What Don't You Like About Francis of Assisi

I recently decide to start a systematic reading of the primary sources on the life of St. Francis.  To guide me, I picked up a copy of a workbook by Br. William Hugo, OFM Cap, Studying the Life of Francis of Assisi, A Beginner’s WorkbookI don’t think I’m a beginner since I’ve read everything Francis himself wrote and large chunks of the early biographies (albeit piecemeal), but I have thought about using this book for Franciscan formation, so I decided to check it out.

Early in the book the author poses his first assignment:

Take some time to answer the question for yourself:  What don’t you like about Francis of Assisi?

He motivates this question as follows:

Francis of Assisi was a human being.  There have to be things about him that we don’t like or turn us off….[This] question is designed to invite students to say something negative about Francis….Why are such negative recognitions important?  Because Francis of Assisi is a canonized saint of the Roman Church!  Too often, people want to put saints on a pedestal level with God….If we want to meet the historical Francis, we have to meet his limitations.  If we don’t, we will preoccupy ourselves with something that is not human and of doubtful help in our own lives…Aside from the unhelpfulness of the perfect model, it simply isn’t an historical portrayal of Francis or any human being.  When we can say something negative about Francis, we have broken through a mental barrier, which allows us to be as objective and honest as we possibly can.

On the one hand, I can definitely understand what he is trying to accomplish:  the simplistic hagiography that surrounds St. Francis is both shallow and distorting:  it turns him from a saint of God into what I like to call the “bird bath St. Francis”:  warm, fuzzy and completely non-threatening to our worldly way of life.  Any serious discussion of the life of Francis based on primary sources is going to require students to move beyond this understanding, and it could very well confront them with things that make them uncomfortable, and may in fact actively dislike.

It is also clear that the author is trying to introduce the historical-critical method without using those words.  The book is intended for a general audience, so maybe it is worth avoiding the technical vocabulary which will only have to be explained anyway.  And while part of me is dubious about any “quest for the historical Francis”  (or “the Franciscan Question” as it is called in the literature) in the same way that I am somewhat skeptical about the quest for the historical Jesus,  I understand that any careful analysis of the sources will require readers to take the bad with the good:  the texts say what they say about Francis, and not what we want them to say.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I find myself honestly unable to answer the question.  Part of me wants to hide behind my own familiarity with historical and literary criticism:  I can give myself distance by asking whether I dislike Francis himself or rather dislike the interpretation of him given by whatever source I am reading.  Or I can say (with apologies to Nietzsche) that I am beyond liking and disliking Francis:  my goal is simply to try to understand this complex figure in the context of a society that is both very much like and very different from my own.

But I am honest enough with myself to ask if this is not just a clever way of avoiding the question.  If I refocus the question on more recent figures, including recent saints, I am quite able to answer the question.  Pope St. Pius X made great contributions to eucharistic devotion and laid the groundwork for many positive changes in the 20th century.  But I do not like his crusade against modernism, which stunted Catholic scholarship and made Vatican II’s engagement with the modern world that much more difficult.   Similarly, I am willing to criticize John Paul II for his failure to respond to the sexual abuse crisis, and for his inability to engage with liberation theology at its pastoral roots.

With Francis, however, I continue to be unable to come up with anything.   It is not a lack of familiarity with his life, work and thought:  as I said, I have read a lot about them.  So is it a bad thing that I can find nothing negative to say?

What do you think?  Is there something you dislike about Francis?  Is there some other way that the question might be phrased?

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  • Sacerdotus

    Dear David,

    I have read Hugo’s book and I found it a great way to study Francis. When I first heard the question, I wanted to say that I don’t like the way Francis treated his parents. I always found that to be a bit much. Maybe the reality is different from the record we have, but maybe not.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Could you expand on this? One reason I ask is that some years ago I read a biography of St. John Neumann in which the biographer wrote quite approvingly of the fact that the young JN left home early in the morning without saying goodbye to his parents (when he had the reasonable expectation of never seeing them again). I was quite put off by the way the biographer made such a big deal out of this, when I thought it was not a good way to treat his parents.

      But again, I have never thought this in connection with Francis, even though humiliating your father in front of the whole town really ranks right up there!

