Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Cornell University Press (2012), Hardcover, 312 pages, $25 from online retailers.
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Augustine Thompson’s biography is “new” in the obvious sense that it is the last in a long line of biographies of St Francis going back to Paul Sabatier’s 1893 Life. Thompson’s, however, is “new” also in that it aims to go back rigorously to historical sources. This approach is in line with other historians who recently have been sifting through historical records and chipping away at the pious accretions to produce a “plain package” St Francis.
William Hugo, for example, a Capuchin formation director produced in 1996 a “Beginner’s Workbook” Studying the Life of St Francis, which invites novices to evaluate the historicity of early writings. The Melbourne conference in 2009, out of which came Interpreting Francis and Clare of Assisi, was also historical in ambition, using a variety of academic approaches – documentary, art history and so on – to develop a more historical picture of the saints in their world.
These new studies are pushing out the older Lives of St Francis, which were either pious or interpretive: they sought either to show Francis as an exemplar of the Christian life, or they observe St Francis through a particular lens: Jacques Dalarun on Francis and power and Francis and the feminine, and Leonardo Boff on Francis and liberation offer these interpretive visions of Francis.
Augustine Thompson is a Dominican friar, and this gives him an “insider-outsider” perspective. On one hand, he knows what it is to be a friar in an Order with a charismatic founder. On the other hand, he has greater clarity of vision when he writes about Francis than do many Franciscans in their familiarity with their founder.
Fr Thompson tells a plain story of a man who had no agenda and who could articulate no particular vision for the movement that formed and swarmed around him. Thompson’s Francis simply wanted to live the Gospel. Even at the end of his life, Francis is still surprised, Thompson claims, that “the Lord gave me brothers”.
Even poverty, the Franciscan value that many believe to be the base of Francis’s vision, is held up to question by Thompson. There’s no doubt that poverty was a part of Francis’s vision, but Francis, as Thompson emphasises, mentions the Eucharist much more often than poverty. Francis’s devotion to churches and priests is because of the celebration of the Eucharist – all to be venerated because there God comes to earth in a perceptible form.
The central insight for me in this “new” biography was precisely Francis’s lack of a programme. Francis, at least in Thompson’s telling, was a man who simply wanted to live the Gospel, to be radically available for God. This, I suspect, is one of the main reasons for Francis’s ongoing attraction.
Thompson’s book also has its attractions. It is divided into two halves. In the first Thompson tells the story of Francis simply and without frills or academic apparatus of any kind. Then follow a helpful list of the major biographies of Francis since Sabatier’s and a bibliography of documents from the 12th Century. In the second half of the book, Thompson argues in detail why he has included some details and discarded others as non-historical. These chapters may be mainly for scholars: most of us, I suspect, will be glad to read the first half as a self-standing account of Francis’s life and be refreshed by it.