Francis of Assisi: Five Books Deliver Diverse Points-of-View About This Saint (Review)
Will the Real Francis of Assisi Make Himself Known?
Who is this 13th-century man who became one of the world's most beloved saints? The five books reviewed below each tell in its own way of the life journey of this complex man who eight centuries ago decided to follow Christ by living His Gospel. They allow us to peek into the life of Francis of Assisi and perhaps understand his times and how he burned with the charisma that drew others to him to live a life of the Gospel. In Francis' short life, dying about 45-years-of-age, he became a firebrand for Christ, founded the Franciscan order, was blessed with the stigmata, and instituted the Christmas creche in the hilltown of Greccio.
St. Francis Preaching to the Birds
1 - Here is the kind and loving Francis that is most well-known in the 21st century. We've adopted him as kind of a heavenly teddy-bear.
Francis of Assisi 'Preaching to the Birds' is probably one of the best known representations of a segment of this great man's life. The fresco is attributed to Giotto di Bondone of the Florentine Renaissance school and the fresco (number 15 in 'Scenes from Francis' Life) may be seen in the upper Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi begun in 1297 and completed in 1299. Many avant-garde scholars attribute St. Francis being named as patron saint of animal and environmental conservationists by Pope John Paul II is due to the popularity of rendition. Francis' feast day, October 4th, is also now designated World Animal Day. We see a gentle man, already with a halo, with a companion in woodlands and pasture conversing with beloved birds.
Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis by Valerie Martin
Valerie Martin chooses to tell Francis of Assisi's story by writing about segments of his life. She bases her writings on Renaissance fresco cycles illustrating Francis' life found in the upper church of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi. Martin, therefore, does not write a step-by-step biography but by use of these vignettes illustrates significant parts of Francis' life. She also draws heavily from accounts of Francis' life written by his two earliest biographers Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure.
During an extended stay in Italy, this American author became entranced by these cycles. She delved into the life and character of the man to whom supporters and followers would bestow, shortly after his death, the title of St. Francis of Assisi. Martin states explicitly in her introduction that before this time she had no special connection to Francis.
The frescos and Francis’ story aroused a compelling curiosity and interest in her and she continued her search for Francis "...the ragged barefoot beggar cried out to me, ‘This is what I have made of my life. Now go out and change your own.’ "
Unfortunately for her readers martin never tells what, if any, life changes she made after she accepted this challenge.
This is not an easy book to read. The physical layout of chapters and at points, sections within chapters, makes Martin’s work baffling or even incomprehensible to some readers. Salvation begins at the end of Francis’ story, during his dark, final, pain-filled days and ends when his world and mission were new to Francis and his companions and anything was possible.
I find these interpretations based on verifiable facts of Francis' life, as gripping as any mystery and as tantalizing as a fiction romance. Francis emerges as an emotionally tough man who followed God's plan for his salvation. As I read these scenes, the poverty, pain, and dirt became as real to me as the beauty and grandeur of Francis' mission.
"Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis" is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions.
Stigmatization of St. Francis
2 - The the eccentric and idiosyncratic Francis of Assisi
On the opposite side of Francis' life spectrum depicted by Giotto in number 19 of the 'Scenes from Francis' Life' also in the Basilica is the ecstasy of Francis receiving the stigmata (marks resembling the wounds of the crucified body of Christ) from Christ painted as a seraph.
Francis did many wonderful and some slightly eccentric things In the 45 years that he lived. Many of us would rather forget the eccentric and idiosyncratic portions of his life and gather him to ourselves as a lovable holy man, kind of like a plump teddy bear.
The five books that I present here try to show the whole individual - the parts that exasperated his parents, bishops, neighbors, as well as some of his companions, and the parts that quickly drew others to him like his first followers (ca. 1209) Brothers Bernard of Quintavalle, Peter Catanii, Giles, Philip and Moricus. I like to think of St. Francis of Assisi as a charismatic curmudgeon who loved and followed Christ.
The First Life of St. Frances of Assisi
Thomas of Celano wrote here about Francis' early life. Pope Gregory IX commissioned this book in 1228 at the time of Francis's canonization. Thomas was not one of the first of Francis' companions, but he did know him. Consequently, this is a great book to read before visiting Assisi, or to carry with you in Assisi and read Thomas' contemporary writing for the places that Francis would have known and loved like San Damiano and the Porziuncola.
Icon of St. Francis the Holy and Complex Man
The Little Flowers of St. Francis
The first and most important thing to know about this popular book is that Francis did not write it! It was written a century after Francis' death by Brother Ugolino di Monte Santa Maria. The stories found in this book are from the oral tradition and originally written in Latin and Italian. Raphael Brown, a Franciscan scholar, translated the original as well as added a short biography of Francis and has other sections not commonly found in "The Little Flowers," like The Considerations of the Holy Stigmata, The Life of Brother Juniper, The Life of Brother Leo, and the Sayings of Brother Giles. The stories and the book are appropriate for all ages, and make an excellent read-aloud book for families.
St. Francis of Assisi
Now Chesterton's book is not an easy one to read even though it is short. His aim is not so much to write a biography of Francis, but to educate readers about the times in which Francis matured and ultimately decided to follow Christ. Chesterton writes wonderful descriptions of Francis moving through his times. Chesterton states that "St Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not." And then goes on to tell his readers what Francis really was.
The Teachings of St. Francis of Assisi
. Are the teachings and examples of St. Francis of Assisi still pertinent in our modern age?
Francis: A Revolutionary Life
Here is a fairly decent biography of Francis. Adrian House spent time researching early Franciscan sources as well as spending research time in Assisi. He does describe Francis as a revolutionary against the rising wealth and power of the Church. But he tends not to answer fully some of the questions he asks. At times the writing also seems superficially academic. House has difficulty understanding what Francis meant by being "God's troubadour and juggler."