A fresh look at a familiar saint: Francis of Assisi

Of all the saints of the Church, St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most famous and most beloved. He has been adopted, or perhaps appropriated is a better word, by everyone from radical feminists, environmentalists, reformers and animal lovers to secularists, traditionalists and more. He has had words put into his mouth that he never spoke (see sidebar on “Prayer of St. Francis”) and had his own words ignored. Characterized as the “holy hippie,” he has inspired millions for nearly 800 years. 

“Francis of the received tradition is a happy troubadour of God,” said Dominican Father Augustine Thompson, author of a new biography titled “Francis of Assisi” (Cornell University Press, $29.95). “That’s the popular image and it’s not made up. He loved to sing in bad French and play his air violin, but the Francis I came to know experienced the deep darkness as well.”  

Man and myth   

In this extensive work, based on all the existent original documents, including those written by Francis, the saint emerges as a much more complex and complicated man than previously believed, tormented by interior demons, nearly overwhelmed by the challenges of governing a religious movement and troubled by self-doubt, yet still a shining figure of the transforming power of an encounter with the living Christ. 

Father Thompson, professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and a member of the core doctoral faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., has created a two-part book. The first half is a biography written for popular readers; the second half is a scholarly treatise of the medieval sources and academic issues surrounding Francis, including how to construct a biography in the modern sense when even his first biographer had the agenda of presenting him as a saint and therefore utilized hagiographic stereotypes and mythical events. 

It’s not that the earlier versions of Francis were wrong per se: “Every myth, modern or medieval, contains a truth. What a hagiographer does is remodel the story to give a theological message,” Father Thompson said. “The job of the hagiographer is not to tell a history. ... Legends about Francis are true, they just aren’t historically true. I’ll give an example. I don’t believe there was any dream by Pope Innocent III about this little man holding up the Lateran Basilica. However, the introduction of that dream by the hagiographer is not a historical point. The function of the dream to explain what Francis is about. That his mission of creating a new religious order is going to save and support the Church. The hagiographer uses hagiographical types to comment on the saint.” 

Because of that, traditional hagiography helps the reader understand that the person is actually a saint. “They conform them to the canons of what an age thinks a saint should be like,” Father Thompson added. “By the way, I’ve done it too, in the sense that I’ve made a human Francis and our age wants our saints to be human. We want to hear [that our saints] are like Christ, which means they have all the weaknesses of humanity except sin and at the same time God is present and working in them.” 

The Francis that Father Thompson discovered in his research was very human. “Francis goes through dark nights of the soul, when he was feeling inadequate,” he said. “Francis is not the birdbath saint, not someone who never discovered he was wrong on anything or who never had any doubts. He was a very fragile psyche, who carried with him a lot of demons, not just those that attacked him. He struggled with the horrors of the battles he witnessed. I don’t like doing psychology on someone who lived 800 years ago, but he was clearly traumatized by his time in the military.”  

And yet, “The image of him spontaneously desiring to follow God’s will wherever it would lead him; that’s the kind of free spirit part of Francis that is true. If he perceives God is telling him to do something, if it’s something he doesn’t expect and it’s weird, he will do it. I think that is beautiful and it’s true.” 

Major misconceptions   

Of all the misconceptions we have about Francis, three seem prevalent. The first is that his parents were bitterly antagonistic to him. In looking at the documents, Father Thompson came to a much more sympathetic picture of Pietro de Bernardone, his wife Pica and their other son, Angelo. In the earliest accounts, “they don’t understand they have a saint on their hands, that’s the earliest description of the relationship. … By the time you get to the 1240s, his father has been turned into a totally evil person and his mother has become the secret protector, but in the earliest versions [his father is presented] as someone who is suffering and doesn’t understand his son.” In fact, Francis behaved in ways that weren’t always saintly with regard to his family, such as mortifying Pietro by hiring a man to follow him through the streets of Assisi calling out a blessing. 

A second misconception is that Francis’ great conversion came as a result of renouncing his family fortune, when it actually occurred a bit later when he worked among the lepers. “This encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, would always be for Francis the core of his religious experience,” Father Thompson told OSV. “As near as we can tell, it happened on the outskirts of Assisi. … Wherever the leprosarium was, Francis lodged there with the residents and earned his keep caring for them. His experience with them had nothing to do with choices between wealth and poverty, knightly pride and humility or even doing service instead of conducting business. It was a dramatic personal orientation that brought forth spiritual fruit. … Francis says, ‘When I was in my sins, God took me among the lepers and he worked mercy through them and he made what was previously bitter to be sweet. I did not wait long to leave the world.’” 

The third and perhaps most major misunderstanding is his relationship to the Church.  

“Francis was a faithful Catholic,” Father Thompson said. “If there is a problem with the appropriation of Francis as an ecologist, a feminist, you can go down the list, how he would have identified himself is lost.”  

Even though we frequently bring Francis into our modern preoccupations and issues, Father Thompson reiterated, “The problem is that these are modern concerns, and Francis isn’t a 21st-century American.” He stressed that “the one thing people need to remember Francis was a devout, committed 13th-century Catholic and that helps explain many things about him.” Often biographers edit out things that don’t make sense to modern readers, like his preoccupation with clean altar cloths and proper vessels for Mass. “He has six letters harping on this,” Father Thompson said. “The usual biography of Francis just deep sixes that because today being a rubric hound and sacristy rat is not what those who like to talk spirituality think a saint should be.” 

Dependence on God   

Father Thompson said that if we are to know the real Francis, we have to be willing to shed some of our preconceived notions. One is that of “Francis as a religious genius at war with the institutional Church, misunderstood by the institutional Church. This is the theme, implicitly or explicitly, of virtually every Hollywood version of Francis. … It is completely anachronistic. … One of the things Francis taught me is that holiness is impossible without fidelity to Catholic teaching.” 

Father Thompson said that among the positive things he learned from his study of Francis are that “the love of God is something that remakes the soul,” and that “true Christian freedom comes from obedience, not autonomy.” But perhaps the most important lesson is that “the core of his spirituality was absolute dependence on God, and the desire to always be the lesser brother. … His willingness to follow wherever God leads him even when it’s not something he expected, that kind of spontaneous seeking to do God’s will … is a theme of his life, a beautiful theme and I think it’s true.” 

While this new look at Francis might prove disturbing to some people who have been weaned on such pious legends as the Wolf of Gubbio, the real saint may be even more compelling, since he suffered from many of the doubts and stresses we experience today including trying to hear and obey God’s call in our lives.  

Yet, despite it all, he shows us that the only true way to peace and eternal happiness lies in becoming the unique individual God has created each of us to be. 

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon.