Interview: Patricia Appelbaum on St. Francis of America

Patricia Appelbaum, author of St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint, talks with Gina Mahalek about St. Francis of Assisi’s influence on American culture.


Gina Mahalek: Why did you want to write about St. Francis?

Patricia Appelbaum author photoPatricia Appelbaum: He is everywhere in American culture. People who are not otherwise interested in saints often know about St. Francis and admire him. You can buy a statue of him at Walmart or at a garden center. You can download songs about him from iTunes. Mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and Roman Catholics all sing hymns by or about him, and some Eastern Orthodox honor him. The Blessing of the Animals on St. Francis day is a public phenomenon in New York and has spread across the nation. We don’t see this kind of multidimensional popularity and creative expression with, let’s say, St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Catherine of Siena.

GM: Did Pope Francis have anything to do with this?

PA: I started the book before Pope Francis was elected, but I find him a very striking figure. A famous Roman Catholic theologian remarked that no previous pope has dared to take the name of Francis. The saint’s example is a very challenging one—a call to radical but joyful poverty. I think the Pope is doing a remarkable job of balancing this call with the complex demands of the papacy.

GM: Who was St. Francis?

PA: Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 or 1182 and died in 1226. We have some good historical evidence about him and a lot of stories that may or may not be true. It seems clear that he grew up in a well-off merchant family and was lighthearted and extravagant as a young man. In his early twenties, following experiences of war and illness, he moved gradually toward religious commitment within his Roman Catholic context. Especially, he embraced absolute poverty and mendicancy—that is, not staying in one settled place. He gathered a small community of men who traveled, preached, worked as day laborers, begged, and served the poor and sick. Toward the end of his life Francis composed the “Canticle of the Sun,” a sort of chant or psalm that praises God through “Brother Sun,” “Sister Water,” and other features of the natural world. Many of the stories about him dwell on his closeness to birds and animals. Other narratives recount miracles and visions, fasting and self-mortification.

But it is not always easy to tell where historical evidence ends and legend begins. That’s one reason there have been so many interpretations of him.

GM: So are you going to tell us what’s really true about St. Francis?

PA: No. That’s not my agenda. What I wanted to do is to look at the ways he has been interpreted and presented—especially by non-Catholics, who don’t have a long tradition around sainthood.

I’m interested in how people relate to St. Francis, how they make pictures of him, and what they do in response to his example, for instance. I believe that many of these ideas and practices are historically conditioned. That is, they have arisen or evolved in response to the culture and circumstances of a particular time.

But there’s a paradox here. I’ve found that St. Francis often represents a cultural alternative. In other words, popular images of Francis evolve in response to their times, but they have often evolved to signify an alternative to the times. That alternative might be a longing for medieval simplicity in the early industrial period, or an ironic distance in the Roaring Twenties, or environmentalist action in the conservative 1980s. There are lots more examples.

GM: So, how did a thirteenth-century friar become America’s most popular saint?

appelbaum_stFrancisPA: There was a process of rediscovery that began around the middle of the nineteenth century. Protestants were gradually beginning to realize that the history of Christianity before the Reformation pertained also to them, where they had previously tended to leave it to the Catholics. Europeans were ahead of Americans in this process, but there was a lot of transatlantic readership and communication. Americans got in the act pretty quickly. Oddly enough, New England Unitarians were among the first to take an interest in this Catholic history.

But Francis keeps right on being popular as the times change. People discover new aspects of him or interpret him in new ways. He is rethought, reimagined, maybe even reinvented in every era. So he becomes America’s most popular saint over and over.

GM: How were nineteenth-century ideas of Francis different from our own?

PA: Well, people didn’t instantly think of garden statues or birdbaths, because those didn’t come along until later. Several early writers introduced Francis as a sort of proto-Protestant: a missionary and preacher and a person who loved freedom. Others pointed out his importance to Italian poetry. They saw Francis as a sort of forerunner to Dante, who was the first major poet in the Italian vernacular, because Francis’s “Canticle” was one of the first works to be written down in the vernacular rather than in Latin. The Victorians also thought he was very important as an inspiration to Giotto, a hinge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the inspiration for humanistic art.

Francis also caught people’s attention as a person who had lived like Jesus. This was in a time when interest in the human Jesus was growing, and Francis’s story suggested that it was humanly possible to do what Jesus did. The idea of imitating Jesus, of doing what the Bible says he did—without institutions or religious laws, just the believer and God—this is an idea that resonates deeply with American culture. Liberals and conservatives have both been caught up in it at times.

GM: You’ve mentioned Jewish, Buddhist, and other non-Christian images of Francis. Tell us more about those.

PA: Yes. Even in the nineteenth century, we find scattered suggestions that Francis has a kind of universal meaning. But this idea developed much further after the mid-twentieth century.

