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The Enthusiast: How the Best Friend of Francis of Assisi Almost Destroyed What He Started Paperback – April 8, 2016
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"In The Enthusiast, Jon Sweeney uses his sharp historical insight to shed light on the widely known, but little understood, friendship of St. Francis and Elias of Cortona. This book is an immense and important contribution to our understanding of the great saint." --Rev. Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"Among the hundreds of biographies of St. Francis of Assisi, The Enthusiast stands out as a truly great read. By telling the story of Elias of Cortona--who, in his zeal to honor his friend nearly destroyed the Franciscan legacy--Sweeney shows his gift for meticulous historical research and an eye for satisfying human drama." --Paula Huston, National Endowment for the Arts fellow and author of Simplifying the Soul
"Drawing on historical accounts, early Franciscan narratives, and his own imagination, Jon Sweeney creatively tells the story of Francis of Assisi anew, introducing along the way a key figure in the medieval drama too often overlooked: Brother Elias. Remembered as part-villain and part-hero, Elias's role in Franciscan history needs to be brought to light and Sweeney does his part to introduce the early friar to a new generation!" --Rev. Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., Author of The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton
"Jon Sweeney takes away the calcified, garden-statue image of St. Francis and returns to us something much more valuable. In The Enthusiast we meet the human saint, surrounded by the men and women who accompanied him in life and death. We meet a Francis who is flawed, strange, and disruptive, but unmistakably holy." --Kaya Oakes, Author of Radical Reinvention
"In The Enthusiast, Jon Sweeney takes the world's most popular lawn ornament and makes him a real, live human being with a complicated friend who almost destroyed St. Francis's entire life's work. Sweeney shows us that even saints (and their well-meaning friends) are never that simple, and he's refreshingly comfortable with the contradictions and tension at the heart of history, friendship, and humanity." --Jessica Mesman Griffith, Author of Love and Salt
About the Author
Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and one of religion's most respected writers. His work has been hailed by everyone from PBS and James Martin, S.J., to Fox News and Dan Savage. He's been interviewed on CBS Saturday Morning, Fox News, CBS-TV Chicago, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and on the popular program Chicago Tonight. Several of his books have become Book-of-the-Month Club and Quality Paperback Book Club selections. His popular medieval history, The Pope Who Quit, was published by Image/Random House and optioned by HBO. It was a selection of the History Book Club and received a starred review in Booklist. His book, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, received a 2015 award for excellence in history from the Catholic Press Association. His other words include Inventing Hell, The Complete Francis of Assisi, and The St. Francis Prayer Book. Sweeney writes regularly for America and The Tablet. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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This is a biography of St. Francis of Assisi "through the lens of the relationship that most consoled him", with Brother Elias of Cortona. Elias is called "Francis's friend, confidant, and source of strength." Elias often played the role of social buffer for iconoclast Francis, and many other traits of the men melded well so that Elias could be called Francis's soul mate.
The reader gets a front row seat for the conflict in the real medieval world between an idealist and a realist, Francis the idealist, Elias the realist. Today's pilgrims to Assisi know mainly the monuments created by the realist to honor the idealist, even if the basilicas in Assisi are the last things Francis would have wanted built.
Elias could envision the future for Assisi as "the world's pilgrimage destination" to honor the "greatest saint since the apostles". The first basilica was designed by Elias, and built under his supervision so he could do something special for his late friend, Francis: "make his name great on earth, as it is now in heaven".
The author set out to show the "complexities of a relationship between two men and shows how it changed their world...how idealism can be undone by the enthusiasm of one devoted follower." An understanding of fame and the growth of a business along with human psychology informs the author's work.
While a visionary, charismatic person can start a revolution, it is the strong, practical administrator with a sound, realistic vision who guides a revolution through to the established phase. As a new venture grows, the founder is often pushed aside for a new leader to run the show during the consolidation phase. The author shows that that applied to Francis's movement, and Elias was the leader who replaced him.
But when a revolution has to do with morality and faith, as in the case of St. Francis's new, modest religious orders, the risk is that the needs of politics and secular society will undermine the original intent of a movement. In many ways that did happen, and Elias repented of that later in life, and of his own vanity, greed and self-importance.
The reader learns along the way of Francis's childhood and some of the history of the era in which he lived. Francis's struggle to found an order of poverello brothers, poor brothers living as Christ preached, not as the contemporary church lived, in luxury, is detailed. This is Francis's story told with a greater focus on the people around him.
The author uses some conjecture and invents dialog to tell his story, attempting to humanize the caricatures that have crept into the history of Francis. The reader is reminded that real historical people surrounded Francis as he built his movement from the ground up. This book has a literate yet approachable style, with a strong novelistic feeling. The overall result is very entertaining.
I enjoyed most the clear view of the types of people who are drawn to a charismatic figure. True believers are there, as are those who see an opportunity for personal advancement. Sometimes, as in the case of Elias, those people are one and the same. The reader is treated to an account of how the central focus of a new movement, like St. Francis, can lose his position when his movement becomes bigger than him. I received a review copy of this book. This is my honest review. For the full and illustrated review, please visit Italophile Book Reviews.