In Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Dominican friar Augustine Thompson has set out to offer a biography of St. Francis free of the mythological encrustations that inevitably latch onto figures of Francis’ spiritual stature. When I first read that this was Thompson’s stated purpose, I grew very cautious. This is not because I do not agree with a myth-free Francis. On the contrary, I am very much in favor of such because (a) I believe we ultimately do a disservice to our heroes when we romaticize them and (b) because the undeniably historical aspects of Francis’ life are in and of themselves so astounding that they should render the desire for attractive glosses undesireable anyway (and, of course, such glosses are always inappropriate, if still understandable). No, my concern was that Thompson’s modus operandiwould be a cover under which he would apply extreme skepticism and reductionism to the life of the beloved Francis.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Thompson is no unjust skeptic. In fact, I believe he has produced one of the stronger Francis biographies out today. His approach is sober but respectful. While he does not allow sacred and beloved myths about Francis to go unchallenged, neither does he lapse into mere incredulity just because a particular instance in Francis’ life seems surprising or even unlikely. Case in point would be Thompson’s handling of Francis’ alleged stigmata. His approach is respectful, if cautious. Ultimately, he finds no reason for doubting that something very odd and very physical happened to Francis, and he dismisses skeptics who dismiss the stigmata simply because they find the idea offputting.
Thompson tells Francis’ basic biography very well. He handles the wider political and ecclesiastical realities surrounding Francis adeptly and in a helpful manner. I felt that Thompson really shined in his examination of the innder dynamics of the growing Franciscan movement. Furthermore, I feel like I learned a good bit about the awkwardness surrounding Francis’ desire to be a “lesser brother” to his fellow monks. He wanted to be subservient, but, in practice, this proved very difficult given Francis’ stature as the founder of the movement.
Thompson has presented a very human portrait of Francis, and I enjoyed it very much. I believe he achieved his goal of historical accuracy. However, he clearly respects his subject and never lapsed into crass dismissiveness simply because many of the events surrounding Francis’ life were remarkable.
After all, Francis was a remarkable man…though Francis, no doubt, would respond, “No, but I have a remarkable God.”
And, of course, he would be right.