A saint, but he was only human


By Wendy Murray. Basic Books. 304 pages. $25.95.

In “A Mended and Broken Heart,” religion scholar Wendy Murray provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the man who came to be known as St. Francis of Assisi.

Born in the late 12th century to a wealthy merchant and his French wife, Francis established an order of friars that would proliferate throughout the world. A symbiotic order for women, later known as the Poor Clares, was also established under the protection of the Franciscans.

Little is known about Clare, the woman who founded the Poor Clares under Francis' guidance. Murray's book is an attempt to cast some light onto their relationship. Murray posits that Francis and Clare had a strong, devoted relationship that may have been romantic at first, but which was subsumed into their passion for God.

Francis was not always saintly; Murray writes that he was “a complicated man.” In his early years he was the fashionable leader of a band of revelers who gave lavish parties and then roamed the streets of old Assisi, singing and rabble-rousing. Murray asserts that it is not unreasonable to assume that sometime during this period he may have had initial contact with Clare, the town beauty.

Later Francis went to war against a neighboring city, where he was captured and imprisoned for a year. Upon his return he underwent a conversion experience, and an unknown friend accompanied him as he sequestered himself in local caves for prayer. According to Murray, this unknown friend may have been Clare.

One certainty is that around age 18, Clare “put on her walking shoes and cloaked herself to face the bracing night winds” as she surreptitiously left home to become a penitent with Francis' aid and blessing.

While evidence of a romantic aspect to their relationship is not conclusive, in her meticulous efforts to uncover the truth, Murray outlines interesting possibilities and helps us come closer to understanding the links between earthly and divine love.

Novelist Pat MacEnulty lives in Charlotte.