The poor you will have with you always." For most people, it's little more than a curious phrase attributed to Jesus that today finds itself attached to myriad charitable causes. But for Francesco di Pietro Bernardone, the son of an Italian cloth merchant, a young man born in the 12th century, the very idea of accepting -- even embracing -- poverty was nothing short of a revolutionary idea that lay on the path to sainthood.
In her new book, Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis (Knopf), novelist Valerie Martin seeks that true St. Francis, the zealot who sought spiritual wealth in physical poverty. She successfully shoos away the small animals and birds that have hovered around him in modern myth (there's no reason to believe he had any extraordinary relationship to nature) and reestablishes his most unusual relationship to property: he had little and wanted none.
As Martin explains in Salvation's vibrantly written introduction, Francesco forsook his inheritance when he was quite a young man and began living life as a beggar, homeless, penniless and dependent on the charity and good will of those he encountered. Throughout his life, he insisted that those who joined him renounce all earthly possessions except for "one habit, quilted inside and out if they wished, with a cord and breeches."
"Perhaps the assumption that God wants us to get rich is no more absurd than the one Francesco made, that he wants us poor, that he wants us to suffer, as he did, the contempt of the world," Martin writes. "But there's nothing heroic, in my view, about praying for a windfall, whereas there is something heroic, touching, and grand about Francesco's famous gesture, stripping himself in the town square and throwing himself upon the charity of his neighbors. Like most of us, Francesco knew his neighbors."
Italy, Martin feels, has not forgotten. "In some way, what made me interested in St. Francis was the way I noticed that Italians respond to beggars, which is they don't mind them," she says in a phone interview from her home in upstate New York. "In fact, I watched a woman one day instructing her little son about how to go up to the beggar and give him a coin. There's sort of a national consciousness that there was once this beggar who believed that, because he was a beggar, that gave people the opportunity to be Christian by giving to the poor."
Growing up in New Orleans, Martin says, all she knew of St. Francis were the garden statues she would occasionally encounter. The saints who loomed largest for her -- and for many New Orleanians -- were St. Roch, St. Joan of Arc and St. Therese of Lisieux. All that changed when Martin moved to Italy as an adult and began encountering St. Francis everywhere. As the patron saint of Italy, Francesco's name adorns everything, from historical plaques to restaurant signage. Movies about St. Francis air on Italian television. And, most importantly to the text that Martin had begun to develop, frescoes depicting his life hang in churches.
"Most saints lives begin at the top, at the beginning of the life, and [the artists] paint downward," Martin says of the frescoes. "For some reason, which nobody really knows, in St. Francis' case that was reversed. So they start at the end and end at the beginning."
Salvation follows suit, beginning with Francesco's death and working its way back to the moment of his epiphany. In choosing such an original construction, Martin also was adopting the form of early hagiographies, writings for which the novelist professes a lifelong affinity.
But what she most wanted to accomplish was a sense of atmosphere. "Francesco stands alone on the bare ledge," Martin writes, "his arms outstretched, his palms turned up, his head dropped forward so that his chin nearly touches his breastbone. ... A drop strikes his brow, another smashes against his palm, sharp and cold. Behind him, from the branches of a stunted laurel, a piercing cry issues, then he hears the beating of the wings as a hawk hurtles past him over the edge and up into the brooding mass of the clouds. ... He can feel rather than see the big wings snap in, then spread wide, as the creature catches a powerful updraft and disappears into the dark center of the storm, where Francesco is trying hard to send his own soul. 'Who are you?' he asks."
Martin has acknowledged that she is not a religious person, but admits she found much in St. Francis to admire. "I wouldn't want to be like him," Martin says, "but I couldn't help but admire his tenacity and his commitment to an idea. Most of us are idealistic when we're young and then it goes away. For him it never really did."