Is there ever a Golden Age?
There is a tendency to bemoan the era that we live in. Would it not be better to live in another age, when people were better, when they were kinder, more loving, and the age more peaceful ? A superficial reading of the many biographies of St. Francis of Assisi from the first one by Thomas of Celano written within two years of the Saint’s death to Carlo Carretto’s biography “I Francis” written in the early 1980’s there is a tendency to see Francis through a veil of sentimentality on one hand or total unreality on the other. In the world of Cinema we have the marvellous retelling of St. Francis’ life in Francesco Giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester) which, but for the rather strange performance of Aldo Fabrizi as St. Francis, is in my opinion a masterpiece, and also in the opinion of none other than Martin Scorsese. We then have the very proper but slightly dull rendition of St. Francis’s Life with Bradford Dillmann as Francis and Dolores Hart as Clare, possibly the best one which was made in early 1960’s.By the seventies we have the opulent and lush Brother Sun, Sister Moon of Zeffirelli, which is magical, beautiful and is so wildly unhistorical that one has to suspend one’s disbelief and imbibe the spirit of St. Francis despite a considerable amount of artistic license bordering on lunacy; then it works, almost toperfection. I have never seen the film with Mickey Rourke as Francis, but it apparently rains all the time, and the director was a Dutch Marxist, I believe. Quite who could make a great film of this most universal of saints, I do not know, but a T.V. series might be the answer.
No Medieval saint had so much written about him as Francis, and his Order was, from fairly early on, fraught with discord and disagreement as to what Francis meant by poverty, and how absolute was it? St. Francis was, to some extent to blame. His utter dedication to Lady Poverty who replaced the Perfect Lady to whom the dedicated Knight gave his allegiance in the world and literature of Courtly Love, was demanding in the extreme. The whole atmosphere of Courtly Love as far as I can make out was an idolization of illicit love affairs or adultery raised to the sublime. It will find its apotheosis, rather surprisingly in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, but the great revolutionary composer, to some extent, exposes Courtly love for what it is, pagan eroticism, as opposed to Christian marriage. A good historian or writer will look at the facts before him, and will try as best as he can to be impartial; such a one is Arnaldo Fortini, the Mayor of Assisi, and most probably Francis’ greatest modern biographer with the exception of Abbé Omer Englebert. The former is a real historian, the latter a superb biographer.
For over 200 pages of the English translation of Fortini’s life, an abridgement of the great Italian’s biography, and done very well by the translator Helen Moak, we are treated to a socio-economic and political description of how the medieval city state came into being and how it operated in the 12th, and 13th centuries. It is catalogue of violence, rapacity, greed, cynicism, class warfare, murder, sexual immorality on a grand and terrifying scale, and this at a time considered by many to be a golden age of the Church. Oddly enough it was a golden age for the Church, in its reform of religious life carried out by the two great mendicant orders of Francis and Dominic, but many other marvellous things were happening. That the Church was renewed by these two great saints there is no possible doubt whatever. If St. Francis and St. Dominic had not come on the scene, the Reformation might have happened earlier and been devastating for a Christendom that was always in danger of being destroyed by Islam.
Ft. Francis’preaching and his early companions’ preaching was quite different to St. Dominic and his early companions. The former preached repentance, where as the latter preached against heresy and taught in the Universities. Francis’ preaching is also cosmic, and is like an extended Credo and Te Deum ringing throughout creation. Francis in his life, and preaching, and in the Canticle of Brother Son, enjoins all Creation to sing forth their praise of God. Francis is never a sentimentalist. The idea of animals as pets, he would have found very strange. Even the Wolf of Gubbio once tamed by Francis did not become his pet, but lived in Gubbio and begged his food from the grateful people of the town. He did not keep the Falcon that had sung the Office with him on La Verna, when he received the stigmata during his long retreat there. When offered a fish by some fisherman, he promptly put it back in the water, and it praised God. In the life of his most illustrious disciple, St. Anthony of Padua, we see the saint going to preach to the fish, as the hard hearted Albigensians of the town he was visiting, would not listen to him. The fish shamed them. In many ways Francis and Dominic are very similar, and the death mask of Dominic almost seems to be the perfect likeness of Francis. However Francis most probably looked very like the Cimabue likeness in the Sacro Convento in Assisi. Dominic was definitely handsome and Francis was definitely not. They both sang as they tramped the roads of Europe, Francis setting his words to the music of the troubadours, and Dominic singing psalms. Both were radical; Dominic wanted the Dominican brothers to run the Order, but the priests did not want it, and Francis wanted his priests to be humble like Brother Leo, but many did not; this is hardly surprising with so large a numbers of priests entering the Order. The fraternity of the early days were doomed. By the time St. Bonaventure comes on the scene and is elected General of the Franciscan Order, it finds itself becoming very clerical. This was never Francis’ intention, whereas Dominic would most probably have seen his Order for what it was, a band of superb preachers, one of the most extraordinary being Blessed John of Vicenza who preached from an enormous pulpit sixty cubits high to a crowd of 300,000 ranged on the banks of the River Adige near Verona. His message was peace to a country that was suffering greatly from the wars and violence perpetrated by Frederick II, and that scourge of Lombardy, the tyrant Ezzelino.
So both Francis and Dominic preached the same message, but Francis was more universal and original in scope and such things as universities were of no interest whatever to Francis, who was rightly suspicious of learning, knowing it to be the harbinger of Pride. It was unfortunate that under the English General Haymo of Faversham, who followed the disgraced Elias of Cortona, that the Order was pushed in a Dominican direction. Both Orders of course flourished in Oxford. No Order can remain in its pristine phase, but the Dominican direction that the Franciscan Order took under Haymo and the monastic and clerical direction that it took under St. Bonaventure meant that something of Francis’s wonderful theological genius was lost. It was left for Sabatier a 19th century French liberal Protestant to rediscover Francis for the 20th century, and though some of his conclusions were wrong, he did something extraordinary and presented the Franciscan vision afresh to a jaded, violent and cynical world. For that we have to thank this Modernist, an irony when you consider that Francis had a horror of heresy.
Francis and Dominic did not live in a Golden Age. The only Golden Age will be Heaven, and when there is a golden age, it rarely lasts long, but what Francis does, is give us a view of what the World might look like if Adam and Eve had not fallen. It is interesting that Francis was seen not only as an Alter Christus by his contemporaries, but another Adam. Let us then try to look at a Church as reformed by Francis.