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  • In the Workshop of a Theologian The Life of Our Blessed Father Francis by Thomas of Celano
  • Timothy J. Johnson (bio)

At the outset I would like to note how much I enjoyed working with Jacques, Sean, and Solanus on this year-long project. This session today is the culmination of our combined efforts, and with Wayne – my longstanding mentor and friend – here everything has come full circle. Indeed, I am honored today to present a paper on The Rediscovered Life. As we have already heard, Jacques’ research indicates this vita was authored sometime between 1232-1239. This date alone may be sufficient to assign hermeneutical priority to The Rediscovered Life when discussing the question of Franciscan theory and praxis in the 1230s. Such a claim is confirmed, however, not simply by chronology, but by the author’s intent, liturgical application, and striking theological content. For our session today, I consider The Rediscovered Life as an intentional theological text expressive of a Franciscan worldview of the 1230s. In particular, I will focus on the performative aspect of liturgy and poverty as both embodied and embedded.

Methodological Considerations

My second favorite French scholar, Michel de Certeau, states in The Writing of History, “theology is always invested in hagiography.” It is not a surprise then that the sophistication of Thomas’ works suggests that he may have studied theology somewhere in Italy, in addition to the liberal arts. Nevertheless, a historical-theological category for Thomas’s hagiographical project is not readily apparent to me. Many of us are familiar with the valuable proposal of Bernard McGinn, whereby we can define and analyze selected texts as expressions of monastic, scholastic, and vernacular theologies.

This framework has assisted those in the area of Franciscan studies who have moved beyond scholastic authors like Bonaventure, to reevaluate Francis, Clare, and Angela of Foligno as theologians. Other authors, however, elude this tripartite systematization. I first encountered this [End Page 249] aporia when examining the theme of wisdom in Roger Bacon. While scholars may consider this English Franciscan a philosopher, his interdisciplinary genre is not an expression of monastic, scholastic, or vernacular theology. Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, numerous works of Bacon clearly display what German theologians call Fundamentaltheologie.

Thomas’ theological project, like that of Roger Bacon, rests outside the aforementioned tripartite classification. Here I arrive in a methodological cul-de-sac. Instead of forcing Thomas’ hagiographical corpus into existing historical-theological categories or develop new ones, I turn to another French scholar, Jean-Yves Lacoste, who employs the term “theological thinking” in his monograph, From Theology to Theological Thinking. A religious philosopher in the phenomenological tradition, Lacoste offers a way of preceding. He explores how religious communities birth theologies that define, articulate, and promote unique ways of thinking initially grounded in specific lived situations. Emerging from a sustained reflection on praxis, authors in a communal context articulate a theological worldview that further informs, forms, and reforms communities. This thinking is characterized by rereading and rewriting. With Lacoste, “We will simply assume that the theologian wants to live in the school of the saints, though of course he is in their school all the while pursuing a conceptual work.”

Taking my cue from Lacoste, I argue that from the very beginning, The Rediscovered Life opens a unique window on the “theological thinking” of Francis’ canonical hagiographer in the decade after the Poverello’s death and canonization. When addressing brother Elias in the prologue, Thomas acknowledges a widespread desire for a text more succinct than his earlier Life of Saint Francis (1228-1229). Thomas, with a finely crafted captatio benevolentiae, lauds Elias as the unique individual, who, more than any other person, was well-versed in the intimate secrets of Francis’ heart and intentions for his brothers. Thomas now offers a revised and – as we have discovered today – in some cases a new account of Francis. He assures Elias that this new work follows the “belief and tenor of history” as it “holds everywhere to the line of truth”. (n. 1)1 The operative word here for Thomas as a theologian is truth, understood not only as historical veracity, but as the salvific truth of divine revelation unveiled in...


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