No saint has been the subject of more hagiography than Francis of Assisi, and no founder has had his or her legacy more determined by biographers. Unlike Benedict, Francis did not convince his followers, if he convinced himself, that a written rule transcends the personality of the founder. Close to his death, he wrote a last Testament exhorting his brothers to obey the Rule of 1223 “without gloss” even while suggesting that his final precepts and exhortations constituted just such a gloss. Unlike Ignatius of Loyola, who shrewdly prepared an autobiography to frame the boundaries of interpretation, Francis did not exert preemptive control over his own story. His contemporaries were acutely aware of the problem.
Within weeks of Francis’ death in 1226, Pope Gregory IX ordered Thomas of Celano to write a biography supplying evidence for canonization. Celano’s work, completed in 1228, is magnificent. No medieval hagiographer better satisfied the need for historical “facts” and for hagiographical “types” (David, Elijah, Antony the Hermit). But Celano, who had the advantage of knowing the founder and several of the original companions, was not satisfied that he had the story quite right. Alternative legends and collections were produced inside and outside the Order. The biographical battles had begun. Thomas of Celano felt it necessary to write not only another biography but also a collection of miracle stories which, for all practical purposes, constituted yet a third.
Soon, every faction in the Order had its own legenda. In 1260, Bonaventure was commissioned to write the “official” biography. For good measure, he ended up writing not one but two. Desperate to control the ever burgeoning industry of Franciscan hagiography and to install the Bonaventurian legend as canonical, the General Chapter of Pisa ordered in 1263 that “all the legends of the Blessed Francis that have been made should be removed.” The brothers were told to track down and remove material even in libraries outside the Order. It was a futile policy. Today, for example, the most widely read “early” Franciscan material is the Fioretti, the “Little Flowers of St. Francis.” These stories were collected at least a century after Francis’ death, and consist of precisely the kind of literature that the Chapter of Pisa wished to intercept.
Seven hundred years later, two things remain constant: first, the primacy of Francis’ life, and second, the futility of trying to produce a canonical version of that life.
In Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, Donald Spoto claims to make “recent research” on Francis available to the “general reader who is not a specialist.” The reader is promised the real Francis, out of the “bird bath,” liberated from sentimental pieties and official–sounding apologetics. There is hardly anything new in this approach, which has been the standard biographical mode for Francis since the late nineteenth century. The only new information is the author’s suggestion that the stigmata were leprous lesions, neither externally imprinted (as Bonaventure contended), nor internally produced as a result of Francis’ identification with the crucified Christ (as some contemporary scholars, such as Chiara Frugoni, contend). For Spoto, we should be satisfied with the idea that the stigmata were the corporeal sign of Francis’ solidarity with the lepers. In God’s Fool (1983), Julien Green deftly treats the problem of the stigmata in a mere three pages, pointing out that whatever we want to learn beyond the testimony of Francis’ beloved disciple and companion, Brother Leo, who was with the saint at Mount La Verna, is “God’s secret.”
Despite re–mythologizing the stigmata along the lines of social justice, Spoto is no religious skeptic. He gives a serious account of Francis’ religious conversion, his Christocentric spirituality, and, above all, his profound and disturbing self–emptying at the end of his life. Francis’ biographers have always emphasized what can only be called the “grand gesture”: Francis divesting himself of his clothes and renouncing his father in the bishop’s court; his adventures as a vagabond in the valleys of Umbria, preaching to the birds and negotiating a contract between a wolf and the town of Gubbio; and his trip to Egypt to convert the heathen, challenging the Sultan to a trial by fire. Spoto, however, will not let the reader be distracted from Francis’ ongoing conversion, especially during the dark crucible of the last six years, which seemed to be “a long struggle with futility.” Ruined physically by blindness, malaria, cancers, and leprosy, and unable to govern his own Order, which was already breaking into factions, Francis’ spiritual mettle was truly tested. Earlier, he had told his brothers that God “wanted me to be a new kind of fool in this world.” At the end, Francis was anything but a carefree troubadour.
I have two complaints about the book. First, Spoto takes the sting out of the poverty issue. From the time Francis presented himself in the court of Innocent III in 1209, to the ratification of his Rule in 1223, everyone understood that the renunciation of communal property and dominion was the most distinctive aspect of Francis’ “religious” way of life. It was in this that he broke decisively not only with the inherited feudal character of the monastic tradition, but also with the emerging culture of commerce and bourgeois civilization. Spoto correctly notes that in that time radical poverty expressed discontent with the affluence of monks and clergy, and, in the case of the Cathars, a Manichean–like rejection of the created, corporeal world. He wishes to rescue Francis from such a rejection of the flesh, and so he tends to interpret the poverello in the direction of poverty of spirit. But in so doing, he never brings into view Francis’ material poverty and its importance for what used to be called “contempt” of the world. It is true that Francis had little appetite for strict regulation, but he never hesitated to command material and communal poverty. His brothers were forbidden even to touch money.
