FORTY YEARS AGO a gentle Franciscan high school teacher penned a seminal book about St. Francis. It wasn’t a biography or a treatise on the little Poor Man of Assisi but a romantic, imaginative work that presents the saint from the inside out. Francis is a saint for seekers because he was one himself. He first set out to be a knight, fighting with the army of Walter of Brienne, was captured and taken prisoner in Perugia. He returned to Assisi, a sick and melancholy 22-year-old who didn’t know what to do with himself.
So he prayed harder and listened deeper to his dream of glory for the Lord. It eventually led him to kiss a leper, rebuild chapels, renounce his father’s wealth and privilege, embrace Lady Poverty and turn his friends into fellow travelers radically committed to the gospel. They preached by their words and by their lives.
In the end, Francis allied himself so closely with Jesus Christ that he came to share his wounds (the stigmata) and died covered only by another friar’s habit. Within a couple of years he was declared a saint by the Catholic Church, and his followers numbered into the thousands.
This is the story Father Murray Bodo, O.F.M., tells in his book and reflected on in an April interview with St. Anthony Messenger. Born in Gallup, New Mexico, he was an English teacher at St. Francis High School Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1970 when Father Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, asked him to write a book about St. Francis. Father Jeremy had heard about Franco Zeffirelli’s new movie project about St. Francis that became Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and wanted to capitalize on it, while presenting a thoroughly Franciscan view.
Father Murray devoted the spring and summer of 1972 to writing his book. He went to Italy to absorb firsthand something of the geography and atmosphere (“the spirituality of place”) Sts. Francis and Clare knew. In traveling to Assisi, the priest says he found he was not just moving geographically, but also moving back in time. It freed his right brain to deal with Francis, not the analytical Ph.D. side of him.
But at whom exactly was the book aimed? “When the writing was happening, I realized that I was the audience,” Father Murray remembers. “If it worked for me, then I was praying it was going to work for someone else.”
He next came to see his audience as the young men of the boarding school with whom he lived 24 hours a day, nine months of the year.
Finally came the idea that the book might have a larger reach: “I was writing somehow deeply from within. It was almost—I don’t want to be dramatic or false here—like I was an instrument of something that was coming from deep within me and from within the Franciscan tradition. From the fact of being in Assisi, I could almost feel Francis and Clare on the streets, and all of that, I think, was forming and informing the book.”