Francis: A Saint’s Way
Hodder, $29.95 hb, 180 pp
It wasn’t long before myths and legends grew up around the story of St Francis of Assisi. James Cowan is right to suggest that this process began before Francis died and that Francis himself allowed or willed it to happen. He may even have encouraged it: ‘Francis endeavoured to make a metaphor out of his own life.’
Many of these myths come close to suggesting that Francis was a kind of reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Not since John the Baptist had the Christian tradition needed to work so hard to assert both the singularity and pre-eminence of its founder. After all, Francis of Assisi was the first Christian said to have been afflicted by the stigmata. The belief that Jesus’s wounds reappear from time to time in specially chosen individuals is one of the more confusing themes in the history of Christian piety. Such wounds are not a punishment. If anything, they are a sign of God’s special love for the afflicted. Why, then, would God want to inflict pain on somebody close to him? Surely there is enough suffering in an ordinary life for anybody to be able to empathise at some level with what Christ went through without holy people needing to be stigmatised. Furthermore, if the sufferings of Christ are regarded as the key to understanding the mystery of human life and are therefore unique, why do they need to be duplicated at odd times and places?