In his wild, poetic, and imaginative work of fiction The Gospel of Gabriel: A Life of Jesus the Christ, Edward Hays opened our eyes to the presence of divine love "as free as the wind and as fenceless as the horizon." That same creativity, vibrancy, and concern for the meaning of the Good News in our time is evident in this medieval novel about Francis of Assisi. Hays, a Catholic priest who is retired from active ministry, notes that this barefooted preacher and prophet speaks to us across the ages not as "the serene patron saint of birdbaths" but as "a holy man of the margins." This author of 28 books of contemporary spirituality hopes his latest effort will enable readers to sense their own holy calling into sainthood and feel what it is like for Francis "to set our hearts madly ablaze with love for God, Christ, all humanity and all creation."
Those familiar with the extraordinary life of St. Francis will savor the author's descriptions of his trip to France for a grand fair of cloth merchants; the flamboyant youth's difficulty in discerning the conflicting voices in his heart calling him to be a merchant, a troubadour, or a priest; his imprisonment during the war against the neighboring city-state of Perugia; his desertion from the army at Spoleto; his call to "rebuild the Church" which began at the tumbled-down chapel at San Damiano and expanded into a much broader and deeper mission; his break from his family and wealthy community; his trip to Rome to have his new order Friar's Minor approved by Pope Innocent III; the calling of Clare to a life of poverty and consecration to Christ; his pilgrimage to Spain; the challenge to maintain the poverty and the simplicity of his brotherhood once it grew larger; and his illness and welcoming of Sister Death in 1226.
Hays offers a radical, bold, and full-hearted salute to the legacy of Francis of Assisi. Through the character of Padre Antonio, a hermit who becomes the monk's spiritual director and mentor, the author offers fresh and startling insights into a mystical Christianity that honors questions and doubts as a spur to faith; celebrates the Divine Presence in the good Earth and all its creatures; exalts the glorious freedom of the children of God; relishes laughter, dancing and singing; respects the long journey that each person must take to become the person that the Holy One has destined him or her to become; and challenges all to become saints by accepting the passionate embrace of divine grace.
Hays sets off plenty of sparks in this novel when he envisions Francis as a forerunner of an inclusive, global spirituality that honors all those who walk with integrity on their own unique path. In one dazzling section, Francis spends some time in Spain with a Jew and a Sufi who convince him of the truth of Peter's words in the Acts of the Apostles: "I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever is in awe of God in an upright way is acceptable to God." Hays also does a fine job conveying Francis as a messenger of peace, a pioneer in the preferential option for the poor, and a lover of lay ministry in the midst of everyday life. The moral and spiritual education that this passionate troubadour emblazoned in his thoughts, words, and deeds is just what we need to remake our little worlds into the places that God has dreamed they could be: ones of great love, joy, hospitality, compassion, devotion, service and zest for life!