Any study of St. Francis must include a close reading of Bonaventure’s classic The Life of St. Francis. That being said, this biography, written in 1260, will present the modern believer with a number of challenges. Foremost among them is the almost uncritical acceptance on Bonaventure’s part of seemingly any and every miraculous tale concerning Francis. Do not get me wrong. I detest the modern and patronizing attitude that dismisses the stories of ancient writers as fairy tales on the basis of some sort of ancient naivete or inability to be discerning. I suspect that older writers were more discerning than we give them credit for. But one gets the feeling when reading Bonaventure’s work that he is making an apologetic for the sainthood of Francis by lumping together story after story and trying to overwhelm the reader with awe.
Of course, it is unfair to expect older biographies to be written in the vain of modern biographies, but one hoping to find the historical Francis will be challenged by the hagiographic feel of some of this work.
That being said, it is a profoundly beautiful book that will help you appreciate the life of St. Francis. Even the most skeptical reading of Francis cannot help but find in the saint a life that was startling in its devotion to Christ and awe inspiring in its example of humility. Bonaventure’s classic work will help you see just how startling this life was.
I could have done without Donna Tartt’s Foreword, to tell the truth. “He is wholly uninterested in the outer trappings of dogma and ritual; what matter to him is inner devotion, the life of the heart.” Please. How, then, to explain Francis’ strident Trinitarianism, his great respect for priests and their office, his presentation of himself to the pope for his blessings, his high view of eucharistic worship, etc. This kind of thing smacks of revisionism, an attempt to cast Francis in the light of a free-thinking beatnik without a care for the church institutional. To be sure, Francis’ life was a living and prophetic corrective and challenge to empty institutionalism, but make no mistake that Francis was a medieval Roman Catholic in his convictions.
“Indeed Francis,” she writes, “is very reminiscent of some of the great Buddhist saints and Boddhisatvas, but he is also probably the closest thing we have to a bhakti or a sufi in the Western tradition.” Umm, ok, except that had Francis met any of the great Buddhist saints, bhaktis, or sufis he would have immediately called on them to repent and convert to Christianity. It is so very hard to make a liberal American of Francis, no?
But I digress. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis should be on the short list of great devotional classics that will inspire us towards greater Christ-likeness. You will occasionally feel frustrated at Bonaventure’s own medieval Roman Catholicism, and at the occasional feeling that this is an apologetic calling for (at points) suspended belief, but, in all, you will come to love the colorful and shocking figure of Francis and, I believe, Francis’ Savior even more.
Just skip the Foreword.