Medieval Hagiography

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One of the things that has always disturbed me about St. Francis of Assisi are the excesses of miracles and wildly improbable stories that have cropped up around him. Insufficient are the stigmata themselves, we have the scent of the blood attracting all of the animals from near and far, and so forth.

Yesterday, while reading Paul Sabatier's (1894) biography The Road to Assisi, a thought occurred to me. Sabatier was a student of Renan, a German theologican who absolutely disregarded ANY stories of miraculous occurrence asserting that nothing that occurred did so outside the explanations available to modern science. Sabatier wisely took the best of the historo-critical method, but left this assumption behind. (Sabatier's is considered the first modern biography of St. Francis of Assisi.)

In the introduction by Jon Sweeney, this passage piqued my interest:

from The Road to Assisi, "Introduction"
Jon M. Sweeney

Since minutes after Francis's death--when the canonization process began in earnest and Assisi was quickly established as one of the most important places for tourims and pilgrimage in all of Crhistendom--until the late nineteenth century, the life of Francis was clouded in myth. The Golden Legend, a popular late medieval collection of tales from the lives of the siants, for instance, records this about Francis: "The saint would not handle lanterns and lamps because he did not want to dim their brightness with his hands." Also: "A locust that nested in a fig tree next to his cell used to sing at all hours, until the man of God extended his hand and said: 'My sister locust, come here to me!' Obediently, the locust came up and rested on his hand. 'My sister locust, sing! Sing, and praise your Lord!' The locust began to sing and did not hop away until the saint gave permission.

It was the first of these vignettes that knocked me upside the head with what should have been obvious all along. Even if the story is not literally true (and this is one of those I tend to doubt), the truth of it, as the truth of all fiction, lies deeper and stretches broader than a mere recounting of fact. What we hear in a tale of this sort may not be what physically happened, but it was what people saw and felt in the saint they had been near. Perhaps one person said something like, "He shone brighter than any fire at night, any lantern, any candle," a metaphorical statement that cannot be challenged because it speaks from the heart of the speaker. In time, this story entered the legend as literal truth. Now, understand that I am not saying that should God have decided it to be so the story CANNOT be the literal truth. Rather, I am saying that it NEED not be the literal truth, and yet it still expresses a deeper, fundamental metaphysical truth about the Saint.

The trouble then becomes how to separate those things which are metaphysical, metaphorical truths, from those that are factual, material--an exercise left for biographers and other interested partisans. For my own practice, I must learn to read the truth within the literal statement, accepting what is said for what it means and not concentrate on the improbabilities of the tales. Did Francis command the locust to sing and did it obey, resting on him until he gave it leave? Does it matter? What the story tells me is that Francis was a pool of serenity, of peace, of God's own Shalom to all who encountered him, human and otherwise. It does not matter whether the locust sang for Francis, what matters is that the person who related the tale or saw the vision related a truth, the locust would have sung for Francis, so full of God's love and peace for all of creation was he.

Again, I don't seek to refute the validity of the good things Francis might have done. Rather, I seek to break through the wall of skepticism that has long kept me at arm's length from this Saint. Others must read as they are led, but I must read in this way to find the man who followed God and to learn from him what he knew of God's ways.

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I agree with you: as Tolkein said to Lewis (and this, I've read, is what converted Lewis), myths can be true, even if they are "historically" inaccurate, indeed they can be the truest things of all.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 20, 2005 7:44 AM.

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