St. Francis, My Father, and Me

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I don’t normally write anything heart-warming, but last Thursday, the day my weekly Patheos column was due, I found myself pressed for time. So I wrote about how my devoutly Freudian father became enamored of St. Francis of Assisi, and how that infatuation infected me. Most people venerate St. Francis for his love of the poor, or for his death-defying attempt to bring the Fourth Crusade to a peaceful conclusion. Me, I’ll always think of him as the patron of incredibly difficult parent-child relationships.

My father and I had our problems, as you’ll see. But we were Ben and Little Joe Cartwright compared with the Bernardones:

“Hey!” he shouted, in a tone that might have sounded imperious on a construction site. “That’s our orange juice.” The possessive pronoun referred to himself and his wife.

Such a small thing to begrudge, I thought, slamming the glass down on the kitchen counter. Enraged as much by the offense against his glass as anything else, he grabbed me by the shirt and dogged me into the next room. We grappled and cursed, and the next thing I knew, I’d laid him out flat with a right cross and a right uppercut.

I am horrified to say I was not horrified. I am now, as I tell the story; but at the time, and for many years afterward, all I felt was triumph. Those were the first real punches I’d ever thrown, and I’d scored a knockout. The young George Foreman could have done no better. I remember leaping over his body on the way to the door, relieved that I’d never have to deal with him again.

In a perverse way, it was my St. Francis moment.

Except, it wasn’t. By who knows what quirk of nature, my father could tolerate a violent son more than Pietro di Bernardone could tolerate a generous one. And he proved most generous in his own right with the one resource Pietro guarded most jealously. With my GED, I squeaked into a third-rate college; my father paid my way. When, after dropping out of grad school forced me into a series of minimum-wage jobs, my father sent me $500 per month. Thanks to him, I never had more than a nodding acquaintance with Lady Poverty.

Upon my reception into the Church, I did choose a St. Francis as a patron, but not that one. Figuring everyone and his bird would turn toward God’s Troubadour, I opted instead for Francis de Sales, patron of writers and near-double for Shakespeare. With his lifelong man-crush on William F. Buckley, Jr., my father might have liked the fact that Geneva’s absentee bishop was a regular swell, who, had he discerned a different vocation, would have inherited the title of Baron de Choisy. Still, I think he’d have found Introduction to the Devout Life a little tame. He was a Freudian, after all. He liked life on the edge.

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