Reluctant saint The life of Francis of Assisi

Donald Spoto, 1941-

Book - 2002

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New York : Viking Compass 2002.
1st ed
Physical Description
256 p. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Donald Spoto, 1941- (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

Celebrity biographer Spoto again limns a figure who far transcends celebrity and, as with The Hidden Jesus (1998), produces a serious, thought-provoking book. Like Jesus, Francis of Assisi had no wish for fame; he became, however, one of the foremost men of his time, the thirteenth century. Like Jesus' fame, his arose from abandoning the zeitgeist; born into a newly rich family (another parallel with Jesus, if Spoto is correct about the status of carpenters in ancient Judea) in a viciously acquisitive era, he spurned all possessions. Also like Jesus, Spoto maintains, though he fasted and largely avoided even reasonable comfort, Francis revered the material world, including the human body, as being intrinsically good because God created it. Because flesh as well as soul is good, Francis served the sick, not stinting at becoming sick himself, one might say, as a result of committed compassion. As he relates the dramatic events of Francis' life, Spoto shows that the blessing of the Incarnation was what most animated the saint's fabled gentleness, courtesy, and faith. ((Reviewed September 1, 2002)) Copyright 2002 Booklist Reviews

Review by Choice Reviews

Spoto (an independent scholar) aims to clear away the legends and to portray realistically Francis's pilgrimage from playboy to reluctant saint. To reconstruct Francis's thoughts and feelings, Spoto lays out in rich detail the cultural influences that were part of his consciousness. A picture emerges of a very human Francis, convinced that he was in the hands of a loving God, that conversion was not a thing of the moment but the process of a lifetime, and that his mission was to social outcasts, lepers, the poor, and the destitute. Like Adrian House's Francis of Assisi (CH, Oct'01), this biography is well written and informed by the most recent scholarship. However, House describes what Francis said and did, whereas Spoto focuses on the saint's inner life. Although neither biography is a hagiography, Spoto is more skeptical than House, questioning, for example, the stigmata. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; students and scholars at all levels. Copyright 2003 American Library Association

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Spoto is a sometime teacher of theology and a biographer of Alfred Hitchcock, Lawrence Olivier, Tennessee Williams, and Ingrid Bergman. In this life of Francis of Assisi, Spoto's elegant wordsmithing creates a "reality TV" sense of Francis's life-the elaborate details are based on an actual time and place, but the overall effect feels staged. This is nevertheless a very readable portrait of a hope-filled eccentric whose lifelong process of conversion brought him to a never unconfused but always faithful way of life under God's ordinance. There are some things Spoto doesn't get right: on the dedication page, he ascribes to St. Benedict a quote traditionally attributed to St. Augustine, and he fails to appreciate the literary genre of the medieval exemplary story, among other things. But he is a fine writer who provides insight into the saint as well as into the secular and ecclesiastical cultures of the 12th century. One of the best of the modern books to reflect upon Francis, and even to get inside his head and measure his spirit, is G.K.Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi. Spoto's book is suitable for libraries with a circulation of nonacademic religious books.-David I. Fulton, Coll. of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

It does not seem possible that the world needs another biography of St. Francis of Assisi, but Spoto (The Hidden Jesus) makes a credible case for adding to the glut of books and articles about the medieval saint. (Spoto cites one count taken nearly 40 years ago that puts the number at 1,575.) He argues that new discoveries in several fields and the latest Franciscan scholarship justify this new biography. Although the findings of his research required Spoto to strip away some of the romance surrounding Francis's familiar story, he manages to report them without detracting from the integrity of the saint. He raises, for example, questions about whether Francis actually bore the stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ, pointing out that sources interviewed for Francis's canonization denied that he had the marks. Spoto suggests that Francis may actually have suffered from leprosy and that his companions interpreted those wounds as a sharing in Christ's suffering. Spoto's chronological recounting of Francis's life is sufficiently engaging to retain the interest even of those familiar with the basic facts of the saint's story. Occasionally however, he lapses into seemingly misplaced preaching pedagogy, such as when he holds forth on the subject of conversion in a section about Francis's spiritual transformation- but given the saint's diverse appeal, this book should interest a wide audience. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

An account of the life of one of the great Catholic saints delves into his own unpublished letters to offer a portrait of this complicated man and the movement he spawned.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

For nearly a century, no other saint has presented as compelling a figure to the world as Francis of Assisi. For many the very idea of "saint" is epitomized by the gaunt, ascetic preacher, dressed in a simple brown habit, conversing with the birds or taming a wild wolf. Yet much of what we have come to know of Francis is in fact the product of legends and the accumulation of hundreds of years of pious iconography, so much so that this remarkable man has become obscured by his image.In Reluctant Saint Donald Spoto casts a new light on Francis, placing him within the context of the ecclesiastical, political, and social forces of medieval Italy in all its violence, color, and mystery. It was, like our own era, a time of crisis with a craving for reform and for a deeper, simpler, more personal faith, even while concern for the common good, the poor, and the sick was virtually unknown. Francis insisted that this concern lay at the heart of the Gospel, and he dedicated his life to reinstating it, in the process pioneering a new social movement, one that ultimately and tragically slipped from his grasp.Donald Spoto draws on unprecedented access to unexplored archives in Rome, Assisi, Grecchio, and Florence, as well as on Francis' own letters, to offer the most nuanced and fully drawn portrait of a man whose life's struggle was to follow humbly in the footsteps of Christ. From his spiritual epiphany before a crucifix in a small rural church in Umbria to the failures and bitter disappointments of his later years, Reluctant Saint is a landmark biography of a man who can genuinely be said to have changed the course of history.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

"Don't make a saint of me," Francis of Assisi told a friend-even as his charisma and holiness were dazzling his contemporaries and generating a legend that has lasted almost a millennium. In Reluctant Saint, Donald Spoto, author of the acclaimed The Hidden Jesus, shows us a Saint Francis who transcends the image of Francis familiar to even the least religious among us: wealthy profligate, soldier, businessman, preacher, defender of the poor, mystic-and, later, a lodestar to ecologists and animal rights activists. Spoto's unprecedented access to unexplored archives and the saint's own unpublished letters help reveal how Francis pioneered an entirely new historical movement, one that eventually slipped from his grasp. Spoto highlights Francis's position within the ecclesiastical, political, and social forces of medieval Italy in all its violence, color, and mystery. It was, like our own, a time of crisis with a craving for reform and for a deeper, simpler, more personal faith-yet concern for the common good, and for the poor and sick, was virtually unknown. A key part of the revolution Francis brought about was his insistence that such concern lay at the heart of the Gospel. Reluctant Saint portrays a life that has captured the hearts and minds of millions over the centuries.