Andrew McCARTHY, Francis of Assisi as Artist of the Spiritual Life: An Object Relations Theory Perspective. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010. pp. 274. $39.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-7618-5250-6.
Reviewed by Stephen PARKER, Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA 23464

This appears to be the publication of McCarthy’s dissertation from the Catholic University of America. McCarthy sets as his task to illuminate the imagination of Francis of Assisi through the use of an object relational lens, a very exciting and worthwhile project. Early on McCarthy concedes the slipperiness of imagination and the arguments over whether it can even be described (e.g., is it a faculty one possesses or not; if yes, then what type of faculty it might be). He concludes that the best one can do is describe imagination rather than define it. He describes it as “the mental process that enables us to regard reality, ourselves, and God in such ways that invite or repel response, action and connection” (p. 2).

McCarthy spends the opening chapter circumscribing his study and its purpose. One gets the briefest of introductions to Francis and to his childhood from the record of Thomas of Celano, evidently the first to write a biography of Francis (p. 4). There is then a chapter that takes up the history of and various models of the imagination (e.g., classical theories from Plato and Aristotle, Augustine’s thoughts on memory and imagination, popular and religious influences on imagination during medieval times, including courtly romance and biblical apocalyptic and its imagery). An extended section on the imagination in two approximate contemporaries with Francis seemed extraneous to McCarthy’s purpose. This chapter is followed by one devoted to more contemporary theories of the imagination (e.g., Kant, David Tracy) that introduces important categories for understanding the work of the imagination (e.g., relation formation; mediator of time, potential, and transcendence; shaper of meaning) that will thread through the remainder of the book.

The real heart of McCarthy’s book begins in chapter four with his review of an object relations perspective on the imagination drawn primarily from the work of Donald Winnicott. Winnicott, a seminal figure in the object relations movement in Britain, offers McCarthy a theory for understanding how the imagination arises in the earliest interactions between a mother and her infant. Together they create an “intermediate area” or “transitional space” where creative imaginings can flourish. Such experiences illuminate the creative, meaning-making, relationship forming origins of imagination. Chapter five continues McCarthy’s outline of object relations theory by looking at those who have expanded Winnicott’s theory especially to the realms of religious experience and imagination. These chapters are models of lucid, helpful summary of complex material.

McCarthy then turns his attention to illustrating Francis’ imaginative nature as evident in his various writings. Three chapters are devoted to showing how Francis' writings reveal the relationship forming and meaning making functions of Francis’ imagination along with its ability to mediate time, potential, and transcendence. A brief concluding summary closes the book.

McCarthy has set an exciting and ambitious task to offer an object relations perspective on Francis’ imagination. His actual achievement falls short of this goal. Given the developmental nature of object relations theory one anticipates that McCarthy will take the reader through as thorough an understanding as might be had of Francis early childhood and relationships to help frame the factors that shaped his imagination. What one gets instead is the most cursory attention to Francis’ formative years and a treatment of his adult writings (that are supposed to illustrate his imagination) whose concordance with this developmental history is little explored. The presentation of imagination in Francis’ writing is more an extended illustration of McCarthy’s pre-determined categories than an object relations perspective as such. Although the use of Francis’ writings to illustrate McCarthy’s concepts of mediation, relation and meaning formation is helpful in what they do, this approach does little to illumine the developmental origins of Francis’ imagination as one might anticipate from the stated title and purpose. Those looking for illustrative material on images and creative comments in Francis’ writings will benefit from this book. However, those looking for an extended analysis and understanding of how Francis’ early object relations (and representations) influenced his imagination will be disappointed.

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