Saturday, August 22, 2009

Valerie Martin's "Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis": Book Review

Liberation from wealth, embrace of death, love of poverty: Gospel truths for few true Christian preachers. No plaster birdbath figurine on display. Dramatized vignettes from this most Christ-like "perfect failure" spark shocks that Francesco Bernadone jolted to a nascent capitalism, as brutal and as alluring as our own system.

By such parallels, we may too quail at Francesco's story, even as we're drawn to his almost Buddha-like idealism, its insistence that we too can be heroes. This is a narrative shorn of hagiography suited for skeptics as well as believers. Martin locates our common human desire to find freedom from what we accumulate, and our fascination with those few of us who take on the Christian challenge literally.

Destitution brings virtue; God does not want us to get rich; abandoning one's inheritance, we find salvation in folly. These evangelical messages, of course, may appeal more to those born not as lepers, beggars, or peasants, but those who, tempted by riches, chose to vow their surrender so as to more painfully seek salvation along with Assisi's playboy, still crazy as a wandering fool but convinced he'd found treasure beyond his father's peddled soft cloths.

Valerie Martin takes us backwards, from his death to his shattering decision to embrace the leper on the road two decades before he became a living saint, even his dying body protected by the city who mocked him-- lest he die in rival Perugia. The price of fame and the hypocrisy of an Order already bitterly bickering over possessions long before its founder's passing sharpens Martin's eye, but she does not point to easy villains, rather humans who, inspired and perplexed by Francesco, must confront their own path after his intersects with their own in eerily apostolic repetition. Once you meet Francesco, it seems, as with Christ, you cannot forget him.

"Farewell, farewell, Brother Body. Farewell, farewell, beautiful world."
Stripped of romanticism by the brutality of a cave where he and his loyal friars skulk to avoid scavengers and opportunists eager to cash in on a saint's relics, already tallying the pilgrim trade to be boosted for the local economy, the last hours of this saint appear more harrowing than hallowed. Those two simple sentences, combining wonder with truth, seem such words as Francesco would have tried to speak on his deathbed. Loving what he viewed, he tormented himself into cutting himself off from the natural beauty that sustained his mystical raptures. No less contradictory than in his famous prayer, full of reversals and opposites, he did believe totally and terribly, as Martin shows on every page, that "in dying, we find eternal life."

He ravaged himself, so at 45 he practically killed off his energy, He thwarted his acceptance of nature's guidance towards the Creator. He fought to win the battle against his own flesh; his fanatical asceticism set a fearful example for his followers-- perhaps not to imitate at their own peril. He took the lessons of Jesus so literally he wound up bleeding through his wounds, hands, feet, and side pierced with the first stigmata. Consider this early scene, one of his last on this earth:

"He is naked now, for his brothers have removed his breeches to keep them from irritating his skin, which is so thin he can be bruised at a touch. Free of the robe, he sits gravely for a moment, clutching the edge of the bed, his blind eyes staring at nothing. Rufino points out the room is cold. He and Leone stand watching Francesco almost warily, as if he might be dangerous. Angelo studies the exposed wound in his side, red but closed, the raw flesh puckered into a circlet, like a tiny mouth. Francesco pats the stone floor with his bandaged feet, as if feeling about for something lost; then, abruptly, he lurches forward and throws himself facedown." (27-28)

Midway through his career, as the Lesser Brothers squabble about who owns what, "these children who will not love another unless they have a law to protect them from one another," Francesco resists vainly the incorporation and expansion of his message, as it must become codified and approved by already thousands of friars. "Like children, though they call him Father, they want to be free of him; they want their inheritance. Many of them are educated; he is unlettered; they think him a fool." (173) Can such compromises ever please radicals who contend with appeasers? Given the legacy of Christ and Buddha, I read this account wondering at the parallels between bold reformers and weary admirers lacking the founder's stamina but still, however weakened, clinging to some remnant of a divinely charged preacher's dream of a better life that's found by giving up life and facing death.

Her unexpected manner of telling these tales may confuse those unfamiliar with the facts; see my 10-24-04 review on Amazon US of Adrian House's "Francis: A Revolutionary Life" that's pitched at contemporary readers. Martin's story unfolds in reverse, except for one powerful chapter when, as the Poor Clares cannot leave the Church of San Damiano that Francesco had repaired so early on, he must come to them, in a fashion I will leave the reader to discover. Martin arranges her stories deftly, prefaced by quotes and supported by endnotes from early chroniclers, as well as intellectuals such as William James, Norbert Elias, Phillipe Aries, and E.M. Cioran. She has a knack for the perfect citation to match later sensibilities with medieval ones. Also, you find yourself imagining the breaking of the siege of Damietta in the Middle East during the Crusades, the unimaginable scene today of a pope's plundered and stripped body decaying on a plinth inside a desolate sanctuary, or the dirt and dust and filth of Assisi, in details that translucently allow you to, alongside Martin, step aside from modern perceptions and re-enter the Middle Ages sensibilities.

For example, take the encounter with the leper, after Francesco has left his father's luxury, courted abandonment, but still must face the enormity of his irrevocable decision. Francesco sees him "like a weatherbeaten statue, and Francesco has the sense that he has been standing there, in his path, forever." (239) He finally summons up the courage to overcome his disgust. "Then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down, the air is hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about; their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life." (241) That's how Martin finishes, suddenly and memorably, her poignant tale. (Posted 7-1-09 to Amazon U.S. and my blog.)

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