Introduction by John Michael Talbot
Loyola Classics reissue by LoyolaPress
First published in 1962
This should not be the first book you read about St. Francis. It is a book for those who are already familiar with the saint. It is a novelization, or fictionalization of the adult life of St. Francis, as told through the eyes of a fictional Brother Leo.
The story is well woven by Kazantzakis, a prolific writer who spent most of his life (1883-1957) in Greece, but who gave up his Greek Orthodox faith at some point in his life (and did not embrace any other faith), who was introduced to St. Francis when he visited the city of Assisi.
As historical fiction, this book serves as an interesting chance to hear more details about St. Francis's everyday life. It focuses especially on the struggle between spirit and flesh, and the saint is constantly battling fatigue, starvation, extreme thirst, and even when he is weakened by these, he is still searching for ways to mortify his flesh, something Brother Leo tries to stop but cannot.
I can clearly see how this book would be of benefit to those who would like help imagining St. Francis's daily life. And his heroic virtues are evident in the story, and are exemplary. However, this book is not for those who want to stick to the historical record. For example, the main character, Brother Leo, is ficticious. And I know of no historical eveidence that the brothers who banded with St. Francis ever called him "Father Francis" which Kazantzakis has them do. St. Francis was never ordained a priest, and so would not have been called "Father."
There are study questions at the end of the book to assist book clubs in bringing out the ideas of the book. There are but 12 questions, each of which could be discussed in a session. For example, "Francis preaches and lives out of a total dependence on God. What did this mean for him in terms of the concrete realities of his daily life? What might it mean for you?"
This book shows the challenges of living as a saint in the world, and in addition, as one reads, one is challenged to question one's own life and the things we think of as important. Francis's poverty is exemplary, his dependence on God marvelous, his attractiveness is evident as more and more men come to him, seeking the life he lives, seeking God.
I think that for adults, this book can be helpful. It shows St. Francis is a very vividly imaginative story, and unusual telling of his life. Yet, it is also a story that draws you in, and helps the reader think about God, life and living as a saint.