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Posted June 22, 2004

Book: Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life
Author: Lawrence S. Cunningham
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 160

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Francis of Assisi is counted among the most important personalities of history. The life and ideals of this humble, semiliterate medieval monk have had a shaping influence on the Christian church that has spilled over into Western culture at large. This biography by Lawrence Cunningham looks anew at Francis’ life and legacy, seeking to counter efforts to romanticize him yet without diminishing his deep piety or abiding significance.

Pursuing a realistic view of the saint, Cunningham argues against common stereotypes that sentimentalize Frances as a “blesser of animals,” as a “church rebel,” or as a precursor of the “spirituality” movement. According to Cunningham, really seeing Francis requires the lens of a quaint spirituality so often used. Francis was a devotedly orthodox Catholic whose life must be understood as a response to reforming elements abroad in the church of his day. Francis’s originality derived from his success in articulating the “ideal gospel life”: his message and actions were a kind of “acting out” of the scriptures.

Imbued with peerless scholarship, this book is also charmingly written. Cunningham is a master storyteller as well as a brilliant biographer — qualities that his Francis of Assisi fully displays. It will at once inform and delight anyone interested in the fascinating life of Francis or his impact on church history.

An Excerpt from the Book:

“They live according to the form of the primitive church . . .During the day they go into the cities and villages giving themselves over to the active life in order to gain others; at night, however, they return to their hermitage or solitary places to devote themselves to contemplation. The women dwell together near the city in various hospices, accepting nothing, but living by the work of their hands. They are grieved, indeed troubled, by the fact that they are honored by both clergy and laity more than they would wish.”

There are a number of highly interesting things to note in that brief paragraph. First, De Vitry [who wrote it] explicitly notes that their “form” of life is that of the primitive church — a “form” that had been sought after by reforming elements going back at least to the papacy of Gregory VII. Second, the Lesser Brothers are said to combine the twin activities of action (during the day) and contemplation (during the night), so that the old distinction between the active and the contemplative is now replaced by the so-called “mixed life” (vita mixta) that became more prominent in this period. Jacques de Vitry also notes that the women “accepted nothing,” which, of course, means that they resisted the older monastic paradigm of receiving endowments or dowries or vested properties, preferring to work by their hands (we know, for example, that needlework and spinning were frequent occupations) or, although the letter does not say it explicitly, to receive alms. De Vitry’s description points to the fact that the drew upon a vocabulary that has been current for some time before the advent of Francis.

Nonetheless, Jacques de Vitry understood that what this movement was doing was something quite new. He was well acquainted with the Beguines in the north who worked out a way for women to live in small urban communities without formally entering religious life. He devoted a chapter to the Franciscans in his great work on the Latin Church (Historia Occidentalis). In Chapter 32 of that book he said that up to this time in the life of the church there were three religious orders: monks, hermits, and canons. In our time, he said, the Lord lifted up a fourth order, or, to be more precise, renewed something that had been the form of the primitive church of the Acts of the Apostles; his textbook case for this new way was the movement started by Brother Francis, “a simple, uneducated man beloved by God and man.” Jacques de Vitry goes on to single out certain innovative characteristics of this new movement. He records that the Lesser Brothers are free of any property either in the form of monastery complexes and churches or sources of income like vineyards or domestic animals or fields. He goes on to note that the Lesser Brothers invite men from both the lower orders and “high born nobles” to dispossess themselves, which, he says, they do by girding themselves with a rope around a cheap tunic with a hood.

The idea of freedom from class distinction is, according to the Historia Occidentalis, one reason for their expansive growth. He says that the only men excluded from their order are those who are married and those who have made a promise (a vow?) to join another religious order. The growth of the movement was undeniable since, as De Vitry notes, there is “scarcely a kingdom in Christendom” that does not have a representative number of these brothers.

Table of Contents:

1. Beginnings at Assisi

2. Francis and his companions

3. Rome and beyond Rome

4. Francis and the Rule(s) of the Lesser Brothers

5. The stigmata of Saint Francis

6. Saint Francis and the love of creation

7. The final years

8. Francis reconsidered

9. A reading essay

Appendix: The Prayer of Saint Francis

Make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is discord, union,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is error, truth,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is sadness, joy,
Where there is darkness, light,
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.