Augustine Thompson, O.P., professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California, has received a great deal of attention for his recent biography on Francis of Assisi—even having his book reviewed in the January 14th issue of The New Yorker—recognition he never expected when he started his project six years ago.
Thompson is excited to share with his audience in his upcoming lecture at the University of Chicago—“Francis of Assisi: Lost Between Myth and History” (January 24)—what inspired him to write on this popular saint. Why, as a Dominican, didn’t he write instead about the founder of his order, Saint Dominic?
Prior to his work on Francis, Thompson meticulously researched the time period in which both Francis and Dominic lived. The thirteenth century was a golden age of lay initiatives and movements—something which he thinks is crucial if the Church is to grow and flourish. “I firmly believe that the health of the Church depends on lay people being involved, not just clerics.” For this reason, he is impressed with the work of the Lumen Christi Institute: “the future health of the Church depends on faculty cultivating their own Catholicism.” He is convinced that the re-evangelization of the West will be accomplished when ordinary people speak of Christ by their words and lives.
Francis of Assisi—despite the hagiography that often paints him as a larger than life saint—was also an ordinary man. “Francis goes through dark nights of the soul, when he was feeling inadequate,” Thompson said in a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor. “Francis is not the birdbath saint, not someone who never discovered he was wrong on anything or who never had any doubts. He was a very fragile psyche, who carried with him a lot of demons, not just those that attacked him. He struggled with the horrors of the battles he witnessed. I don’t like doing psychology on someone who lived 800 years ago, but he was clearly traumatized by his time in the military.”
Thompson delights in being a historian—in the “thrill of the chase.” As a historian, sifting through the sources to find Francis, the man behind the legends, has been a daunting project—especially given that modern historical scholarship is at odds with a culture heavily influenced by a post-modern attitude in which the past can never adequately be understood.
Thompson says of himself: “I’m an old-fashioned liberal, not a post-modern. I believe in classical historical writing. In the nineteenth century—when history became a subject of study—we believed in a shared human nature, in essences, that a historian was a detective and could look at the evidence. We can do that because we are human. The post-modern says that you can’t know historical realities, that you can only know the ideologies.”
Thompson believes that his task—though long and painstaking—is possible, that a historian can cast light on a historical figure—in this particular case, a thirteenth-century urban Italian whose love of God and neighbor so impressed his contemporaries that eight centuries later we are still entranced by the truths and legends of his radical witness.
Register here for January 24th lecture.
Link to Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography
Link to Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article, Rich Man, Poor Man: The Radical Visions of St. Francis