Saint Francis by Robert West (Thomas Nelson, 2010)
St. Francis, who lived and preached in the 13th century, is one of Christianity’s most beloved saints. Like many saints, however, time has served to separate him from the actual life he lived. In many minds, he is known only as the lover of animals. He is usually seen with birds, often as a statue in a garden. While St. Francis certainly had that side to him, he was much more than that.
Saint Francis by Robert West, a book in the Christian Encounters series by Thomas Nelson, sets out to show Francis in all his complexity. He was a saint, yes, but like all saints, he was also very human.
This is a no-holds-barred biography of Francis. West does not gloss over Francis’ wild youth. In fact, he makes much of it in order to contrast it with the man he later became. Yet the charisma that would make Francis such a compelling preacher and leader was already at root in the boy and young man. Francis was meant to be a leader.
West discusses Francis’ conversion and does his utmost to make his love of “Lady Poverty” understandable to the modern mind. He shows the battles Francis had with his own bodily desires and the lengths he would go to in order to overcome them. He wanted nothing to come between him and God. West also examines his relationship with the men that would come to join him as well as his relationship with St. Clare, who also gave up everything to follow him.
Francis’ life was certainly not without its challenges. His way of life was so austere that many begged him to relax his rules for those who followed him, but he would not relent. As a result, there was infighting among the brothers, especially when Francis was not physically present. It took considerable effort for his order to be recognized by the pope. His dream of converting the Muslim sultan during the crusades did not go the way he had hoped.
Yet, Francis is most known for his miracles, his communing with nature, and the stigmata he bore on his body. West examines some of the legends that grew up around the life of Francis, and despite a healthy skepticism, is willing to admit that at least some of them were possible.
West’s Saint Francis is a highly readable well-researched biography. It serves as a valuable introduction to the life of the man behind the statues.