  • A Sinner

    If the story about him rolling in the rose-bush to quash a movement of lust is true…I’ll say I don’t like this. As you say, who knows if it is historical or not, but it seems to be part of the hagiographical trend of extreme (and neurotic/unhealthy) physical self-mortification and fear of sexuality that nowadays is a turn-off to find in the stories of the Saints. Not as bad as, say, Rose of Lima, but still.

    I’m also sure that if I, as a modern, met the man, a medieval, he would have had all sorts of strangely rigid attitudes and eccentricities which are simply par for the course with holy-men. I read Gandhi’s autobiography and found him insufferable in this regard, and I have heard similar things about Mother Theresa too. Admittedly, I have no particular evidence for Francis, but given the world he lived in and the charisma he apparently had…well, usually charisma follows a pattern, and usually it involves an irritating stubbornness that comes through when you start to get to know them well enough.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Someone I read once commented that saints are very hard to live with because they are far too sure of both themselves and of God.

      About the story of the rose bush, while I am not sure I would recommend that, or throwing yourself into a snow bank (the medieval equivalent of a cold shower?), I like the fact that it acknowledges that Francis was a sexual being. A lot of 19th century hagiography reduces saints to asexual plaster cut outs.

  • http://gravatar.com/dismasdolben dismasdolben

    I think that Francis of Assisi could be quite a “disturbing” figure IF his life were ever told both in the context of his own times, as well as in contrast with modern religious values: like Jesus, he seems to have had absolutely no use for “traditional family life”; his devotion to “Lady Poverty” confounds the “abundance gospel” of modern-day Protestants; he was polite to and respectful of Muslims, but absolutely determined to convert them; he believe in the devotional efficacy of fasting and self-flagellation; and, finally, he had no compunctions about being naked in public in order to “naked, follow the naked Christ.” He is a saint whose spirit is extremely “counter” to modern-day culture, and is only so much venerated, in my opinion, because Catholics of majority-Protestant societies do not understand him.

  • http://saintlysages.wordpress.com SaintlySages

    The Poverello’s life was extraordinary; but so was the grace he received to live it. Most of us are not given the grace, the charism, to live such radical poverty. My favorite bio of the Poverello is the one by Johannes Jorgensen. Pax et Bonum!

  • http://evanescat.wordpress.com jordanstfrancis

    I think St. Francis is so popular today in the same way the Jesus of Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong is popular. If anything could sum him up (in the popular imagination) it is that he “preaches the Gospel without words”. In otherwords, he shuts up and lets everybody do what they want, so far as they do not reside in the highest echelons and most gilded halls of privlige (in otherwords, the way the majority perceive themselves). Anything radical he did was done to underscore this “gospel value” of being quiet and letting be.

    Though I wonder if the popular image or utility of a Saint was not really always a card board cut out– a pocket card to palm in times of dire need quite irrespective of what that man or woman did or said. They could be the “patron” of some use or cause, like a minor deity. Today, with Francis, he seems to be someone one can pray to without violating one’s liberal conscience.

    I think if the majority of people really looked into the lives of the Saints, they would probably be disturbed or, at best, find they have almost nothing in common with them.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      “Though I wonder if the popular image or utility of a Saint was not really always a card board cut out– a pocket card to palm in times of dire need quite irrespective of what that man or woman did or said. They could be the “patron” of some use or cause, like a minor deity.”

      This statement is incredibly accurate and is actually quite true, historically.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I always find myself disturbed by the life of Francis, because I always feel diffident and half-hearted in response to God’s grace when I compare myself to him.

      • Kimberley

        Absolutely agree. I think most Catholics are uncomfortable around those who give up everything and follow Christ. We are uncomfortable around those who live their faith 24×7. Instead we are content to live our faith in one hour Sunday morning and maybe grace at home (can’t do it in a restaurant, nope too uncomfortable too showy). We are uncomfortable around those who give full assent to all of the church’s teachings. Instead we are content to dissent publicly on faith and morals, consider the church’s arguments as not intellectual enough or state that our contrary position is too complicated to explain and still we think we are faithful Catholics. We are uncomfortable around those that evangelize and believe that telling someone that they are living a sinful life is an act of love. We are uncomfortable around those that try desperately avoid personal sin. We are uncomfortable around those that embrace a form of poverty such as the Catholic worker as too socialistic.

        Personally I think most Catholics would be uncomfortable around the rich man who went away sad.

