Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book review: The Passionate Troubadour

Here I go again, on about Saint Francis, but if you've been reading here much, you know that I have a deep fondness for him. He's the patron saint of simplicity, ecology and animals, which partly explains that fondness. He also has a certain appeal for those of us who believe and want to live Christ's teachings in spite of the many distractions we find in our churches.

The Passionate Troubadour: A Medieval Novel about Francis of Assisi: Hays, Edward M.I may sound like a heretic with that last statement, but if so, I'm in very good company -- that of St. Francis. Edward Hays' The Passionate Troubadour:A Medieval Novel about Francis of Assisi (Ave Maria Press 2004, ISBN 0939516-69-1) is the story of a very human saint who faced some of the same sorts of struggles we do today, and who simply strove to love God through them all. While Hays' writing has been described as "wild, poetic and imaginative", I found that once I got past his whimsical style, his version of the life of Francis was wonderful. It's true that the author took a few liberties and created a few characters that are not found in traditional historical accounts of the life of St. Francis, but as a writer myself, I don't fault Hays for giving Francis a wise hermit spiritual director named Padre Antonio, or a Muslim friend named Ali. For those like Francis who want to faithfully travel a deeply spiritual path, it's always good to have a guide for the journey, and for Francis to overcome his era's hatred of Muslims, a soul-deep friendship with a Sufi fits the story really well. Hays does a wonderful job of capturing how an ordinary human being could become one of the most beloved saints of all time. It's a long book (638 pages) but I didn't want it to end.

I read The Passionate Troubadour during the last weeks of Lent and Holy Week, and found it to be a moving meditation on what it means to follow Jesus without the usual "trappings." Francesco Bernardone started out as an ordinary kid, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, except... as time went on, his father's obsession with wealth and prestige began to ring hollow. Being a dutiful son, Francesco went off to fight in a skirmish with neighbouring city-state Perugia, and spent a year in captivity in a Perugian dungeon, where he had a lot of time to think about life. He came home a different person, dramatically renounced his inheritance, and became one of the minores, or small ones, in his society. Living with only basic necessities, working for his food, and preaching about God's love rather than fixating on hell and damnation, Francesco moved thousands of others to join the Friars Minor and associated communities by the time of his death in 1226.

Hays does a marvelous job of capturing the medieval mindset within his story -- for example, back in Francesco's day, the world was flat and the Pope was more like an emperor. The author sheds a lot of light on the13th century understanding of sin and salvation and the superstitious practices around both, making for a very interesting read. But what really touched me was Francesco's desire to do God's will in the simplest way... and how often he was stymied by people who made everything more complicated. Love God, love and serve others, and love yourself. Consider the lilies. And if you believe in a God who loves us all into heaven, how can you go around in gloom, even if things are wonky in this world? In this book, Francesco is a joyous, fun-loving man even in his struggles, with a heart for the poor and small. His passion for God and simplicity created and continues to create new life for many people... including me.

If you've been following my moodlings at all, you'll know that I've been struggling mightily with recent changes in my church... and many happenings that seem to indicate that Catholicism is moving backwards rather than forwards, over-complicating the simple basics of Christ's teachings. To my mind, recent fancier prayer wordings that put distance between us and God and seem to emphasize our sinfulness are not as critical as understanding and acting upon the fact that every being on the planet is beloved by God and should be treated as such. Emphasis on maintaining the structure of the Church seems to have overtaken the importance of making our relationship with God a real, living thing that cares for our planet, and seeks out the poor and makes them the heart of our hearts -- and because of that off- kilter emphasis, I'm afraid my love for the Church has taken a serious beating.

In my reading of The Passionate Troubadour, I came to see that Francesco also struggled with the Church and its many imperfections. He lived through a Lateran Council's changes and challenges, and still managed to remain within the Church as a faithful follower of Jesus. He didn't let church politics destroy his sense of community or sour his relationship with God. With God's grace, he was able to let go of his frustrations, acknowledge the imperfections in himself and others, and keep his relationship with God in focus right to the end.

That's what I aim to do, too... though it is anything but easy. My pride makes it impossible to swallow the injustices I perceive within Catholicism, and I admittedly shoot my mouth off frequently. So often I am tempted to simply walk away from a church that ignores women, makes priesthood more important than humanhood, and lives in its head rather than with the poor in the heart of Christ. But Francesco didn't quit. He continued to follow Christ's teachings in a radical way, speaking his mind to sympathizers within the Church, and eventually his example brought about some healthy change. Had he walked away, he would have vanished from the face of the earth without anyone knowing the difference, and our world -- and the Church -- would be much the worse for it.

Francis of Assisi is one of a very few people who took Christ's message to heart and lived it deeply in the midst of a society -- and a church -- that often didn't get it. I expect Edward Hays wrote a novel about him to encourage us all to do the same -- to follow Francesco by preaching the Good News of God's love with our lives. If you can get your hands on a copy of The Passionate Troubadour (an inter-library loan worked for me), I'd highly recommend it.

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