A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond

By Linda Bird Francke

Random House. 266 pp. $25.95

One spring afternoon some years ago at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a visiting Franciscan priest taught his usual undergraduate course in theology. The windows were open, the weather balmy. The students sat, half-comatose, as they often do after lunch. But the Franciscan's enthusiasm grew as he spoke of the head of his order, of how that mystic had loved the whole world, of how he tamed the ravenous wolf and preached to fish who turned the sea milky as they swam in to hear his words, of how he preached to the birds . . . and then a bird flew in the window and came to perch on his own shoulder. In silence, utterly transfixed, he looked at the class. They could only gape back at him in astonishment. For weeks, it was the talk of the campus, until some run-of-the-mill gossip or scandal came along and distracted everyone's attention.

Even with this pleasant memory, I shied away from reading "On the Road With Francis of Assisi." I'm not a fan of all those "my year in Tuscany" volumes by various authors who feel compelled to parade their good fortune and good taste by living the good life in Italy while I stay at home. And the "On the Road" part of the title creeped me out -- I envisioned a tale about Saint Francis the Beatnik. But Linda Bird Francke (and her endlessly patient, long-suffering driver/spouse) had an entirely different and excellent project in mind. "I have wanted to write a book about St. Francis and St. Clare," she writes, "since my husband and I first went to Assisi some twelve years ago to see the Giottos. It was St. Francis's basilica at one end of Assisi, and St. Clare's pink and white basilica at the other end that captivated me, along with the story I heard there from a Franciscan sister that Francis had died in Clare's arms. That turned out to be historically incorrect, but no matter. I was hooked."

The author proposes to tell the story of Francis's life in two ways: by relying on biographies (one completed just three years after his death) and by literally following in his footsteps, beginning in Assisi, crisscrossing from one Italian mountain town to another, over to Rome and then on to the coast, and finally crossing the Mediterranean to Egypt -- where Francis, by then a famous cleric, journeyed to briefly join the army of the Fifth Crusade in the hope of converting Sultan Kamil to Christianity.

But Francke doesn't just want to drive around having a nice time. Any cave, any hermitage, any obscure retreat, any cleft within any cliff or rock -- if Francis spent time there, Francke wants to see it and describe it to us. Thus she unfolds this incredible life, one documented 800 years ago by his contemporaries, an existence somehow modern yet cloaked in superstition and legend, a life that chronicles the transformation of a goofy little guy into an impassioned saint who literally gave himself to the poor and afflicted.

Born around 1181, Francis grew up in Assisi, the son of a textile merchant. He was, for about the first 25 years of his life, an irresponsible fool. He played around with his friends, dressed in outrageous clothes, ate and drank to excess, sang, enjoyed the ladies. He decided he might like to become a knight, and his father spent a lot of money for armor and the like, but that lasted about a day. He joined an army to fight Perugia, a neighboring hill town where the ill-tempered populace, when they didn't have outsiders to attack, engaged in "wars of stones" among themselves, bashing each other to death. He was taken prisoner, languished in jail for about a year, fell ill and became more -- what? Unhinged?

Then he had a vision of "Lady Poverty." He decided to give up sex, fancy clothes, vanity, greed, food (as much as he could), all of it, everything. His enraged father locked him in the family dungeon. His mother let him out. He stole and then sold some of his father's best scarlet cloth to rebuild a little church, and when the bishop told Francis to give the money back, Francis pitched a fit in the Piazza del Vescovado, not only throwing back the sack of money but stripping naked, repudiating his merchant father and everything he stood for, claiming the only father he had now was the One in Heaven, while the citizens of Assisi stood around and snickered.

And I'm only up to Page 45! The author then takes us on a trip to towns and villages and cities and forests where the present -- in the form of tour buses and cell phones and conventions of obstetricians and the like -- exists just as another layer stacked up on the 13th-century past. She visits the village where Francis tamed the wolf and worked out an agreement between it and the villagers. She tells the stories -- linked to places -- where he preached to the birds. (Besides preaching to them, he often had to tell them to calm down, so that he and his brothers could hear themselves pray.) By then he had followers, who, like him, wanted to give up everything of this world.

And this is where Francke's careful narrative begins to bring up so many issues that are with us still today. The church Francis worked within was fabulously wealthy and plagued by sex scandals. When the headstrong Clare ran away to be with him, how could he honor her wishes and still avert the inevitable gossip? How could Francis remain utterly poor? When you give up everything, how much is "everything"? And why is that better than enjoying the gifts of this world? How do we square his vow of poverty with those great basilicas he and Clare have named after them? And mainly, how do we experience God or even something sacred? The author wisely keeps away from drippy religious piety here. She just gives us the facts of this extraordinary person's life and lets us draw our own conclusions. This travelogue will keep you talking and thinking for weeks.

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