Monday, August 12, 2013

Augustine Thompson's "Francis of Assisi": Book Review

A clearly written, sober study, which moves through many controversies smoothly and past much hagiographical supposition, Fr. Augustine Thompson, a Dominican friar, examines the life of the founder of his counterpart Order, that of the Fratres Minores, or lesser brothers, today's Franciscans. Unlike earlier leaders such as Benedict or Bernard, this Umbrian soldier turned zealot for the Gospel's radical core of simplicity and poverty chose as his followers' exemplar not a rule, but himself.

That example, as Thompson interprets the record, reveals a less sanguine figure, and a more troubled man. After being taken prisoner of war in his youth, and after undergoing what appears a sort of trauma, his guilt and "self-loathing" distanced himself from his former pleasures and worldly pursuits. Unhinged by violence and a secret failing that haunted him, he fled. He sought the solitude of broken-down churches or natural settings, and Pietro de Bernardone's son, in Thompson's view, broke with the inheritance he would assume and sought the protection of clergy symbolically and practically by an impractical life led as a lay penitent, in a time when such affiliation might lead the fervent Christian to be regarded with suspicion by the clergy and by Rome.

André Vauchez' critical biography of the life and afterlife of St. Francis (Amazon US shorter and PopMatters longer reviews) covers the same material. Like that scholarly study, this academic but accessible companion book came out last autumn, before the election of Pope Francis I, and is reissued with a quick preface to commemorate the coincidence. But while Prof. Vauchez emphasizes the motley nature of the first followers of Francesco, and the fractious nature of the organization he had to lead, Fr. Thompson opts for a nuanced, if less detailed, account that features an overwhelmed, restless aspirant to a stripped-down life that like himself valued the action and the gesture over the word. Deeds mattered more, and what he preached did not add up to as much as how he meant his devotion. That is what moved ordinary people, noblemen, and even the Vatican to accept his driven, imperative, immediate desire to convert one's life to a radical dependence on manual labor, begging alms if necessary, and a disdain for rules that bound other religious men and women to convention.

Whether with Pietro or with the prelates who had to deal with headstrong Francis of Assisi, Thompson lets us view this man from society's perspectives too. He has a penchant for self-dramatization, and his relationship with his father gets some balance here compared to the usual slant; likewise his mission begins not with his staged renunciation of his inheritance before the bishop of his home city, but later among the lepers, and this too is more gradual than sudden, in Thompson's careful chronology. He did not pursue any clandestine romance with Clare, and Thompson shows far less contact over the years as well as initially with her than popular depictions lead us to imagine.

Rather than opposing the Church, this vehement reformer is very much eager to find papal patronage and eventually the sponsorship of a highly placed cardinal to run his Order a runaway success that Francis never appears to have envisioned for what were a few dropouts from the clergy, along with scattered folks across society. The bold distinction, played up by Vauchez but barely noticed by Thompson, is the choice to give up wealth and not to live off of alms, at least in the original intent of the peripatetic, come-what-may attitude of the few "brothers of poverty." He later begs to be commanded by those he appoints as his own superiors, so eager is he to enact obedience. No bureaucrat, by 1220 Francis seeks early retirement and, one senses, would like to run to the woods.

While nature itself is not pantheistic, while Francis did not deny himself or the friars meat, and while he saw this denial as needlessly promoting a false piety reminiscent of the monastic habit, Francis did respect the natural order and its creatures as manifestations of an unforced, innate spiritual presence. His extremism and his humor, his wit and his intransigence combine in this straightforward telling into a "spiritual bricolage" which demands that those who want to live with and as Francis did: this must enter into a less coherent realm where meaning does not carry the same force as action on behalf of the Eucharist and the suffering Christ. Certainly the stigmata (as protruding skin wounds in the form of nails) in all its mystery lurks here.

The Passion drove Francis to weep; one gets from these pages a man carried away by his emotion, ever since the years after his military service, and one moving between periods of darkness and intervals of ecstasy. He never meant to be a leader, he resembled at his start a "pious hanger-on" around ramshackle ecclesiastical establishments, and his unprepossessing and gawky short stature failed to carry the gravitas that apparently his sincerity did: even the Sultan in Egypt respected him.

Yet, respect by the movement Francis started as a fraternity of lay penitents living precariously by manual labor in a run-down stable, soon grew by his charism into a massive Order, organized under Cardinal Hugolino's asked-for guidance into a more monastic, and clericalized, institution. Thompson regards those lamenting this shift as romantics, and he explains how the various rules, exhortations, canticles, and testaments attributed to Francis integrate themes of penitence, fear of hell, discipline, and compromises with poverty as lepers and the poor needed to be cared for with funds. Like the allowance of meat for friars, such adjustments from a radical foundation to a Catholic organization carried with them inevitable acceptance of a less-idealized imperative to deal with real-world suffering. Compassion was often lacking in Francis. His irritability belies the popular depiction of a preacher to birds and beasts, and Thompson calmly documents the difficulties, physical and psychological, that plagued Francis as he sought retirement from running the Order and by 1223, turned into a power behind those whom he had urged to take over administratively the tasks of supervising thousands of friars. Priests began to enter and take over the Order, blurring its distinction.

What mattered most was deeds, not bureaucracy or poses. "For Francis, Catholicity was about things and actions, not just about ideas. His greatest fear, as he lay on his sickbed, was that those who came after him would replace his homely piety with the pride of intellectualized abstractions and assumption of religious status." Manual labor gave way to begging as a way to keep the Order running; priests and clerics might study as a form of work, and the lay community envisioned by Francis ca. 1209 by the early 1220s appears to have been subsumed into the Church, attesting to the draw the Order had for priests and students attracted to its fresh experiment. Francis lived long enough to lament and fear the diminution of his expanding Order into this institutionalization, but in a time when lay movements were suspected for heresy, there doesn't seem much of an alternative.

This is a scholarly book, with a large bibliography and a steady, unruffled sense of this subject's power. Thompson ends his biography neatly, to show how Elias, who ran the Order, managed to set up in the Assisi basilica in 1230 a series of concrete tombs designed to safeguard the rapidly canonized saint from rival Perugia--the same city that Francesco had fought against on the side of his hometown once. Before he died, he approached the state of a living relic, and his appeal--although a subject for Vauchez rather than Thompson--attests to his sway in piety and popular culture ever since.
(Amazon US 7-20-13)

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