I was asked recently by a very good friend for a recommendation for a book on St. Francis of Assisi. As I lived 27 years with the friars, one would think that a series of books would roll off my tongue like an assembly line. Unfortunately the bibliographical history of Francis is a fascinating tale in itself; the first biography was written by Francis himself, his “Last Testament” written shortly before his death. Recent scholars see even in Francis’ own words a bit of revisionist history, and there are few historical personages whose biographies have been called upon to support the weight of conflicting argument over a longer period of time.
To get a handle on Francis’ life, it is important to go into the project with several presuppositions. First, the actual historical data about the man Francis is incomplete and at times maddeningly imprecise. Secondly, objective historians have not, in my view, ever fully connected the biographical facts we do have with the charismatic impact of the man, then and later. Thirdly, it was and is difficult to separate the person of Francis from the order he established; in the medieval mind the “friars” were a gentle pastoral revolution of reform, significantly more holy and effective than the secular clergy. In some sense the reputation of Francis was enhanced by the work of his later followers.
Fourth, the appearance on the scene of two great founders and religious orders (Dominic’s order the other) is one of the half-dozen or so defining events of the Middle Ages; secular historians of the era have thus weighed in heavily on Francis and the friars from a wide range of interests—pacifism, university life, banking practices—where the Order had significant input by preaching and example. But most of all the Franciscans were rent by a major ideological rift whose seeds go back to the very burial of Francis, and each side portrayed a Francis to support its ideological position.
We might call the two sides the conventuals and the zealots. The majority of friars were comfortable making moderate accommodations to Francis’ Rule, allowing for permanent residences (or “convents”), libraries, and less severe austere living accommodations. Their intellectual spokesman was the Church Father St. Bonaventure. We are lucky that a man like Bonaventure held office when he did, being himself a holy friar and well connected in Rome. He wrote what many considered to be the first definitive biography of Francis. Regarding this biography, I wrote in a review in 2005 that
“A pivotal character at this juncture was St. Bonaventure, Minister General of the Order [1257-74] who subtly but permanently established much of what would be recognized today as typically Franciscan. Bonaventure sensed that the friars could not maintain Francis's standard--he had only to open his eyes to see that--but that even the "noble effort" was winning respect from the Catholic populace of Europe. Bonaventure advocated strong clerical identity. The typical friar would be priest, not a lay brother. Bonaventure commissioned an official biography of Francis to reinforce this mainstream vision. Whatever one thinks of Bonaventure, his emphasis upon pastoral ministry, education, and missionary work brought inestimable spiritual riches to the medieval Church.” (From a review of The History of the Franciscan Order, John Moorman.)
Even at the time of Francis’ death, however, a number of friars identified themselves as purists, or as they are known in history today, ‘The Spiritual Franciscans.” The most definitive work at this writing is David Burr’s The Spiritual Franciscans: from Protest to Persecution in the Century after Saint Francis. Spirituals argued for a more austere life. But their interpretations of Francis in their writings were marginal and eventually heretical. Spiritualist writing on Francis is apocalyptic, that the founder was a great prophet ushering in a “Third Age” or the age of the Holy Spirit. Spirituals denied that popes had the right to mitigate aspects of the Franciscan Rule and life; this led to their persecution and eradication by Pope John XXII.
Thus, in selection of a biography of St. Francis, it is good to remember that biographers to the present day bring a variety of agendas to the task (most recently, ecology and global warming.) The best recent biography I have read is Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson. This author devotes about half of the work to a narrative of Francis based on what is historically probable. The balance deals with the many early sources and their various critical strengths, shortcomings and agendas. The bibliography of primary and secondary sources is excellent. I found it intriguing and surprising. I have an Amazon review posted.
The best combination of history, analysis, spirituality, and even some whimsy and poetry is Francis of Assisi: a Revolutionary Life by Adrian House. I have a review posted at the Amazon site. I found the work generally free of egregious bias and an enjoyable read. It is probably a good introduction to Francis and his times, and the author does not run away from critical questions.
A good follow-up is the Moorman history of the Order. The Burr book on the Spirituals is specialized but extremely well written, and it too contains an outstanding bibliography of medieval Church life. I should note here that Amazon carries 1300 books under the heading of “Franciscan spirituality.”
I am away today giving a workshop on Sacraments for Catholic school teachers, catechists, and parish ministers in the Lakeland, Florida vicinity.
However, I am providing a link to a venerable institution of Catholic publishing, Commonweal Magazine. This week’s issue features several essays and reports on the current state of American seminaries. But please feel free to peruse the entire magazine as it is available on-line.
In your parishes you are probably awash with daily Lenten guides, reflections, and prayer books. However, if you are looking for a game changer, one book that might impact your thinking about Catholic faith, history, theology, and faith formation during this Lent, I looked through my library and found ten that have profoundly impacted my thinking over the past 25 years:
Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. (1986)
This remains the most balanced and well rounded biography of America’s most famous monk, tragically killed in 1968. Merton is the consummate paradigm of the struggling man of faith. On the one hand he is a man of deep faith, spiritual guide to millions through his books, committed to a rigorous monastic existence; yet he was profoundly human, proud, critical, at times weak, and in his later years racked with uncertainty about the society of the 1960’s and the place of the Church. Mott is the first author to have access to Merton’s diaries, which are now available in print to the public.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (2004)
If it is your determination to read the entire Old Testament cover to cover, begin with Alter’s translation and commentary found at the foot of each page. This work translates Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We begin to see the history and the great wealth of this literature aside from its uses in Christian Theology. (Format not suitable for Kindle.)