Spoto is well within the mainstream of Catholic thinking today, with its emphasis upon “right use” and “poverty of spirit,” but it won’t work for Francis. Material and communal poverty was the very thing to which he wanted to give “religious” form. For Francis, the ancient theme of the vir apostolicus, the apostolic man or type, was not merely going about “doing good” and “preaching” as Spoto would have it. Francis took literally Jesus’ command to the disciples to take neither gold nor silver, to carry no purse or sack, bread or staff (Matthew 10). Whatever we make of Francis’ exegesis of this and other passages of Scripture, one thing is certain. He did not regard material, communal poverty as an instrumental value, something that merely facilitates preaching and renders easier a true poverty of spirit. Rather, he believed that such poverty somehow enters into the very thing preached. It was a dangerous and seemingly impracticable position then, and is almost incomprehensible today. The remarkable thing is that during his brief lifetime Francis managed to convince two popes and one future pope, Gregory IX, of the virtue of this idea.
Second, if Spoto gives us a less than radical Francis on the question of poverty, we do get a Francis on the margins of institutional power and respectability. Spoto imposes a familiar modern “type” on the story. The authenticity of a life is disclosed precisely in its differentiation, if not alienation, from power and institutional authority. For Spoto, Francis inaugurates an alternative to the “centralized, legalistic, politicized, militarized Roman system.” Benedictine monasticism is characterized pejoratively as the “primacy of authority over love.” Jesus’ call to his disciples “was not religious—it was resoundingly secular.” While the reader is warned about the “general untrustworthiness” of Bonaventure’s “official” life of Francis, the film director Federico Fellini is praised for being “suffused with a deeply Franciscan sensibility.” Even with respect to his own fraternity, Spoto only allows Francis to be a “so–called founder.” So much for the Order of Friars Minor, though this, too, is a long–standing theme in literature about Francis. These dualisms—love and power, service and control, lay and clerical, to mention only a few that recur in the book—are far too easy. Moreover, they evoke in the reader the prejudice that the life of the “spirit” begins where “official” institutions end.
It is a powerful way to tell Francis’ story, but not always correct at the level of historical fact. For example, when Francis abruptly departed from Egypt in the winter of 1219/1220, Spoto has him returning because of anxiety about Roman “control” of his fraternity. In fact, he rushed home because his own brothers were changing what was then the unwritten Rule. Francis appealed to Roman authority to help subdue the innovators. Few medieval saints had such powerful and sympathetic patrons in Rome as did Francis. He charmed them from the beginning, and relied on their support in moments of crisis.
Other points are half–truths. In his actual writings, Francis used the terms “clerical” and “lay” to mean literate and illiterate. His original intention was to admit illiterates as full–fledged brothers. This does not imply that he wished to found a “lay” community, which is to say, a community not under “religious” vows. Although Spoto is correct that Francis dropped the traditional language of superiors as abbots and priors in favor of the more egalitarian “ministers” and “custodians,” the new Order was exceedingly hierarchical and centralized. The Rule of 1223 begins: “Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to our Lord Pope Honorius and his successors canonically elected and to the Roman Church. Let the other brothers be bound to obey Francis and his successors.”
The brothers were thus incorporated through the head, who pledged his obedience to the Apostolic See. Not even the abbot of Cluny, with nearly a thousand dependent monasteries, could command such an uncomplicated title and line of authority. Francis was less than pleased with some parts of the 1223 Rule, but he entirely approved of its hierarchical structure. Whereas Spoto seems to think they are opposites, the 1223 Rule is a case study in the symbiosis of centralization and egalitarianism. Once “religious” conceived of themselves more as brothers rather than as sons (or daughters), religious life became amenable to the tools and attitudes of centralization—to what, in a general sense, we would call “modern” polity. As the Franciscan scholar Cajetan Esser has pointed out, Francis himself wrote more about authority than poverty.
Spoto imposes a modern type on the story of a late–medieval soul. We should be surprised if it were otherwise. But he gives us only one aspect of that “type,” namely the drama of life–affirming suffering threatened with defeat at the hands of law and institutions. The other aspects, including the ambition to create a new order among brothers, and Francis’ curious but unwavering reliance upon law and international authority to create such an order, are not given their due.
Russell Hittinger holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.