Saint Francis

an amazing encounter with the “alter christus”

It’s always best to drop your baggage and approach each book you read with a fresh, expectant state of mind, but undoubtedly, many people will find that difficult with Saint Francis, as I did, with an aversion to wordy translations. No matter. By the time I was fifty pages into the book, that “baggage” was history, and I was entranced by Kazantzakis’ incredible retelling of this man’s story, the man whose life was so radically distinctive in purity, poverty, and peace, that he created one of the most lasting and far-reaching reforms in Church history.

Saint Francis starts slowly, with Francis’ companion Brother Leo mourning the death of his friend and bemoaning the years of self-denial he suffered in following Francis and his life of self-imposed deprivations. He begins to write of the life of Francis, at first erratically, and then, chronologically, remembering how he met him, and how God began changing Francis. From this point on, (about the fifty-page point) Leo’s recollection becomes a seamless chronological narrative, inevitably progressing from fascinating to gripping to utterly captivating. I read the last seventy or so pages in one sitting, and felt I was not in this time or space, but with Francis himself at the incredible close of the earthly phase of his life.

Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, Saint Francis is much more biography than fiction. The main fiction Kazantzakis uses is making Brother Leo the constant companion to Saint Francis, and thus an eyewitness to all the miracles in his ministry. (In reality, although Leo was one of his first brothers and biographers, he did not accompany him on all the journeys.) Leo also conveys the irresistible charisma of Francis, and the contagiousness of his vision of abandoning all worldly desires to pursue and serve Jesus through boundless love for not just every person, but everything, with determined peace, and perfect simplicity.

This book is dangerous, in the same way the Gospel is dangerous:If you are satisfied with your spiritual life and want no challenges, don’t read this book, because it might blow you away.

Am I exaggerating? Soon after I began read Saint Francis, I seriously began to consider formally becoming a Franciscan. While I’ve since realized that I don’t have a Franciscan vocation, something of the spirit of St. Francis has stayed with me to this day, years after encountering this wonderful book.

Don’t read this book at all, unless you want to fall more deeply and passionately in love with Jesus Christ. But if you do, run to a rare bookstore or library and get it! And as Francis would say, may Peace and Good rain upon you.

The Alchemist

a spiritual gem

With nearly two million copies sold around the world, this wonderful fable is becoming recognized for what it is—one of the truly great charmers of the late twentieth century. It’s like a surprisingly cool sea breeze coming over the desert in the evening. The innocence and charm of this fable are comparable to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but The Alchemist is more humorous, more spiritual, and wiser. This is the story of Santiago, a wanderlust shepherd boy in Spain, who decides to act upon a dream he has one night—of discovering a buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt.

Santiago’s journey is not easy, but his humility, faith, and simplicity are simply unshakable. In fact, he is so naïve (in the best way possible) that it does not seem to occur to him that he could be shaken. Reading it, I was reminded of something Søren Kierkegaard wrote regarding spiritual warfare:

One thing there is which all Satan’s cunning and all the snares of temptation cannot take by surprise, and that is simplicity.

After Santiago has his dream, he is soon visited by Melchizedek, the mysterious King of Salem, who tells him that soon after someone embarks upon the path of their destiny, all the Universe conspires to help them, but only for a little while. Soon after embarking upon a trip to Africa, his money is gone and he must struggle, as almost all of us do, with precariously balancing his material needs against not losing sight of his dream and his destiny. I don’t want to give too much away, but Santiago does a much better job than most of us. He never confuses the good for the best, in spite of all temptations to fear, anger, hardships, contentment, pride in achievements, and other distractions that successfully derail most of us from pursuing our callings. Santiago’s weapons are not “determination,” but trust, not willpower, but fascination, and not strength, but wonder.

One of most poignant passages comes after Santiago leaves a comfortable oasis in Egypt, (and his new love) to attend to his dream once more. As he pauses in the desert, a horseman dressed in black rushes him, with a scimitar raised to kill. Instead of fleeing or or attempting to fight, Santiago bows his head for the blow, ready to accept even death as a gift of the adventure. His steadiness has become what St. Francis of Assisi called “perfect joy,” a joy that is totally independent of any kind of circumstance on earth, being rooted so strongly in faith.

The Alchemist is profoundly spiritual without being preachy in any way. Anyone who reads it will be impressed that this is a spiritual metaphor, an extended parable about searching for our true heart’s desire, the gold that lies buried within our own souls. It is interesting to compare this book with the more popular Celestine Prophecy. I see Coelho’s little gem as being everything the latter book should have been, but wasn’t.