In his book, Francis of Assisi, William R. Cook seeks to provide a better understanding of St. Francis of Assisi as an individual rather than in conjunction with the order he founded. Cook divides the book into six sections, each section concentrating on an important aspect or experience in Francis= life and spirituality. The six sections focus on his conversion; his relationship to the created world; the creation of the Christmas crib at Greccio; the role of learning; the relationship between the active and contemplative life; and his stigmatization at LaVerna in 1224.(pg. 18) In order to provide a general understanding I believe that these six sections can be narrowed down into three major themes that Cook sets forth; full surrender to God, a balance between world and self through an understanding of God=s will, and the importance of experiencing scripture over studying it. To support these themes Cook utilizes a number of reliable resources, both written and visual.
In looking at the first and last of Cook=s six sections, Francis
= conversion and his stigmatization at LaVerna, the theme of a full surrender to God can be seen. For a clearer understanding of Francis= conversion a brief look at his history is important.
Francis was the son of a rich business man. In his youth, he spent time drinking with his friends and lived an entertaining life thanks to the pocket of his father. He dreamed, as did many of the teenage boys
of his time, of becoming a soldier. It was seen as the glamorous life of heroes, who fought for their country as well as won the favor of beautiful women. What more could a boy want? So Francis headed off to war. Unfortunately his image of the glories of war was soon shattered. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Perugia, Assisi
=s warring neighbor. After his release, Francis became very ill. For a boy of Francis= age, the sights of battle and prison are sobering experiences. Disillusioned with his previously held beliefs, Francis began to change his thinking. The things that formerly brought him happiness no longer did and Francis saw a need for a change in his life. This need brought him to the foot of the throne of Christ.
So, it can be seen that for Francis, conversion was a complete turn around from life as he knew it. He soon decided that he needed to give his whole life to Christ and in doing so give up the life he once knew. Cook illustrates this surrender in the events that surrounded Francis= conversion. Francis= father was not pleased with the new life Francis was living nor did he appreciate the donation, by Francis, of a large portion of the allowance he gave Francis for the reconstruction of a church. He demanded that the money be returned and that Francis come back into the lifestyle of his family. Brought before the bishop, Francis stripped himself of his clothes and gave them to his father so that he would owe him nothing, and in that moment, standing naked in front of the bishop, pledged allegiance to his heavenly Father. The bishop gave Francis a tunic to cover himself, Francis took the tunic and as Cook states, AAccording to Bonaventure, he then marked a cross on it@(pg. 40) Cook makes use of this image and goes on to say:
AFrancis had >put on Christ=(cf. Eph. 4:24; Col 3:12). He had >taken up his cross= (Lk 9:23). He was naked, born again to a life that imitated Christ=s not only by
virtue of being flesh and blood but by virtue of the grace to live a life like His.@
In his sixth section Cooks shows that Francis ultimately achieves a life like Christ=s through his stigmatization. Francis physically experiences the wounds of Christ in a very real way. Although the concept of Francis= stigmatization may seem difficult for a 20th century reader to believe and comprehend due to the rarity of such things in today=s culture, Cook supports the veracity by citing the account from Thomas of Celano, who wrote three volumes of Francis= life. Celano describes in detail the way in which the wounds of Christ appeared on Francis= hands, feet, and side and remained there for the rest of his life.(pg. 99) Cook also uses two portraits of Francis with his wounds; one done by the St. Francis Master ca. 1255 (pg. 98) and one from the panel of Bonaventura Berlinghieri.
As Francis begins to live through full surrender to God, he learns that it is necessary to achieve a balance between his individual faith and the church. On a larger scale, he seeks to balance self with the world. As he begins to experience the joy of living in a Christlike fashion, he desires to share it with others. At this point he questions how to be Ain the world but not of the world@. Cook refers to this in his fourth section as AAction and Contemplation@. He examines the way in which Francis is able to include both in his life. When the question came to Francis, he looked again to the example of Christ. Cook uses a quote from Francis taken from Bonaventure=s work:
AAnd because we should do everything according to the pattern shown to us in him as on the heights of the mountain, it seems more pleasing to God that I interrupt my quiet and go out to labor.@ (LM XII, 1)
Francis believed that a balance could be achieved. He believed that a call to the church was important but was not in anyway an exemption from self. Action could not go without contemplation, contemplation could not go without action. Each was equally as important as the other. Through intuition and self comprehension, Francis achieved something that even the most learned theologians of his time could not understand; how to live as an individual inside the church and how to reconcile one to the other.
The concept of Francis= intuition leads to the third and final theme, the importance of experiencing scripture in addition to studying it. Cook explores this theme in two sections, the creation of the Christmas crib at Greccio and the role of learning.
In his section A The Christmas Crib at Greccio@ Cook states that AWhat is clear is that Francis= spirituality was experiential and that he developed it in such a way as to make it accessible to those not trained in or for the cloistered life.@ He goes on to tell the story of the construction of a manger scene at Greccio with an actual ox and ass. Francis hoped that this would make the incarnation more tangible for the people of Greccio.
Francis not only expected the people to experience the scriptures but those who preached the word as well. Cook quotes Bonaventure saying:
ABecause he had first convinced himself by practice of what he persuaded others to do by his words he did not fear reproof but preached truth most confidently@ (LM XII, 8)
Francis felt that the studies of the scripture was important but studying was useless if it could not be lived out day by day. Ultimate understanding was found through experience of the written word.
In his book Cook attempts to present a more personal view of Francis. He encourages the reader to look inside the saint and begin to understand the life he lived and the order he formed. The information he presents is supported by his research and is presented in a logical way. The reader puts down the book with a greater respect and understanding for this man of God.