Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron

A prophetic novel looks back to St. Francis of Assisi for a new vision of what it means to be a Christian

Ian Morgan Cron’s 2013 novel, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, makes me yearn to be a real Christian.

I finished the book two days ago, and it’s still tugging at me. As is the question of what it means to be a Christian.

There was a time, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1960s, when I was sure what a Christian was. And I believed I was one.

I belonged to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, an evangelical student organization that held retreats on Cape Cod and Bible studies in dorm rooms on campus. I loved HRCF and was proud to be considered a member.

Having been raised a Unitarian — we proudly prayed To Whom It May Concern — the idea of accepting Jesus Christ as a personal savior was radically new terrain for me.

I explored it, awkwardly at first, largely because I had such respect for my fellow students who gathered under the fellowship’s banner. They were bright, earnest, kind, energized, and purposeful. I was also smitten with a Wellesley College student who was active in HRCF. I knew I would enjoy attending any Bible study or retreat where she was in attendance.

First Parish Church (Unitarian), Wayland, Mass.

In fact, I had been in love with Sally since third grade, when her family moved from Wayland, Mass., to Eden, New York. Her departure broke my heart and gave rise to a recurring fantasy of climbing a ladder to rescue her from her burning house. That imagined scene was how I fell asleep most nights from fourth grade through high school.

When I found out Sally was a freshman in nearby Wellesley, Mass., my heart leapt. When I learned she was active in the Christian Fellowship, I decided to find out what these people were all about.

I don’t mean to caricature the motives of that young man. I had been a serious Unitarian, proudly ringing the booming bell in the tower of the First Parish Church in Wayland, founded in 1640. I enjoyed serious conversations with other teens at meetings of The Waylanders, a church-sponsored group that met in a parish building across Cochituate Road from the church.

My college years as an evangelical included a retreat one Christmas at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, led by a charismatic evangelical thinker, the late Francis Schaeffer, and his wife Edith. Their application of the Bible to the postmodern world electrified me with its passion and clarity.

After college my spiritual wanderings took me to the Episcopal Church, Catholicism, and Zen. I will leave the rest of that story, and what became of me and Sally, for another time. For now, I want to return to Chasing Francis and what it means to be a Christian.

Ian Cron’s novel follows Chase Falson, founder of a successful evangelical mega-church in Connecticut, through a dark night of the soul. His spiritual crisis results in a forced sabbatical and a plea for help to Kenny, his uncle who is a semi-retired Franciscan priest in Assisi.

“Come to Italy,” Kenny tells Chase.

St. Francis of Assisi

Thus begins an evangelical Protestant’s exploration of the life and teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. Kenny introduces Chase to a rat pack of spiritual giants and lovers of life from the friary. They inspire the troubled American with fantastic Italian cuisine and an overnight stay in the Grotto of Saint Francis, the cave where Francis slept on a stone pillow.

Cron is a good storyteller, and I won’t spoil the plot by revealing whether Chase Falson ever gets his church back.

What I can tell you is that this novel gave me freshened view of a saint I’d always loved in a Hallmark sort of way without much sense of the reality of his ministry.

For example, I did not know that the historical Francis in 1219 traveled with his companion Illuminatus to a city in Egypt where Crusaders had been laying siege to the fortress of a Sultan for more than a year. Francis, shocked by the savagery of both the Christian and Muslim armies, attempted to broker a peace agreement.

Spurned by the Christian side, Francis set out to make a personal visit to Sultan Al-Kamil. Cron describes the event this way in a Study Guide at the end of the novel:

Despite the danger, Francis and Illuminatus bravely approached the enemy lines, singing psalms and asking to see the sultan. First they were beaten by soldiers; then they were received by Al-Kamil. After the sultan listened to Francis share the gospel and plead for peace, his aides urged him to cut off Francis’s head. The sultan, however, was touched that this crazy friar had put his own life on the line for the sake of his salvation. Later, he said that if he were to meet more Christians like Francis, he might become one.

Chase distills his time in Assisi into a vision of “what stones the church is going to need today to build a church that reaches postmodern people.” He continues,

If someone asks me what kind of church I belong to, I want to say, ‘a come and see church.’ Come and see how we love the poor; come and see how we give dignity back to those who’ve lost it or given it away; come and see how we encounter God through every practice at our disposal;
come and see how we love one another in community; come and see how we stand for peace and justice; come and see how we’ve been freed from consumerism and have become radically generous…

This fictional minister touched me with his flawed, fervent pilgrimage and his encounter with one of the most beloved saints of all time.

I left Chase Falson’s story re-inspired to continue on my own journey — toward being a better Christian, perhaps. Whatever the label, I pray that each of us will be granted the courage and authenticity to do what’s right in the uncertain era that begins in 10 days.