Sex, drugs, and mandolins. That pretty much describes the first half of Francis of Assisi’s life, says best-selling author David Spoto.
His book, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi premieres as a TV special Palm Sunday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. EDT (check local listings) on cable’s Hallmark Channel .
Born in 1182 into a wealthy Italian textile family, Francis “spent half his life as a rather disgraceful playboy. Stranger to no excess, he began to experience a series of graces which began his conversion,” Spoto recently told a Los Angeles audience. The author has also written biographies about Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, Tennessee Williams, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
By hook or crook
“Reluctant Saint” asserts that saints are not born heroes, but are painstakingly made through a lifetime of challenges, graces, missteps, and an unquenchable thirst to keep searching for God.
Francis, good-looking and sociable, nevertheless got tired of a rich life of pleasure that bought him no peace. He began to re-think his lifestyle when captured during a civil war and thrown into a dungeon for a year. After being released he heard God calling him to transform a Catholic church in crisis. Francis rejected material possessions and embraced a life of poverty and an appreciation of nature.
A broken world of possibilities
He did so at a time when wars among sparring kings were frequent. The poor wandered crowded streets. Despite achievements in the sciences, arts and education, diseases were striking villages and countries. The pope had vast armies and used them. The Christian Crusades were in full force against the Muslims.
“Never before had the world been so full of promise and possibility, and never before was it so drenched in violence,” said Spoto, an alum from Fordham University in New York
Francis took to traveling around Europe saying what was then considered outrageous and near heresy: “May the Lord give you peace.”
The lunatic channel of peace
Many thought him crazy. But as he persisted preaching a message of peace, Francis began to attract many war-weary followers who cared for the poor.
Then Francis did something unprecedented in history, said Spoto. During the Fifth Crusade in 1219, he, a Catholic, went to meet the leader of the Muslim forces, the sultan of Egypt. Expecting to be slaughtered on the spot, Francis was instead greeted by a devout man of prayer. The experience forever changed his outlook on Muslims.
A fragile, difficult man
Francis, who died at 44, was frequently sick. Malaria, failing eyesight, even leprosy. He wasn’t a good administrator and was difficult to get along with.
But God kept talking to him. And Francis, however reluctantly sometimes, listened often enough. It’s the true stuff of saints we need to hear more often, said Spoto.
“You and I have not been well served by most lives of the saints that have been written and given to us, primarily because their humanity has been erased,” said Spoto. But if you scratch the surface of a saint?s life, he added, “you will find that the first moment of conversion begins a life long process, which is incomplete until death.”
In other words, saints, even Francis, wore life-long busted halos . Like you and I. And God’s call to spirituality and conversion is not a one-time shot, but a daily invitation.