  • Melody

    It isn’t a negative or bad thing, but I remember one story that made me sad. I think I read it in GK Chesterton’s “St Francis of Assisi”. It was about how he felt so lonely at one point that he made figures out of snow and said they were his family. It is entirely probable that this is one of those legends that had little or no basis in fact. But it serves to underline the fact that his embrace of Lady Poverty came at a tremendous cost, and not necessarily of material things. It also had a cost of human relationships, both family relationships and particular friendships. He was surrounded by those he called his brothers, but none that he could really call his own.
    Some people think it’s cheesy, but I have always loved the Zeffirelli movie, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree about Zeffirelli: best recruiting film for the Secular Franciscans ever!

  • http://gravatar.com/rwatson79 elizabeth00

    I think a better phrase might be: what were his blindspots or limitations? You can’t always blame or dislike someone for these: sometimes they’re culpable – a refusal to acknowledge or really consider evidence (as might have been the case with JPII) – and sometimes not – an inability to transcend one’s culture.

    I’ve been reading Rudolph Bell’s ‘Holy Anorexia’ recently, with its assessment of Clare’s relation to Francis. He had the right to command her to eat, but the reverse was not the case. She remained enclosed: he chose when to visit – an arrangement the Strict Clares, at least according to RB – later disputed, insisting that the men were obligated to visit and serve their needs. He summarizes, “Thus even Saint Francis, quite properly known for his gentle ways and concern for the weak, qualities considered feminine and nurturing by his culture, could not transcend the male-dominant role in his relationship with Clare. If their caloric intake/body-weight ratios had been identical, still she would have been the anorexic and he not. He too severely damaged his health with his self-punishing asceticism, but there was no one to order him to eat, and a whole world in which to express his drive for autonomy. For Clare and her sisters there was Francis to guide them, a male prelacy to order them, and finally only their own bodies to conquer.” Definitely a blindspot, but expecting him to transcend the male-dominant role altogether seems unreasonable, given his culture.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “I think a better phrase might be: what were his blindspots or limitations? You can’t always blame or dislike someone for these: sometimes they’re culpable – a refusal to acknowledge or really consider evidence (as might have been the case with JPII) – and sometimes not – an inability to transcend one’s culture.”

      Thank you: I like this a lot. I guess this is part and parcel with understanding him as an inhabitant of 13th century Italy. Your comments about Francis and Clare are really apropo to this. As much as he transcended gender roles, he (and Clare) were constrained by them as well.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    I find that I don’t know enough about St. Francis to dislike him, but I think that the question shows how the way that Catholics think about saints has changed drastically over the centuries. A few years ago, I read The Stripping of the Altars, which described the way that the English practiced religion before and after the Reformation. In his description of the cult of saints, he describes that it didn’t really matter to the medieval men and women that the saints were basically virgin martyrs. The saints, he explained, were not so much models for behavior and holiness as much as channels for divine power. In fact, the more bizarre and other worldly the saints seemed, the better! That meant their intersession would be even more efficacious.

    Nowadays, we have not only a different understanding of what a saint should do, as well as a different understanding of holiness. We want saints to prove as examples for our lives, hence the clamoring for married people to be canonized as saints. There is also a different understanding of holiness now. Many popular writers talk about holiness as basically self-actualization, becoming who God wants you to be. It’s a Jungian, Maslowian understanding of life and holiness (which does not mean that it is wrong.)

    I think if we’re going to understand the saints of the medieval world (such as St. Catherine of Sienna) we have to think of them more as the devotes of Shiva in India. The saints certainly have far more in common with them than they do with modern people seeking self-actualization.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      In this regard, one of the recommended articles from this book is Roberto Paciocco, “Miracles and Canonized Sanctity in the ‘First Life of Francis'”, Greyfriars Review 5, 1991.

      The author is discussing the first life of Celano in the context of changes in the way in which the Papacy (and by extension the institutional church) viewed the role of miracles and personal sanctity in the the canonization process. This period saw a marked shift in canonization proceedings away from miracles performed during a saint’s lifetime. Instead the emphasis was on stories of personal holiness and sanctity during life; miracles after death were then seen as providing divine approbation for the heroic virtues the saint had manifested during his/her life. Of course, in the popular imagination, much emphasis remained on miracle working.

      In the modern day, my sense is that this dichotomy was strongly present in the cause for the canonization of Padre Pio, with the popular cultus focusing on the miraculous, while the Institutional Church tried to build a case based on his personal holiness.