John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991) Volume I
Meier, a Catholic priest and scholar from Catholic University, is a brilliant scripture scholar of the modern school of “the quest for the historical Jesus.” In this first volume he establishes his methodology, introduces the reader to the inner workings of professional biblical science, and then explores the sources we currently have (primarily the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) for the infancy and early life of Jesus of Nazareth. The footnotes are rich, informative, and very literate. Volumes II and III are now complete. (Format not suitable for Kindle.)
Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (1995)
Don’t be frightened by the title. “Lectio Divina” translates to “divine reading” or the venerable tradition of daily study by monks. Casey has applied the humble spirit of “obedience to the text” to present day readers of the Scriptures, Fathers of the Church, and all works of spirituality and theological insight. This is a relatively brief work of 150-pages that hopefully will make your future religious studies more fruitful.
Robert Alter, The David Story: 1 & 2 Samuel (2000)
When I first read this biblical translation and commentary, I felt humbled by my failure to appreciate what great literature is to be found in the Hebrew Scripture. Alter provides a fine translation and a footnote/commentary base that finds just the right measure. But it is the original Chronicler who captures the reader; his or her rendition of the early kingship of Israel is a unified and literally compelling narrative that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the early Greek world. (This book is currently available on Amazon Prime 48-hour free home delivery, not suitable for Kindle.))
Francis Moloney, The Gospel of Mark (2002)
This work has many advantages: (1) it is, in my view, a fairly easy commentary to follow; (2) Mark is the “template,” the first Gospel from which other evangelists could pattern and expand; (3) Father Moloney introduces a new student to the theology or unique inspiration that drives an evangelist to reveal the Christ in a unified but distinctive way; (4) the author’s understanding of this Gospel is quite profound and intriguing. Mark’s is the true “cost of discipleship” Gospel, most fitting for reflective Lenten reading. The paperback edition is available on Amazon Prime.
Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Volume I (1998)
I reviewed this some years ago and I observed that the work was more “theological than inspirational.” However, I think of this work all the time, particularly Father Brown’s investigations into the Hebrew Scriptural influence upon the Gospel texts (the Gethsemane scene is highly colored by David’s agony a millennium before.) Again we have here a scholar who examines the four different accounts of the Passion and what each inspired Evangelist is attempting to convey in the stream of events. Another Amazon reviewer wrote that “the footnotes are better than some commentaries. I agree. Volume II is available. (This work is available on Amazon Prime. Not suitable for Kindle.)
Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2005)
Lent is a season to reflect upon sinfulness. There is plenty of sin here, but the more compelling aspect of this work is the complex matrix of sin—popes, rulers, soldiers, royalty all behaving badly, some from excesses of piety or genuine confusion, others from motives of greed, revenge, and the usual grab bag of military atrocities. This is a remarkable summary of the Church of the 1200’s and an insightful summary of why the Church blessed the Crusades in 1095 and stopped the eastern excursions in 1204 and turned west after what was easily the most bizarre of the four major crusades. It does not hurt that for a history book this is an excellent read. Paperback available on Amazon Prime.
If you have any questions with your Lenten readings from any sources, feel free to send me an email.
A one-word answer is inadequate, but if pressed for one, my answer would be yes. I would add a few qualifiers: (1) in judging any events in history, the culture, circumstances and motives of the major players must be taken into account, and (2) all major religions have succumbed to unspeakable violence at some point in their histories. Rather thin gruel, I’m afraid, but it will have to suffice.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of catechists and church ministers maintaining exceptional competence in understanding and explaining the Crusades, if for no other reason than the tendency of any critic of the Church to throw the Crusades and the Inquisition into the thick of the argument. To deny the Church’s culpability will destroy your reputation for both competence and honesty.
If you have the leisure, I strongly recommend the most highly respected British historian of the Crusades and the downfall of Constantinople, Sir Steven Runciman. His multi-volume treatise was written in the early 1950’s but was reissued by popular demand in the late 1980’s. Volume I covers the First Crusade; Volume II the Second, and the final crusades in Volume III.
If you wish to focus on one Crusade to begin (naturally the first), I recommend Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History (2004). This is an engrossing account of the epic military movement that began with Pope Urban’s cry, “God Wills It” in 1095 through the Sack of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. Of particular value is Asbridge’s opening essay on the multiple causes of the First Crusade (pp. 1-39), without which no understanding is truly possible. (See my review on the Amazon site, January 27, 2007)
It is also important to note that no two crusades were alike, and that the business and efficiency of crusading, so to speak, made great strides over the following century. Thus we come to the Fourth Crusade; a string of events that even today leads historians to shake their heads. I recommend here one of the most compelling historical “reads” of my adult life, Jonathan Phillips’ The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. (2004) Although its destination was the recovery of Jerusalem, this Crusade ended up going north instead of south and ravished the seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople. Phillips notes that in 2001 Pope John Paul II himself “issued an extraordinary statement—an apology to the Greek Orthodox Church for the terrible slaughter perpetrated by the Warriors of the Fourth Crusade.” I suspect that most Christians/Catholics know virtually nothing of the Fourth Crusade or of the Pope’s apology. But there it is: the Holy Father, himself an eminent scholar, had made the case that there was little to boast of in much of the Crusading history.
The worst strategy would be the eradication of this episode of our history from our collective ecclesiastical memories. The Crusades are a painful lesson that noble ends are never justified by outrageous deeds. Of necessity they must be taught—with all their doleful consequences—as standard catechetical fare. The truth may sicken, but it also sets one free.
(See my review of Phillips' book at its Amazon site, posted August 7, 2005)