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God's Fool The Life and Time jof Francis of Assisi by Julien Green (Harper & Row: $ 16.95; 273 pp.)

December 22, 1985|Steven Englund | Englund lives in Paris where he teaches French Revolution at the University of Paris-VIII

If hagiography--a story of sanctity--is the hardest historical/literary genre of all to master, it is undoubtedly because sanctity is so ineffable, so irreducible to rational categories of explanation. In a society inebriated with religiosity, as in one steeped in secularism, the problem is the same: how, with words-- words --to seize the holy in its insanity, its intransigence, its terror, its utter disregard for individual will. If demonic possession brings a smile to our lips, how can divine possession not?

It's easier on the biographer if the holy man in question falls into the more-like-us category; hence the comparative popularity of biographies of John Cardinal Newman, Thomas a Becket and, above all, Thomas More. Their accomplishments, their problems, even their final decisions have something to do with the sorts of things most people can understand or at least imagine.

Unfortunately, the "political saints" sit on one of the lowest rungs of the great celestial chain. And as you ascend that chain, you bump into more and more cases where dilemmas aren't rarefied and issues aren't political (or intellectual) and where action and motivation are completely absurd unless you adopt the actor's frame of reference--i.e., that God's in His heaven and judgment is His. No less a master than Pierre Corneille, the great French tragedian, fails to render a very interesting or captivating dramatic character in Polyeucte, the early Christian martyr in imperial Rome. It is Polyeucte's wife, Pauline, and her lover, Severe, who rescue the play with their personal woes and nobility occasioned by the martyr's refractory posturings. (Nobody says Polyeucte has to renounce Christianity, for heaven's sake; just give a perfunctory nod to official Roman religion.)

Among the saints, few are greater--because few are more Christlike--than the little friar of Assisi. The indulged and oversensitive son of a status-conscious clothier, Francis, at age 25, suddenly threw off his own (and his father's vicarious) quest for entry into the nobility, and the playboy life style that went with it, in exchange for two decades (till his death) of total abstinence and conformity to the Gospels. In the face of scorn and distrust (at least initially) from Pope and cardinals, armed with nothing more than his voice and his example, Francis gave credibility back to the institutional church; he made it more genuinely "the body of Christ in the world." He is primarily known for establishing his brotherhood--the Order of Friars Minor, for which Julien Green finds the lovely and apt description, "a prodigious flock of sparrows darting toward heaven." Along the way, Francis had several interesting encounters with some of the major ecclesiasts of his day (from Innocent III to Domingo de Guzman, the mesmerizing preacher-founder of the Dominicans); he converted and won to his side some of medieval Europe's most winsome and compelling religious figures (St. Clare, for example, who may have been in love with Francis); he wrote an almost painfully lyrical poem ("The Canticle of the Sun") and an unquestionably painful, because over-exigent, Rule for his beloved Order.

In short, plenty of the stuff that written history is made of. But biography demands more; it promises to unearth the "real story," the "inner" man. Certainly this is the assignment that Green has set himself, for while he provides more than a fleeting taste of the historical background and events, his recounting of these things is old fare and doesn't pretend to be more. The point, Green reminds us again and again, isn't the public man but the private. What is the private Francis of Assisi? Well, we don't know for sure, not having anything approaching extensive records. But worse, if we did, we have the uneasy feeling that they would make for poor, or at least uninteresting, reading. Francis' "true" story is the daily, monotonous unfolding of the same things: prayer, fasting, and small and large (but almost invariably mundane) deeds of service and love--items that are difficult to interpret, or even report more than once. Ditto for Francis' tendency to talk to trees, birds and animals. The "conversion" of the famous wolf of Gubbio has been recounted hundreds of times because there is nothing else to do with it; we haven't the evidence to sustain scientific inquiry. Likewise for Francis' dozens of "miracles," not to mention his stigmata, about which we know so little (he kept it very secret) that we aren't even certain it happened, let alone what it signified. The man simply lived each moment as though the voice of God spoke more loudly than Caesar's or the Pope's or, for that matter, the person standing next to him.

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