I picked up Reluctant Saint at a used bookstore because, frankly, I had a lot of extra credit with them and needed to use it before they switched to a new system. It looked good, so I picked it up and put it on the shelf to read at some future point. Which I finally did over the Christmas break. Having read it, I would now gladly have paid the retail price for the book.
Spoto, who is apparently better known as a celebrity biographer (his subjects include Audrey Hepburn and Hitchcock, among many others), has also written The Hidden Jesus, in which he calls Jesus the "man no one knows." From that simple statement, one can get a sense of his more liberal theological views, which, thankfully, do not assume a bully pulpit in Reluctant Saint. For the most part, Spoto is willing to let the simple and devout faith of Francis explain his actions without interjecting his own interpretations. Spoto does offer his opinion from time to time, but generally his views offer only a slightly skewed look at what most faithful Christians would overwhelmingly support. There are bits of dross to be picked out, but the remaining substance has clearly been influenced by the amazing life of St Francis.
And Spoto writes well. His prose is clear and engaging, painting a very intimate portrait of a deep, troubled and holy man. He deftly sums up details and arguments that could easily grow tedious to the casual reader while clarifying the issues and showing how they were relevant to the involved parties. All in all, Spoto recreates a very present Francis, tracing through his conflicted youth, to the first inspired steps of a beggar-saint, to the reluctant and eventually rejected leader of a movement that would have a far-flung and lasting impact. I would highly recommend this book if only because the life that inspired many thousands of others to forsake all in pursuit of living the Gospel is still so very inspiring.
I have to admit that Francis' commitment to poverty and simplicity of life & action is something that is just as necessary and relevant today as it was during his lifetime. In a society of conspicuous consumption, where for many what we own defines who we are, what greater challenge to the world can there be than someone who intentionally rejects the pursuit of stuff? And having rejected all that the world says we so desperately need, goes on to serve those that the world has rejected and the One whom it rejected, and does so with quiet joy? I think it is that last point, the joy, that is actually what is so challenging about Francis. He was wracked by physical illness, frequently rejected by the world and eventually rejected by the very movement he founded, his personal hopes and dreams (I never would have guessed Francis made a failed effort at participating in a Crusade!) lay unfulfilled and yet he lived and died devoted to and joyful in his Lord. And it is joy that the world truly covets. Contentment & security is what drives the consumption machine either in an effort to mask the profound sense of alienation and fear that permeates the world or to alleviate it, if only for a few moments.
And Francis unequivocally, unambiguously states that there is no joy to be had in things, indeed, in the very pursuit of joy itself. Joy is a by-product of a life lived against the grain of the world. This is very challenging to me, not in the least because Francis' life of poverty does not lend itself to caring for a family. How do I take the lessons that Francis teaches and apply them to my own life?