    • Jordan

      re: emmasrandomthoughts [July 4, 2013 11:32 am]: n his description of the cult of saints, he describes that it didn’t really matter to the medieval men and women that the saints were basically virgin martyrs. The saints, he explained, were not so much models for behavior and holiness as much as channels for divine power

      This is a facinating point, Emma. I’ve often wondered why Thomas Cranmer displayed an extreme aversion to the late medieval cult of saints. From the way you have explained it, the English Reformation corrected the heterodox notion of saints as “Christian bodhisattvas” in the Mahayana sense, as gods which directly influence the direction of the temporal world. Debatably, Cranmer severely pared down the sanctoral calendar, but so did the Tridentine reforms.

      I have some qualms about St. Francis of Assisi’s role as a Christian ecumenical saint. The current-day general Protestant understanding of St. Francis as a role model is not necessarily heterodox with respect to Catholic theology. However, this viewpoint doesn’t capture the richness of the role of saints in the Mass. The saints are intrinsic members of the company of heaven. Their intercession is integral to the reality of the Mass as the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice for the living and the dead. The removal of St. Francis from the eschatological reality almost cariactures him as a medieval social worker. I understand that Protestant theology cannot accept the Mass. Still, as Catholics, no saint can be understood without the Mass.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I would also note that painting Francis as an “ecumenical saint” requires Protestants to overlook Francis’ strong and self-conscious Catholic identity. As the Earlier Rule put it:

        “All the brothers must be Catholics, [and] live and speak in a Catholic manner. 2. But if any of them has strayed from the Catholic faith and life, in word or in deed, and has not amended his ways, he should be completely expelled from our fraternity.”

        • Jordan

          emmasrandomthoughts [July 5, 2013 10:10 am]: He [Thomas More] was complaining that men who were cured thanks to the saint’s intersession were showing their gratitude to the saints by bringing little models of male genitalia to church and laying them before the statue of the saint. [my addition]

          The practice you describe was also quite common in Hellenistic-Roman antiquity. The healed devotees of a particular god or goddess would likewise place a clay model of the formerly afflicted body part within the god/ess’s temple. It’s not improbable that the medieval practice was merely a continuation of pre-Christian practices in Roman Britain.

          The practice of offering clay figurines as a thanksgiving offering is similar to modern era Catholic practices, such as the displays of crutches in the nave of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. Both practices speak of a tangible form of worship which has, in the post/modern age, been eclipsed to a great degree by the written word in public liturgy and private devotion.

          The rise of greater literacy after the printing press has not squelched the desire for physical representations of intention and prayer. Perhaps St. Francis appeals to many because of latter-day representations of him as a “touching saint”, a saint within the sensory change of the world rather than within the controlled environment of a contemplative cloister.

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          Jordan has a good point, and I was thinking about that as I was writing my post, that the practices of offering objects in thanksgiving for prayer has not died in the modern world. I’ve seen this at a shrine not far from where I live, people leaving objects such as crutches in thanksgiving. Usually they’ll hang rosaries or medals on a saint to thank them for their prayers. I’ve done similar things myself. I’ve just never left representations of male genitalia. I don’t know how Catholics today would react to that. I suppose there’s only one way to find out…

          But for what it’s worth, there’s nothing essentially unchristian or un-catholic about the practice of leaving something at a shrine to thank God and the saint. It just represents a more ancient way of looking at saints, the channel of divine power as opposed to the model for holiness. Perhaps the prayer “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come down,” is far more in keeping with the way that ancient and medieval Christians looked at saints, certainly the ordinary, run of the mill Christians.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            I have been in various shrines in Italy and have seen small silver medals shaped like hearts, arms, legs, etc. These were all left in Thanksgiving for prayers answered for ailments of the represented parts. The Italians, I think, would understand a small medallion of male genitalia.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        There was some degree of “Christian Bodhisattva” in the medieval cult of the saints, and at times it was incredibly entertaining. In The Stripping of the Altars, there is a part where St. Thomas More was complaining about devotion to a particular saint. He was essentially the patron saint of men suffering from impotence and sexual difficulties, He was complaining that men who were cured thanks to the saint’s intersession were showing their gratitude to the saints by bringing little models of male genitalia to church and laying them before the statue of the saint. (It was somewhat common in medieval Britain to bring models of body parts that were cured by a saint to the saint’s statue.)

