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

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.

In other words, when we turn to the "real" story, there is no story. We know what Cardinal Newman meant when he wrote that after his conversion, he had no further history (history defined as change over time). For the biographer, like Green, who has eschewed analysis based on new material or methods, there is only one route left: to retell an old and familiar tale so beautifully and evocatively that its subject lives again. If Julien Green falls far short of this order, it isn't for lack of trying nor ignorance of what's needed. Again and again we are reminded that Francis "was no plaster saint," and that his story is profound and complex. To be fair, Green recounts ably and movingly some of the classics of Francis' ministry--most especially his lesson to Brother Leon on "what is perfect joy?" (answer: Perfect joy is the humility that already, in dozens of little ways, the Order is hedging upon and forgetting about in its unanticipated worldly success). And he writes a nice line from time to time: "If we edited all the dreams out of . . . history, the whole thing would grind to a halt."

If nevertheless Green's Francis of Assisi remains "hidden in the light" (to cite Green citing Dante), it's because the author endlessly gets in the way of his subject with heavy-handed piety. As early as P. 25 we are told that Francis, even as a young rake, was "God's prey," and from then on, once (or twice or more) in each of dozens of chapters, we bump into Green's unenlightening religiosity: "Francis is not subject to the canons of classical psychology. He gave way to Christ"; "A fall (e.g., if Francis had slept with Clare) would have been an incalculable disaster because it would have hurt the millions of souls who were to find salvation under their guidance"; "Their love (Francis' and Clare's) was swallowed up in the love of Christ and words don't exist to give any notion of such mystical bonds"; "Francis' secret will forever remain with God."

These lines, and their numerous kinfolk through "God's Food" are, of course, abdications of effort, when they are not stupidly anti-intellectual. The "canons of classical psychology" can contribute usefully to illuminating a saint's life--as Erik Erikson has shown on the Protestant saint (Luther) or Elizabeth Goerres showed in her brilliant and inspiring study of Therese de Lisieux. But psychology (or any other discipline) is not mandatory, as Green well knows; what is mandatory, however, is fresh and careful--above all, nuanced--thinking. Goerres, for example, demonstrated painstakingly the dark sides of doubt and despair that underlay the reputedly invincible faith of France's "little flower." It couldn't be quickly done; Goerres' book is a long one. Francis of Assisi is no less complex a subject, though his inner life may be even harder to get at than Therese's. "Simplicity" and "innocence" are Green's constant refrain, which is understandable, for they represent much of the conventional wisdom about "the little friar." But a longer and more concentrated gaze into this man's "light" (and darkness) would have shown that what are in question here is second, or "regained" innocence, and the simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity. In the nuance lie the saint and the sinner. Green says he knows this, but his book falls far short of demonstrating such knowledge.

See P. 11, an interview with Julien Green, translated from "Le Monde."

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