- Francis of Assisi: The Life by Augustine Thompson, O.P.
Very few medieval saints have received the attention of quite so many biographers as has Francis of Assisi. The first biographies appeared shortly after his death in 1226, and its successors have continued unabated right up to the present. Each generation has been able to find itself in the life of the Poor Man of Assisi, and each generation looks to find answers in him and his teaching. Thompson, a member of the Dominican order, has done a very good job of outlining the life of Francis. He has cautiously selected those events that can be demonstrated as likely to have occurred, while mentioning the more legendary in passing. Unlike others, Thompson has sought to paint a picture of the man wrestling with his own internal demons, confronting the society in which he lived, and seeking God in all that surrounded him.
As is widely known, Francis, son of Pietro di Bernardone, a well-to-do cloth merchant in Assisi, had a comfortable childhood. He may have been given the name Giovanni, but from his early childhood people called him Francesco, the equivalent of “Frenchy,” probably because his father had business ties which took him to France. The critical part of the biography, for Thompson, was Francis’s service as a member of the Assisi militia in a disastrous war on nearby Perugia. Many of his friends were killed in battle, and he was captured and imprisoned for a year. Upon his release, he was a changed man. The once extroverted, fun-loving youth became a silent, brooding man. His deep depression lasted eighteen months. The picture painted by Thompson is ever so much one of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the horrors of war.
Thompson then describes in great detail how Francis rejected his family, more than anything their wealth. He at first sought peace for himself by retreating from society to live as a hermit in a nearby church, San Damiano, but eventually fled the confines of the city of Assisi and lived in the wilderness, where he gained a small band of followers. Finally he and his brothers in misery gained the right to live and work in a rundown chapel in the fields below Assisi, known as the Porziuncula, or Santa Maria degli Angeli. For Francis, having followers was a heavy burden. He was struggling to keep himself sane and healthy but at the same time he wrestled continually with the obligation of having to care for the men who sought him out. He finally sought ecclesiastical recognition for his group of men, with no initial intention of organizing a formal religious order. He had intended a looser association, more like a confraternity. But the Pope eventually recognized Francis and his followers as an order, with Francis as their leader. Although Francis had never actively sought holy orders, and was uncomfortable even in the role of leader, he found himself a deacon. Thompson’s work then describes the growth of the order and how Francis grew into leadership, always uncomfortable with the role.
This is a very good account of the life of Francis. It was originally published as the first volume of a much larger work by Thompson that considers both the wealth of sources on Francis and the innumerable debates that surround his biography. The central figure [End Page 379] of Francis, as noted above, seems to suffer from PTSD. He is incapable of handling large crowds, needs isolation, and deprives himself of any creature comfort. Yet it was in this way that he was able to deal with the trauma that had scarred his psyche and work out his own mental health—within the social and religious context of the times in which he lived. He was resolute as far as his own person was concerned but had difficulty explaining his personal ethos to others. Thus, he was greatly troubled by the order that grew up around him...