A saint for our times

Everybody knows St. Francis of Assisi, right?

He’s the “plastic saint on the birdbath,” as his biographer, the Rev. Augustine Thompson, O.P.,  puts it; the hippie eco-feminist in love with God’s creation, blessing the animals especially on his feast day (Oct. 4); the mystic who divinely received the stigmata – the five wounds of Jesus — and just as divinely set out to found what became the Franciscan Order. Right?

Well, sort of. Perhaps more than any other saint, Francis lies at the intersection of myth and reality, our ideals and our shortcomings. In “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” (Cornell University Press, $29.95, 299 pages), medievalist Thompson, nurtured in Hastings-on-Hudson, separates the historical wheat from the tabloid-y chaff.

Gone is “The Prayer of St. Francis,” which Christians and non-Christians alike know from the opening line, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” sung to the music of Anglican composer Sebastian Temple. The “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” is actually a French prayer that first appeared around 1912 when it was published in the spiritual magazine “La Clochette” and therefore couldn’t have been written by the 12th-century saint.

What didn’t make it into Thompson’s book, he says, were the English-language origins of the prayer, which date from the ordination card of a Boston priest who would become Francis Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York.  Thompson thinks the cardinal’s first name helped to cement the association of the prayer with St. Francis.

As for the Wolf of Gubbio – forget about it.

“The problem with a lot of so-called myths and legends about Francis is not that they are untrue but that they come so late,” Thompson says. “Maybe he did tame a wolf in Gubbio. But the story is not recorded until 150 years after his death.”

Applying the exacting standards of the true historian, Thompson decided that anything that was not written down within 40 years of Francis’ death – which occurred on Oct. 3, 1226, when he was about 45 – would not be grist for the biographical mill.

Ironically, when you sift the life from the legends, you’re often left with a better story, truth being stranger than fiction.

The Francis who emerges from Thompson’s work – fiercely devout, compassionate, courageous, impatient, exhibitonistic, charismatic, disorganized and ultimately mysterious and transcendent – is a far more intriguing guy than the sentimentalist of Hollywood mythologizing.

Says Thompson: “He is a man for modern times.”

Brother sun

Even Francis’ name is not necessarily what we think. His baptismal name may have been Giovanni di Bernardone, with the nickname Francesco, or “Frenchy,” reflecting his well-to-do family’s commercial links to France. Plus, Francis, who spoke French, liked a good French song. He liked a good time. Indeed, he was the type of guy our TMZ culture would readily recognize – the stylish man about town, that town being the terraced city of Assisi in central Italy.

The history of Italy is the history of strife within and between regions. When he was 22, Francis was part of a militia that fought against Perugia, where he became a prisoner of war for at least a year. The horrors of battle and imprisonment left him sick in body and in mind with what we would describe as the effects of post traumatic stress disorder, although Thompson cautions against reading a modern diagnosis into a medieval man.

The war led to a crisis of conscience that forced Francis to turn inward. Gone was the soldier of fortune, the fashionable party boy. Indigent, penitent and performing manual labor, Francis traded social class for a different kind of class, one in which his natural courtesy deepened into a compassion for everything and everyone – the lepers who had once repulsed him, the larks who were his favorites among the animals he communed with.

While this compassion was rooted in his belief in Jesus, it extended to non-Christians, too, as Thompson demonstrates in Francis’ courageous, respectful encounter with Malik al-Kamil, sultan of Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade. By then, Francis had attracted a band of brothers who marked the beginnings of what would become the Franciscan Order. But that group – which lived by the Franciscan principles of taking up Jesus’ cross and giving all to the poor – would evolve slowly, in part because Francis was a leader rather than a manager and administrator, a man who found it easier to belong to all than to one or a few

“The Francis I discovered often doesn’t know what God wants,” Thompson says. “He’s not a patient patient when he’s sick. He’s frustrated. He’s much more human….”

An imperfect man

Thompson’s road to Francis was just as long. He grew up in Hastings, the descendent of a family that had lived in that area since before the Civil War. After attending Hastings public schools, he went on to Johns Hopkins University, which he didn’t like. (“Everyone wanted to be a doctor.”) The University of California at Berkeley was more to his taste. And it was there in that supposed bastion of liberalism that Thompson – a history buff who had been thinking about religion – found God, or rather, himself in God.

“Berkeley has everything from monarchists to Maoists. It’s an incredibly diverse place. There were all these graduate students who went to Mass. It shook me.”

Thompson spent almost a quarter of a century as a professor of religious studies and history at secular institutions – the University of Oregon, the University of Virginia. (Today he is professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.)

It was at UVA that he settled on Francis as a biographical subject – as opposed to Francis’ contemporary, St. Dominic, the founder of Thompson’s order – because he believed there wasn’t a good Francis bio that synthesized all the sources.

“He was not a saint that attracted me much,” Thompson admits. “Now he’s one of my heroes.”

And that’s because “Francis shows that holiness is possible for imperfect people.”

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