- The Admonitions of St. Francis: Sources and Meanings by Robert J. Karris, OFM
One might assume that reviewing the revised edition of a book published in 1999 would be a simple task, but it is not, even if we avoid immersing ourselves in an examination of whether a revised issue was justified. (It was.) The real question is whether in producing it Karris gives us something worth reading, something that makes us see the Admonitions as worth reading.
The short answer is yes, certainly. Karris’s commentary on each admonition proceeds by presenting parallels. In speaking of “parallels” rather than “sources” Karris, following New Testament scholar Daniel J. Harrington, recognizes that apparent similarities may result, not from direct borrowing, but from a common cultural milieu. These similarities primarily provide us with information, not necessarily about who was reading whom, but about what was “in the air” at the time. In Francis’ case that approach offers us the advantage of being able to delineate similarities without having to deal immediately with the question of what sort of intellectual formation Francis brought to the Admonitions. The word “immediately” is important here. We still have to deal with the problem at some stage. If we assume as Karris does that Francis delivered the Admonitions at general chapter meetings relatively late in his life (probabably between 1220 and 1226) and in their present condition they are the work of a redactor, that leaves us with room for several different possibilities.
In any case, Karris’s success in producing parallels is impressive. We are presented with the sense of Francis as very much himself, but also a part of his time. And Karris, as an accomplished New Testament scholar, is able to go one step farther. As he reads Francis, the words of the New Testament are echoing in his mind much as they were echoing in Francis’s mind. Karris can conjure up verbatim much of what Francis was probably hearing subliminally. [End Page 331]
All of this adds up to a historically sophisticated reading of Francis. In fact, Karris is aware that on some topics Francis himself could be expected to display a degree of sophistication. Admonition three, in which Francis confronts the problem of how to react when a superior orders something one knows to be wrong, is germane here. In discussing the parallels for this one, Karris comments on Francis‘s evocation of a dog returning to his vomit: “I am doubtful that the reference to a return ‘to the vomit’ . . . comes directly from 2 Peter 2:22, who, for his part, borrowed it from Proverbs 26.11. It seems more plausible to me that this scriptural reference came to Francis prepackaged in the monastic tradition.” Karris then cites the Cistercian Abbot Godfrey of Clairvaux, the much earlier Rule of the Master, and, if you follow Karris into an extensive footnote, Bernard of Clairvaux.
If Karris provides a sophisticated reading, that is largely because he provides a close reading. Remaining with Admonition three, we find him observing, “Francis turns canon lawyer to formulate verse 5 and does so in the casuistry of conditional sentences. He will follow with two more ‘if’ sentences in verses 6–7. More important, perhaps, than Francis’s formulation of case law itself is the rationale he gives in verses 6 and 9 for his case law. Finally, I draw my readers’ attention to verse 10 where Francis gives a negative twist to the example he uses in verse 5. Thus, there is more structure in verses 5–11 than a quick look might discern.”
It hardly calls for the services of a psychiatrist to explain why a reviewer who has spent his life studying the spiritual Franciscans would devote this much space to Admonition three. Other readers will find their own favorites. Karris is a consistently good companion for this sort of intellectual journey.
Each admonition closes with a section entitled “Reflection and Question.” Karris’s reflections are just that, and I found them valuable. He gives himself more latitude on the...