Francis of Assisi: A Life for All Seasons, by Lord Longford (Weidenfeld & Nicholson £5.95)
In this, his latest book, Lord Longford has attempted to do two things. Firstly, he presents an adequate, albeit brief, account of the life of St Francis of Assisi, effectively using particular instances to weave a composite biography of the saint.
This is supplemented by an interesting reflection on St Bonaventure's Life of Francis and also by a short history of the Franciscan movement. But the author wants to do more than write a biography. He intends, as the sub-title points out, to show that this is a "life for all seasons". Here we come to the second part of the book, where St Francis' attitude to a wide variety of current problems is deduced.
These range from the mentally disturbed to immigrants, from poverty to homosexuality, and from war to pornography. It is always dangerous to predict how someone would have acted, and the intervention of seven and a half centuries makes this task no easier.
It is difficult to discover exactly what criteria Lord Longford uses to determine how Francis would have acted in situations so removal from those of this own age. But it is certainly a valid and necessary question to ask.
It would seem that if St Francis' life tells us anything, it is that example is more powerful than words and that action is more compelling than theory.
It is true, as Lord Longford points out, that Francis was involved with outcasts and prisoners, but it takes a great leap of the imagination to see Francis campaigning against pornography.
It is in instances such as these, when the book fails to use evidence from the life of Francis, that Lord Longford tends to overstate what at best seems to be a tenuous argument.
It must also be admitted that Lord Longford has attempted, in a brave and imaginative way, to answer some of the social and political problems which he sees as confronting the Christian of today. The actual selection of these problems seems to be determined, to a great extent, by Lord Longford's own interests.
However, in most cases, although not all, the answer provided would seem to be that of an informed and concerned 20th century Christian, which is a tenable description of Lord Longford.
When this is accepted one can explain the annoying recurrence of the phrase "no doubt" which usually forms an introduction to what Francis "would" do. There is a distinct tendency here of sub jective speculation, which tells the reader slightly more about Lord Longford than it does about St Francis.
The major failing of this book seems to be in dealing with the unique, dynamic and totally unpredictable side of St Francis. This is nowehcre better illustrated than in the difficulty which the author finds in understanding Francis' relationship to his father.
It is not seen as an application of the "hard words" of the Gospel, of leaving the dead to bury the dead, of leaving all for Christ, but rather as an embarrassing and inexplicable lapse on the part of the saint.
But this is not to decry the book completely, for as a reflection by a concerned and intelligent Christian on the life of St Francis and its relation to contemporary problems, it provides a great deal of interest. It is certainly stimulating in that it is successful in encouraging the reader to think about these problems and somehow to relate the charisma of St Francis to them.
This is necessary if St Francis is to have any more than a vague romantic influence on Christian life in the twentieth century
Brian Lowden, OFM