Pious forgeries are still with us. I’ve been studying modern treatments of St. Francis of Assisi for a while, and I learned a long time ago (thanks to the good work of my predecessors) that the well-known “prayer of St. Francis” – the one that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” – is a twentieth-century creation. Recently, though, I’ve realized that there are many more spurious quotations out there, so I am beginning to collect them. I have not yet tracked down many sources; that remains to be done. What I’m thinking about right now is their meaning.
One current favorite is “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The many variant versions suggest that this aphorism has already entered into folklore. (Of course, the Internet has an unprecedented ability to multiply and spread this kind of material.) This saying is quite consistent with what we know of Francis – preaching was an important part of his mission, and all sources and commentators would agree that he enacted his message as much as he verbalized it. It’s even consistent with the humor and wit, the sense of reversal, that surfaces in most accounts of his life. But there’s no record that he actually said it.
Another one is a blessing attributed to Francis’s counterpart Clare: “Live without fear. Your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you like a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God’s blessing remain with you always.” This one, appealing though it is, is a little more far-fetched than the first. The few documents that we have from Clare’s hand are nothing like this. They evince a sense of humility and sacrifice, and her God-language is all masculine in the traditional way. The idea that we are created holy would be alien to her (and to a good deal of Jewish and Christian tradition).
These “quotes” have turned up in published sources, sermons, and other places that ought to be reasonably reliable. A quick Internet search will reveal lots more, including many variations on the theme of preaching through actions.
This phenomenon suggests several things to me. To begin with, many practitioners of religion aren’t really worried about accuracy. If a text offers some kind of spiritual truth, or illuminates some kind of spiritual question, that’s good enough. This is probably as true of liberals as of literalists. It suggests that Enlightenment and modernist concerns have lost much of their impact, if indeed they ever penetrated very far into everyday practice.
It also suggests that the authority of the past is still very powerful. So is the authority of holy figures. We know, of course, that many texts, from biblical periods onward, derived authority from attribution: to a prophet, an apostle, a philosopher, a saint. But we would expect modern people, the heirs of scientific history, to look for authority in accuracy – in reliable documents and sources, in careful interpretation, in accountability. And we would expect postmoderns to work with the text as it stands, regardless of source or authority. Most contemporary Americans would laugh at the idea that anyone would need to attribute a text to an authority figure from the past in order for it to be taken seriously.
And yet these little texts do not circulate as anonymous aphorisms or blessings – they are presented as quotations. The holy figure from the past provides authority. Without attribution, a proverb or blessing or poem is just another text, to be considered, evaluated, and perhaps forgotten. Attached to St. Francis, it makes a stronger claim to be taken seriously and to be remembered.
But perhaps we should read this phenomenon the other way around. Perhaps it is devotion to the saint that generates the saying. Perhaps devotees of Francis are looking, consciously or unconsciously, for fresh ways to get his message across, to make it meaningful in the present. If a formulation sounds as if he could have said it, someone will make a short leap from “could have” to “actually did” or to “would have if he were living today.” Or if it is circulated in connection with his name, or his picture, or his followers, someone will make the leap to direct attribution.
This is roughly what happened in the case of the “peace prayer.” (I’ve even seen a website that names Francis as author of the “Little Flowers,” a collection compiled some hundred years after his death in which he is described in the third person.) And again, most devotees don’t care very much. It’s often said of the “peace prayer” that it conveys the spirit of St. Francis, even if he didn’t actually write it.
But this line of reasoning doesn’t work well for the blessing attributed to Clare. True, it may have been associated with her name or image at some point. But it seems very distant from her voice and her actions. It doesn’t seem to convey her spirit at all. Instead, again, the attribution invokes her power and authority. A formulation that meets some contemporary need is attached to an important figure from the past. Why it should be Clare in this case I don’t know: the blessing clearly has female references, but there is nothing particularly Claretian about it. Still, its users do not allow it to be anonymous.
What I am saying is largely speculative, I know, though it is informed by what we know of folkloric processes and historical practices. But my real purpose is to think about religious believers’ uses of history. And their relationship to St. Francis seems a good place to begin.
In one sense, history signifies reality. One reason Francis appeals to modern and contemporary people is that he is historical and therefore “real.” His life is reasonably well-documented, we can connect him with dates and a family and a place (although this last generates some other interesting questions). He acted a lot like Jesus, but no one claimed that he was more than human; he was bound by time and space and physical reality, as all historical actors are.
Many believers are looking for a usable past, and Francis is appealing because he is at least theoretically a role model. Many of his actions were concrete and simple, and people can at least conceive of imitating them. (Many of his actions were also rather mad, but that raises other complicated questions.) The spurious quotes may be a way of creating a collective memory – a shared interpretation of Francis that is comprehensible and useful in the present. These little texts, anonymously produced, collectively circulated, make oblique suggestions about meaning – sometimes invented meaning.
And holy figures from the past still carry a surprising amount of authority. Pious forgeries are still being attributed to Francis and Clare, less because of their historicity than because of their moral weight. Despite Americans’ reputation for being ahistorical, many religious Americans are still looking to the past for support. We may be more medieval than we think.