Francis: A Saintís Way
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2001, £10.99
(price at publication
I enjoyed this book. It is a bit wacky at times, and the author comes up with some surprising ideas, but because of that it gives a fresh outlook on Francis beyond the more hagiographical tone common among his biographers.
The book is a kind of travel diary, written as the author wandered around Umbria and the towns and places connected with Francis, recording his reflections on the spirit that animated Francis. He tells the story of Francis, but the emphasis is much more on the spirituality of Francis, and how he was influenced by the places in which he chose to live.
James Cowan is not a Franciscan specialist. This comes out in a number of factual errors, such as attributing a story about Brother Giles to Thomas of Celano, when it comes from the Little Flowers, or saying that the cross that spoke to Saint Francis is still at San Damiano (that is a replica Ė the original is at the Basilica of Saint Clare). But these are minor points and if you want factual detail there are plenty of more scholarly biographies to try. This one is more of an impressionist portrait and its strength is in its leaps of imagination. Sometimes I was left a little bemused by these leaps, as when he says: ĎItís said that [Francis] was fascinated with the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, seeing in them the stellar orchestration of the names of his later orders, the Friars Major and the Friars Minor.í Where he got that from I have no idea, but itís an interesting thought: a lost order of Friars Major. Could this be the Fourth Order?
One connection that is brought out in this book is the possible influence of Sufi mysticism on Francis during his visit to Egypt and Palestine. This is not often discussed and deserves greater consideration. Eckhart, too, gets a few mentions and it is really Francis as a mystic in the context of medieval spirituality that the author is trying to discover.
Perhaps the central theme, however, is the spirituality of place. How do our surroundings form our spirituality? In the course of his reflections, the author vividly brings to mind the places connected with Francis and imaginatively dialogues with the Francis who stood on that same ground. If nothing else this book may arouse a desire for pilgrimage.
Nicholas Alan SSF
Journey to the Inner Mountain - In the desert with St. Antony
ISBN 0 340 78659 0
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2002, £7.99
(price at publication of review)
Reviewed January 2005; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2004
Around the middle of the third century CE a young Egyptian man, lost in thought, walked into a church and heard the Gospel saying of Jesus: 'Go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.' Immediately he gave away all he had and, having learnt the ways of prayer from a saintly old man living nearby, went into the desert to begin a lifetime of solitude, silence and prayer.
Thus begins the life of St. Antony, whose story as told by Athanasius became a foundation document of Christian monasticism. In his book Journey to the Inner Mountain, James Cowan imaginatively engages with the story of Antony, exploring the inner struggles of the man as he enters the desert of his own being. The book was written in Egypt itself, at the monastery now established at the base of the mountain where Antony finally withdrew. There Cowan finds a hermit of the Syrian Orthodox tradition living just below the cave of St. Antony, and together they discuss the teachings of the Hesychast (Stillness) tradition of Orthodox prayer that flowed from the experience of the early desert monks and nuns. In this way the book not only gives a good introduction to Orthodox spirituality, but roots it in a narrative that brings alive the sights and sounds of its desert springs. Cowan keeps returning to the question of how such an ascetic life may be possible in the busy world of today, and he is engagingly honest in his recognition of the difficulties involved. But his enthusiasm and affectionate evocation of place make this an inspiring book to read. He brings the desert alive and encourages the reader also to turn to its sages for wisdom in their journey to the inner mountain, to the cave of the heart.
Nicholas Alan SSF
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