a book I’m working on, and will post further reflections in coming days. It’s a very important book, and of great interest, with our new Pope Francis.
I’m going to go on a limb here and say that when this book is published (April 30), anyone and everyone who has the least bit of interest in the following topics should read it:
- St. Francis of Assisi
- Religious Life
- Catholic history
…so that includes almost everyone here, right?
This is an important book, and I’m so grateful to have a review copy. Long – long – time readers might recall what a revelation Fr. Thompson’s previous work, Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325 was to me back in 2006. It was a fascinating example of innovative, close and open-minded scholarship.
St. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography has been researched and written in the same spirit, and does not disappoint. It, too, is a revelation.
As you might guess, producing a biography of St. Francis has distinct challenges. Three stand out:
- The scarcity of sources from the subject’s own hand and perspective.
- The amount of legendary material
- The ways in which post-Francis intra-Franciscan disputes (which were deep and virulent) impacted the sources we do have.
Fr. Thompson (a Dominican, by the way!) is forthright in his purpose. He knows the limitations of historical scholarship, comparing the search for the “real St. Francis” to the search for the “historical Jesus” over the last two centuries. He grapples directly with the research challenges. And what he emerges with is a work that is illuminating, not only about the life and person of the saint, but also about the project of history – historiography.
The book, one of the few – if not only – truly scholarly biographies of Francis in English – is smartly arranged. For ease of reading, the biography is presented in the first 141 pages of the book without any discursive sidenotes on alternate views of the incidents described. Those discussions are all grouped together in what amounts to a second half of the book – end notes that are far more than a simple listing of sources, but fascinating discussions of those sources, their limitations and perspectives, and alternate views. It’s a very helpful arrangement.
And who emerges from this work?
It is the St. Francis we know – a penitent committed to living the Gospel and conforming himself to the Crucified – but also one we may not be as familiar with.
This book gave me much to think about – and when we get closer to its publication date, I will post on it again, but for now, I’ll share these three points:
- What Fr. Thompson has done, I think, is to work hard to clear away the narrative of inevitability that so often (and understandably) affects biographies of Francis – or any figure. Since we know how the story ends, it is a real challenge not to tell – or read – the story with that end in mind. In this book, we walk with Francis and see things as he saw them at the moment – as much as possible. As I read this book, I felt a bit as I did when I read the diaries of Dorothy Day – with the person, in the moment, responding to God’s grace in all of their limitations and hope.
- He presents a clarifying and rather different definition of poverty in Francis’ spirituality – again, working to separate what Francis really said and did from later controversies.
- This is very important, and perhaps will be the most revealing and one of the more controversial aspects of the book: He places the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the proper and reverential celebration of both squarely at the center of Francis’ concern.