A Catholic Media Association Book Award Winner 2022
A NYC Big Book Award Winner for Biography and for Cover Design
The dual biography Francis and Clare The Struggles of the Saints of Assisi, a portrait for the twenty-first century, offers new reasons to love Francis and reveals in Clare a female saint who in the thirteenth century led a resistance movement against a pope. Francis’s greatest shame was allowing the church to betray his promises to her. Clare, fighting to uphold Francis’s movement, blindsided the pope who thought he had confined her in a cloister. The full story of either of these extraordinary individuals, set against the beginnings of the flawed bureaucratic Catholic Church that is coming into ever-clearer focus today, cannot be known without the other. It is a tale of individuals confronting overwhelming power.
A historical work examines the intersecting lives of two Roman Catholic saints: St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi.
An edifying and meticulous exploration of two saints.
St. Clare was born in Assisi in the closing years of the 12th century to a noble family distantly related on the maternal side to Constance, the wife of Henry VI, the Holy Roman emperor. From an early age, she was incorruptibly devoted to God and steadfastly prayed and fasted as expressions of her spiritual fervor. Her parents fecklessly tried to compel her to marry, but she resisted, sold off her inheritance, and used the money to rebuild the Church of Saint Damian, a project to which St. Francis was committed. In a show of remarkably painstaking research, Brady chronicles the turbulent journeys of the two saints. They were joined by their relentless religious ardor and an insistence on a life of poverty, a condition St. Francis could be “pitiless” enforcing—and a stricture that put St. Clare at loggerheads with Pope Gregory IX. In addition, the author brings to vivid life the religious and political tumult of the time—which included the Crusades—and astutely articulates the various lines of theological division. Furthermore, the book is lucidly written, a scrupulously thorough account enlivened by what Brady calls “novelistic details,” the minutiae, however imagined, that immerse readers in the drama. But the author’s tendency to interpret the miraculous elements of her subjects’ lives in narrowly scientific terms seems not only gratuitous, but also distorting. For example, she theorizes that St. Francis’ temptations by demons were likely the result of severe undernourishment: “Throughout his religious life, Francis would blame tribulations and temptations on the Devil and other evil denizens of Hell who knew how to taunt and vex him when he was most vulnerable, but his own mistreatment of himself and the ravages of semi-starvation were certainly responsible for much suffering.” This is more speculation than empirical science and doesn’t help illuminate the nature of the spiritual or existential crisis St. Francis endured; in fact, it obscures it. Nevertheless, despite the blandness of this obeisance to scientific explanations, the work as a whole is as captivating as it is rigorous.
Two Now Go Hand-in-Hand Through History
by Carl Rollyson
The centuries shift our values and our interests, and the lives of saints take on new meanings. So it is with St. Francis, who now cannot go forward in a biography without Lady Clare, who chose to renounce her privileges and a family attempting to force her into an unwanted marriage in order to follow an itinerant merchant’s son, Francis Bernadone.
What did he promise her? A life devoted to God, of course, but also to poverty and mortification of the flesh, reminding everyone — high and low — of the divinity that not only gave them life but expected them to serve a higher purpose than themselves.
Francis ran into trouble with the Catholic hierarchy because he disposed of the middle men, so to speak, the priests and priors and popes (their rank did not matter) in an almost Protestant-like devotion to the word of God, spoken to him —to him — not in the intercessions of the church. Yet Francis never actually rebelled. He spoke his piece but bent his knee to authority.
Now, Clare, that is another matter. She never relinquished her loyalty to Francis’s teachings, which required road work to serve the poor and disadvantaged. She became more Francis-like than Francis, disobeying papal edicts and rebelling against the efforts of the church to sequester her in a cloister.
She battled on for several decades after his death — close to death herself on several occasions, and yet she revived and reached out to the world beyond the heavy doors of her incarceration. There is a great moment in the biography when the cloister doors themselves give way, rotted by time, a palpable rebuke to Rome’s belief that it could seclude Clare into submission.
There is much to admire in Kathleen Brady’s account of Francis and Clare. Ms. Brady has the dogged devotion a biographer needs to understand her subjects, and to show we cannot truly understand Francis without Clare and vice versa. That’s what makes this biography so fresh and revealing, even as it is the product of more than 20 years of deep reading in the scholarship about her subjects.
You might be curious to know how Ms. Brady handles miracles. She neither endorses nor rejects them — not exactly. She is fond of quoting Augustine, who said, in her words, “Miracles were not contrary to nature, only to what we know of nature.” She allows that certain miracles may have natural causes, and leaves it at that.
What cannot be denied, however, is Francis’s powerful attachment to nature, to all manner of creatures, who, it seems, did come to him as to a kindred soul. He remains an inspiring example of the spiritual bond with the environment. In this respect, he was ahead of his contemporaries and of many today, as well.
In “The Art of Biography,” Paul Murray Kendall declared that every biography is an autobiography. Not every biographer makes that plain, but Ms. Brady does in a moving prologue that speaks of her own contention with her Roman Catholic upbringing and the church’s authority. Francis’s and Clare’s strenuous efforts to find the true expression of their faith is given a passionate direction in a biography that may appeal to readers who have undergone the same struggles, or who are drawn to lives that serve this world even though it is in the service of another.
The story of Francis and Clare is surprisingly modern. We learn enough about them in Ms. Brady’s narrative to appreciate their quirks and powerfully independent personalities. Sometimes their story is dramatized, which is not to say that the biographer makes up scenes or events, but from documents and testimony she is able to recreate certain days in the lives of her subjects — even if she sometimes stretches the story a little strenuously in recurring words and phrases such as “surely” and “must have been.” Such is the biographer’s intense desire to bond with her subjects.
Surely — if you’ll pardon the word — that is what makes the biography so appealing. Tell me if you feel otherwise while reading — that you don’t, as I do, feel situated in a world different from ours and yet so recognizable in the tensions of people who want to be themselves even as they realize their obligation to what is more than themselves.