        Church was a lot more interesting in the medieval world.

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          “He was compalinging” means St. Thomas More was complaining.

    • http://gravatar.com/rwatson79 elizabeth00

      Duffy’s arguments fit quite neatly with Charles Taylor’s there. The concern over personhood or self didn’t have much grip before that sixteenth century turning point – people were more like fields or channels for non-human influences, angelic or demonic, at least so CT argues. I think that shifted in the sixteenth century to an anxiety over role-playing and sincerity – the role versus the real person, if you like. I find that quite a helpful way to think about St Francis, in fact. Whatever he was as a person, he is also the Poverello, and the mystique of the role he plays – however it was rooted in his personal actions and conflicts – has the benefit of helping me to see, or disclosing, certain things about myself in relation to God. The fact that there was a tension at all, and must be with all the saints to some degree, also points to something I’d think of as axiomatic – that person and role are identical in Christ. Both failure and success in matching them can function as a sign.

      I really liked your comment about contemporary takes on holiness as self-actualization, particularly Maslow’s needs hierarchy. It made me see the San Damiano crucifix a bit differently. Earlier ones portrayed Christ as regal or kingly, later ones as suffering and isolated. But in the Franciscan one, he is both needy and having his needs met. He has friends, family, even something to drink. (Though it has to be said this is the vinegar on a stick: this kind of reading involves Christ as an interpretational/transformational figure – he can, in the end translate or transform what he receives into something that does meet his needs, but in the meantime they are not). On this crucifix, he is among human beings, and given relational space to be himself. I wonder if Pope Francis was driving at something to do with this the other day when he resolved the moment of abandonment into one of glory’s revelation.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        That’s a really intriguing interpretation of the San Damiano crucifix. I’ll have to go back and take another look at it.

        I’ll also have to check out Charles Taylor’s writings, they sound really interesting. In a way, it makes me think about the priest differently in terms of acting in the place of Christ. In the middle ages, if people were seen less as individuals and more as channels, then the idea of a man serving in the role of Christ would not seem difficult at all to grasp.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    I also wonder if it is easier for you to forgive the faults of St. Francis of Assisi over the faults of St. Pius X and Bl. Pope John Paul II is because we do not feel the impact of his errors.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

    This is a fantastic discussion, with much food for thought. I don’t have a lot to add, except that Francis’s extreme asceticism (which he seems to have repented of late in life) have always been a problem for me. Of course, for reasons much to complex to to into here, I’ve always had a deep ambivalence to my body and the material world, being a sort of closet Gnostic; and I’ve tried to view the earthier elements in Catholicism as a cure for that. The ascetic and the worldly (not in the negative sense of that word) have always been held in a certain tension in Catholicism, and it can be hard to navigate.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    In light of the comment about “Holy Anorexia” above, I wonder how much this had to do with Francis feeling the need to be in control of something?

  • http://gravatar.com/rwatson79 elizabeth00

    David: one of the strengths of the book is an epilogue by a (then) practicing clinical psychologist, William Davis, commenting on the relevance of Bell’s historical study for contemporary forms of treatment. Bell concludes that – particularly in the pre-Reformation period – women’s fasting was very much about the need for control/autonomy. Lack of power in the public domain meant that women focused on the conquering the body. In some cases eg. Catherine of Siena, the result was public influence. In others – Clare, Veronica Giuliani – the women basically recovered but in doing so successfully established a sense of direct and unmediated connection to God, ie. became able to bypass the male, hierarchical attempts to control them.

    One of Davis’ best observations is drawn from Carol Gilligan’s work. He questions whether it was really all about autonomy, agreeing that it is an important element but not the whole story. He suggests that the point of the asceticism might be the need for interpersonal connection and affiliative relationship, not for power as such. Something like this seems to have been going on with Simone Weil, who understood her anorexia as form of solidarity with others.

    I think Davis’ point is quite helpful for looking at saints like Francis or Philip Neri – the motivation for ascetic practices can change over time, and what starts as control might end (through a process of working through the psychological aspects of it – pride/humility traditionally understood) as an exercise in making connections, a kind of mapping of the individual body to the needs of other bodies/the Mystical Body. This seems to have been the case for Philip – I don’t know much about Francis, though.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks! I like this idea of evolving motivations/understanding of fasting. It makes sense in a lot of ways.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      That is really informative. Thanks for the info!