For example, in the 1940s, a couple of American Vedanta publications described Francis in Hindu terms. The great Jewish writer Bernard Malamud used Francis as a theme throughout his novel The Assistant to explore self-sacrifice, romance, and other issues. His character “Frank” is a poor wanderer, like Francis. But in the end Frank converts to Judaism. I understand this to mean that Malamud is able to see St. Francis as a Jew. Most recently, a number of texts and images offer us a Francis who is sympathetic to Islam—a model of interfaith dialogue and toleration.

GM: Does this tendency have anything to do with Francis’s prayer for peace? Why is his “peace prayer” so popular? And where did it come from?

PA: There’s no evidence that Francis composed this prayer. But most people actually don’t seem to mind—they often say that reflects the “spirit” of St. Francis even if he didn’t write it. It first surfaced in French around 1913, and it was circulating in English by the 1930s. Part of its meaning for that era was its emphasis on peace in a time of international tension.

But it’s popular for many more reasons than that. It’s more interpersonal than international. It emphasizes personal transformation as the way to peace: seeking to understand and to love. So its political implications are minimal, and it is open to free interpretation and individual appropriation. Theologically, it’s very loose; it doesn’t insist on particular doctrines. It doesn’t even mention Jesus or Christ. So it’s not only acceptable to all different kinds of Christians, it’s also free to move outside Christianity. Everyone from Alcoholics Anonymous to 1960s hippies to contemporary pop musicians has used it.

GM: You said that the Victorians didn’t have St. Francis birdbaths or garden statues. Why are these figures so common today? Do they have any deeper meaning?

PA: I started out thinking that the garden statue was kind of a cliché. Imagine just going out and buying a mass-produced plastic image and thinking there is something special about it! Commercial statuary seemed to trivialize Francis’s meaning, to make him less challenging. Instead of a figure who calls for drastic change, radical poverty, and absolute devotion—a saint who was active in the wider world—our vision is limited to a pretty statue and birdbath on our private property.

But I came to change my views. There’s a real spiritual side to this, and also a cultural critique. A garden is a liminal space, a sort of threshold between indoors and outdoors, private and public, domesticity and nature. Scholars of religion say that liminal spaces, in many cultures, are thought to be spiritually charged—places where people are most likely to encounter the divine. So there is a certain fitness or logic to placing the image of a holy figure—no matter what he means to you exactly—in that liminal space. And a statue of Francis often creates a quiet, meditative space. In our busy and hyper-connected times, that can be a real countercultural statement.

GM: Even today, some people think of Francis as the “original hippie.” Did people think of him that way during the real hippie era, the 1960s and early ’70s?

PA: Oh, yes. The earliest San Francisco hippies were very aware of St. Francis. It wasn’t until somewhat later, the early 1970s, that mainstream opinion made that connection, but the idea has proved quite lasting. In the hippie era, Francis was regarded as antiauthoritarian and nonconformist, a barefoot drifter who rejected materialism and a peace-lover who would have opposed the Vietnam War. To a youth culture suspicious of hypocrisy, Francis was one who lived out his beliefs, who had personal authenticity.

In fact, Francis was declared the patron saint of the Summer of Love—the wild celebration of peace, community, and music in San Francisco in 1967.

As I said, it wasn’t until a few years later that the mainstream press and public began associating Francis with the youth movement of the day. One powerful expression of this was Franco Zeffirelli’s movie about Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. We have accounts of grown men weeping after seeing it. Zeffirelli’s actors looked like young hippies, and he told the story in a way that emphasized the search for more meaning in life than just making money.

GM: I’ve always thought of ecology and the environmental movement as something that grew out of the hippie era. What did the environmentalist movement make of Francis?

PA: The roots of the movement go back before the hippie era, for example to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. But it certainly overlaps with the social changes of the later 1960s. One very important moment was in 1967, when an essayist in a scientific journal proposed St. Francis as “a patron saint for ecologists.” The author argued that environmental destruction was a consequence of Christian culture, with its mandate to subdue the earth. And yet he found in Francis a European Christian figure who could represent a contrary impulse. This essay was the opening item in the first Earth Day handbook in 1970. That’s not to say that environmentalists embraced Francis universally or all at once. Still, by the 1980s American culture generally linked Francis with environmentalism, and that idea is alive and well today.

GM: This all sounds very confusing for people who find spiritual meaning in St. Francis. Do you have anything to say to them?

PA: Yes. Some of my research was a survey of living people about just that. I was amazed and humbled by the depth and creativity of their responses to Francis. They helped me discern the varied meanings in common cultural materials like the peace prayer and the Blessing of the Animals service. I do think, though, that there are some limits to what we can say about St. Francis; we shouldn’t rely on imagination alone. I would suggest that history and spirituality need to be in dialogue with each other.

Patricia Appelbaum is an independent scholar of religion and American culture. She is author of St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint and Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era.