Thursday, June 14, 2012

Francis of Assisi review

Years ago my parents gave me a biography of Francis of Assisi, called "Reluctant Saint", by Donald Spoto.   A few months ago I reread it.  It is a really well-done biography, accounting Francis's fascinating life that took him from carefree rich kid antics to absolute self-deprivation.  Aside from the life itself, the book includes great contextual information about the historical period Francis lived in.  There are good discussions of medieval life, of heresies like the Cathars, and of the general politico-religious situation.  There is also a fair amount of background theology to clarify key points of Francis's beliefs.  Given the relative paucity of information about Francis's life, the author engages in a lot of speculation and reasoning out of things to fill in details about the saint.  For example, the author speculates that accounts of Francis's profligate youth might be exaggerations by hagiographers to contrast against his later austere life.  Likewise Spoto's thoughts on Francis's stigmata analyze various alternate explanations of how the saint might have come by the markings on his body.  The book has no footnotes, but there are extensive notes at end.

"Reluctant Saint" is by no means a hagiography, but its viewpoint is unabashedly Catholic and theological. That is to say that the biography is not some secular clinicalization of faith, but rather analyzes many of the traits of Francis's life and times on their own medieval Catholic terms.

When I first read the book about ten years ago, I marveled at many aspects of Francis's theology, and aspired to lead a life in some ways like his.  My self-imposed ascetic austerity almost lost me my friends and then-girlfriend, and in my first trip to Haiti the Franciscan nun that took care of the residence I lived in called me "Francis of Assisi" for my disheveled looks and austerity. 

On this second reading I was less wowed.  Francis of Assisi practiced a very self-centered theology.  He denied his material and emotional needs as a way of drawing closer to the crucified Christ.  He wanted to share in Christ's suffering and the suffering of the poor and sick, but never thought about changing society to lessen the suffering of others.  I appreciate his thoughts on the ennobling aspect of suffering, and I believe that suffering is a necessary and even good part of life and the world, but I can't stop there and tacitly accept the horrid suffering of the oppressed, the poor, the ill, the abandoned.  I feel that by not fighting for change, I am siding in some way with the evildoers who cause that suffering, even if I share in the suffering of others.  If Francis were alive today, he would probably receive the same criticisms that were sometimes leveled at Mother Teresa: that her solidarity with the poor takes the form of living in squalor with them and even objectifying them for her own mortification, as opposed to working to change the lot of the poor.

So nowadays, if I had to choose a Catholic religious order with whom I am closest philosophically, it would no longer be the Franciscans (of whom incidentally there are many sub-orders with distinct charisms) but the Jesuits.  The Jesuits do not have as much of an explicit ethic of sharing in the lifestyle and suffering of the poor, but they seem to practice solidarity by fighting injustice and suffering alongside the poor.  Certainly here in Colombia, some of the most progressive voices and the vanguard of work against war and inequality and poverty are coming from the Jesuits.

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