André VAUCHEZ. Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint. Translated from French by Michael F. Cusato, OFM. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. 398. $22.00 pb, $35.00 cloth. ISBN 978-0-300-17894-4. Reviewed by Winifred WHELAN, St. Bonaventure University emerita, St Bonaventure NY 14778
The first part of the book explores the life of the real human Francis of the middle ages, a man caught up in the history and politics of his time. Rather than meeting a "saintly" super-human mystic and miracle worker, the book draws a picture of what life was like for the Poor Man of Assisi, what he actually did, why he did it, and what the reactions were from the people who knew him. They were a group of twelve when Francis received approval from Innocent III in 1210, but by 1215, there were three hundred. There were one thousand at a chapter in 1218, and three thousand in 1222 at the Chapter of Mats. These were joyful reunions and occasions to experience the companionship of Francis. Not everything is known about Francis, but the author combs every source he can find to discern the actual story.
One example of the author’s effort to reveal the actual happenings is his account of Francis’ meeting with the leper. It seems that this meeting was the turning point in his life, and something that led up to his "turnabout," as the author terms his conversion. There is no mention in Francis’ Testament of an embrace of the leper. This was a later interpretation of the hagiographer in an effort to portray Francis as a mystic. Rather, the sight of the leper had the effect on Francis as "a mirror of his own condition of sin." Most later biographers do not emphasize this very important incident. They instead dwell on the experience of the crucifix at San Damiano. There were many groups at the time with the same sensibilities as Francis. This part of the book deftly relates how Francis’ younger traits such as his generosity with friends and his singing carried over into his later mindset.
In the second part of the book, the author tells how, almost immediately after his death, Francis was transformed into a mystic and an ascetic. By the time of St. Bonaventure’s Legenda maior, only fifteen or twenty years later, Francis was no longer a man who wandered about the streets preaching and asking for food in exchange for work. The leper was not a real, diseased person, but a spirit who disappeared immediately after Francis supposedly embraced him. The religious order also made vast changes after Francis’ death. Francis had wanted his group of men to include illiterate as well as the educated, lay as well as cleric, and the poor as well as the rich. Instead, the order became clericalized. Brother Elias, a lay brother who had been appointed by Francis himself, was ousted in favor of a cleric and an intellectual. Francis had wanted to be buried at the Portiuncula where he had begun his religious life. Instead the church built a basilica for his remains. These changes were due to many factors, one of which was that Rome as well as the local church wanted to have a "saint" in Assisi. Francis had insisted that the brothers not own anything, but as the numbers grew and expanded into colder climates, they found it necessary to have proper places to stay, a reliable source of food, and clothes for colder weather.
Part three relates images and myths of Francis of Assisi from the middle ages to today. After Francis’ death in 1226 many hagiographical writings began to appear with two general orientations. The first group wanted to preserve the ideal of the "minority" as Francis lived it, the second group viewed Francis, and by implication themselves, as reformers of Christianity. This second group believed that they could carry on the spirit of Francis by creating an effective institution for this purpose. As these two orientations clashed, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, minister general from 1257 almost until his death in 1274, decided that a new life of Francis was needed, and ordered that all previous versions were to be destroyed. One of the main images that prevailed during this time was that Francis’ life paralleled that of Christ. This identification served to break the connection between the true, historical image of Francis and the order as it had now evolved. Poverty, as Francis envisioned it became a spiritual ideal as opposed to the actual reality. The most important part of the parallel of Christ and Francis was the stigmatization, which was not at all something that Francis himself would have wanted to be remembered by. What brought Francis back into the realm of the human was a book by Paul Sabatier in 1893-1894. Sabatier believed that he had found a very early document that portrayed Francis as a totally free spirit, a friend of animals, an enthusiastic poet, a troubador of genius, a precursor of later social revolutions, and even of the Protestant Reformation. Many debates followed this interpretation, but they served to inspire more historically-based research on the Poverello.
The fourth and last part of the book treats the originality of Francis and his charism. Here the author quite thoroughly explains in what way Francis was an initiator of a new spirit in the Church. First, for Francis, God was a presence tied to expressions of physicality and the senses, "perceptible only through concrete, palpable manifestations: nature, parchment leaves on which his name is written, churches of stone where the Eucharist is celebrated, the bread and wine that are the tangible signs of his incarnation and infinite love for the human race." Second, Francis’ approach to the scriptures was simple and direct. They were a call to take up and continue the life of Christ. One of his greatest fears was that his brothers would get so involved with intellectual activities that they would forget about the poor, that they would begin to follow the letter of the law, rather than the spirit. Third, Francis’ thought of creation as a positive reality. Monastic spirituality tended to withdraw from the world. Francis "plunges himself into it without prejudice or ulterior motive because, . . . it is legitimate for one to enjoy [creatures] on the condition that their enjoyment be referred to the One who has given such things to us for our good." Fourth, Francis was not unaware of corruption in the Church, and yet at the same time he saw it as a concrete connection between the faithful and the grace of God. He "believes in the Church and shows obedience to the clergy, but he calls the priesthood back to the reason for its existence: its sacramental function." The hierarchy at the time saw the mendicant orders as assisting them in saving the Church from heresy. Francis did not think of himself as out to reform the Church, he wanted to convert people to the Gospel message.
Fifth, Francis always remained a layman at heart. He is representative of a new kind of Christian that appeared at the end of the twelfth century. These were penitents, beguines, brothers and sisters who volunteered to serve the poor. Francis did not want the brothers to have any fixed settlement, so as to have contact with people as much as possible. He wanted to demonstrate a new type of relationship between human beings, one of peace and conversion. He was one of the first "religious laymen." Sixth, Francis used the Latin language as a vernacular, as a rough patois. His Canticle of Brother Sun was probably one of the first religious songs to use this language for a religious purpose, and it enabled people to express their piety in their everyday way of speaking.
There is much more to this fine, thoroughly researched book. There is a real sense of satisfaction in reading a reliable, historical account of something which has been previously known only vaguely and as story. Just as with Jesus, as more is known of the history, culture and politics of his time, there is a deeper and fuller appreciation of what he did and why, so also here, with André Vauchez’ Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, the reader is overcome with this same sense of a filling-in, so to speak, of the gaps in what we already know about the Poor Man of Assisi. We are grateful to Father Michael Cusato for what must have been a very painstaking, careful translation.