Bonaventure: Humility and Hagiography

  • The text: The Life of St Francis
  • The author: Bonaventure
  • Read it yourself: I’m using this version from the Paulist Press, but it’s a popular enough text that you’ll be able to find it online or in hard copy.

It’s not a genre I’m super familiar with, but I’ve started reading a hagiography – Bonaventure’s Life of St Francis. Personally I’ve never been big into the lives of the saints. It’s always a little self-congratulatory, a little over-eager. Part of me has a Protestant’s unease over adulation of the saints – although in fairness, I guess that sort of thing isn’t limited to the Catholics. When I was growing up, I had these books – Ten Boys Who Made A Difference, that sort of thing. It was all short little abridged biographies of Martin Luther or Billy Graham. Not that much different to what you get with Bonaventure. Just stories about how being faithful can allow God to do miraculous things. Because it’s not like the saints have anything special within themselves, right – the whole idea is that they’re imitators of Christ. With the Francis biography, we’re told that he’s so good at imitating Christ that he develops stigmata, wounds that mirror those of Christ on the cross. He actually gets big fuck-off iron nails that magically appear in his hands and feet:

“As the vision disappeared, it left in his heart a marvellous ardor and imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvellous. Immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet just as he had seen a little before in the figure of the man crucified. His hands and feet seemed to be pierced through the centre by nails … the heads of the nails in his hands and his feet were round and black; their points were oblong and bent as if driven back with a hammer, and they emerged from the flesh and stuck out beyond it.”

And there are other parallels too. After his death, there’s this knight called Jerome who doesn’t believe in the stigmata. He comes along and pokes the wounds in Francis’s dead body, and goes huh, and becomes a believer. The guy is explicitly cast as a second doubting Thomas, as a repetition of a moment in the life of Christ that proves the strength of Francis’ imitation. Francis imitates the life of Christ, and things start happening to him in the same way that they happened to Jesus.

But there’s nothing unique about Francis per se. He’s not doing anything new, or different, he’s just very good at being obedient to God. He conforms his life to the life of Christ, and that conformity manifests both physically and in the events of his life. But that structure creates a weird seconding effect. If you think about your typical biography, it’s essentially a sort of hero worship. It’s a chance to touch greatness, to get a personal insight into the life of David Bowie or whoever. But with a hagiography – I mean, the whole premise is that Francis isn’t that special. He’s just very obedient to God. That’s not a unique thing to be – he’s not a politician or a pro cyclist, right, he doesn’t have any special skills or a special job. Everything that he has is stuff that readers could have – that they should have, even. The text is as much about hero worship as it is about presenting something aspirational for readers. Francis followed God, and he was really good at it, and you can be too.

This kind of split focus puts us into a bit of a weird position as readers. For instance, there’s a chapter all about Francis’s humility, which by definition is a weird thing to be bragging about. We know that in the Bible the ideas of humility and social prestige are inverted: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whoever would be the greatest among you must be the least, must be the one who serves. It’s a way of inverting and disrupting the expected social order, phrased in the language of social hierarchy but in a way that’s meant to undermine the integrity of the idea. That is, when Jesus says that the last shall be first, he’s not encouraging people to sprint for the back so they can assert social clout. You do actually see that behaviour sometimes with Christians – there are some people who will go around being really nice and serving people, but you can sometimes see this little glimmer of smugness about how they’re doing it, as if they think that by serving you, they’re somehow asserting their superiority. They’re making themselves the least because they’re actually trying to make themselves the greatest, which I think means they end up as the least? It can become a bit of a mind game. C.S. Lewis has a bit about how the only solution here is to laugh the question off and go to bed – which is kinda what I mean about the Bible undermining the idea. It uses the language of social hierarchy, but in such a way that you just twist yourself into knots trying to understand it. The best solution is just to give up on the whole concept and go to bed – which I personally think was the intention.

So given all of that, it’s a bit weird to be reading this hagiography where it’s puffing up the value of being humble. I’m not against preserving a good paradox, but I also wonder how the interplay of humility and prestige sits next to the hero worship of a hagiography. Because it’s not just extolling the virtue of humility in the abstract, right – it’s presenting Francis to you as a role model, as someone who’s really specially great at being humble. It’s putting Francis on a pedestal. Maybe that’s inappropriate. There’s a tension in the text between Francis having admirable humility, people admiring Francis for his humility, and Francis not wanting to be admired. We’re told that Francis “preferred to hear himself blamed rather than praised,” but that his humility “deserves honour from all.” The same text tells you that Francis is worthy of admiration and that he doesn’t want to be admired. It arguably presents Francis as admirable for not wanting the admiration the text itself is giving him. It just makes you wonder – wouldn’t it be better if this text didn’t exist? I mean, if you’re talking about the last being first, what about all the unnamed average believers who haven’t been remembered by anyone? Aren’t they further down the food chain than Francis? Aren’t they more humble, more worthy of being crowed over? Bonaventure records that Francis resigned his position as Minister General, so that he could be obedient to a superior rather than leading the way himself. That’s very humble and all, but what about all the fuckers who were never made Minister General in the first place?

I guess what I’m noting here is that Francis isn’t just some random guy. He’s one of the biggest figures in the history of Christianity. He founded multiple monastic orders, which we refer to collectively as Franciscans, and he’s heavily venerated to this day. Bonaventure’s biography feels like it leans more towards hero worship than anything else – he’s out to demonstrate that Francis was the best at following Jesus. Humility is just another trait proving Francis’s superiority and justifying him as a figure worth following within the broader stable of Christian thought. I just wonder if there’s something more noble in the unspoken humility of the believers who aren’t remembered by history. The stigmata thing is pretty cool though.

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