Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

103_August 2011 - Chesterton


									Saint Francis of Assisi. By G.K. Chesterton, numerous editions, first published 1923.

Saint Francis of Assisi is simultaneously one of the most famous and most misrepresented saints.
Painted as a kind of proto-hippie, a crusader against an overly worldly and materialistic Church
hierarchy, and as an over-idealistic aesthetic by various sources, G.K. Chesterton asserts that all
of these misconceptions are very far from the true life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Chesterton is fully aware that the major problem facing him is that the average reader is
improperly educated about history and culture. The great curse of common knowledge is the
belief that “everybody knows” something. “Everybody knows” that the Dark Ages was a time of
stagnation in Europe, and “everybody knows” that certain people were horrid human beings, and
“everybody knows” so many other things, so there is no need to question them or give them a
second thought.

The problem is, all too often, everybody is wrong. All too often a narrative or a character
summation has been passed around from generation to generation in a kind of gigantic game of
“telephone,” where the story is repeated with ever-so-slight adjustments each time, until the
current version of the tale is almost completely unrecognizable from its initial form. Common
knowledge is dangerous because it is so prone to turning everybody into ignoramuses. When
everybody assumes that the world was a certain way and that famous portraits of people’s
character must be accurate, it never occurs to them to question if someone’s name has not been
whitewashed or if an era’s reputation has not been unjustly dragged through the mud.

Chesterton’s book is not based on long-lost documentary evidence on the life of Saint Francis of
Assisi, or even extensive research on the existing literature on the man. Instead, Chesterton
challenges the reader to review everything he thinks he knows about the man and his era.
Guiding the reader through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and providing the reader with
psychological insight into the people who figured prominently in St. Francis of Assisi’s life,
Chesterton asks the reader to move beyond facile snap judgments of who the heroes and villains
(if any) of the story are and to really think about who people are, what their actions meant to
their own lives, to the lives of those around them, and to the world in general.

Chesterton takes pains to stress that St. Francis was a man of God, not the New Age flower child
that he is occasionally depicted as being in popular culture. As the following passage shows, St.
Francis loved nature and animals because they were the creations of God, not because they had a
supernatural power of their own.

“St. Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely
what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a
sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott,
it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight)
might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of
solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about
the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague. In short, the hermit might love nature
as a background. Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his
mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had
called up every coloured creature one by one.
He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in
action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose,
though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand;
and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.
In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. St. Francis was a man
who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and
almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.”

All too often, St. Francis’s life and teachings are used to castigate the Church for being too
worldly. These critics fail to realize that the Church could not perform the charitable work is
does without funds. St. Francis’s order was founded as a group of monks in need of lifelong
charity themselves. Chesterton argues that the Pope realized that there was plenty of room in the
Church for Franciscans, but that it was not necessary, indeed potentially detrimental, for all
members of the clergy to be Franciscans. Chesterton writes:

“The truth is that this incident shows two things which are common enough in Catholic history,
but very little understood by the journalistic history of industrial civilization. It shows that the
Saints were sometimes great men when the Popes were small men. But it also shows that great
men are sometimes wrong when small men are right. And it will be found, after all, very difficult
for any candid and clear-headed outsider to deny that the Pope was right, when he insisted that
the world was not made only for Franciscans.”

Chesterton’s book is relatively short, but each page is full of insight and wisdom. It is an easy
read, consisting of concise summaries of the major events of Saint Francis’s life, as well as
profiles of the other major figures of his life and descriptions of the state of the world. At the
end of his book, Chesterton writes:

“For that is the full and final spirit in which we should turn to St. Francis; in the spirit of thanks
for what he has done. He was above all things a great giver; and he cared chiefly for the best
kind of giving which is called thanksgiving. If another great man wrote a grammar of assent, he
may well be said to have written a grammar of acceptance; a grammar of gratitude. He
understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its
depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground
when it stands on nothing. He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere
fact of existence if we realize that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist. And
something of that larger truth is repeated in a lesser form in our own relations with so mighty a
maker of history. He also is a giver of things we could not have even thought of for ourselves; he
also is too great for anything but gratitude. From him came a whole awakening of the world and
a dawn in which all shapes and colours could be seen anew.”

Readers will be lucky to take away from this book a renewed sense of appreciation of the world
and a strengthened feeling of gratitude for the grace of God. The point of reading lives of the
saints is to inspire and to encourage people to live better, more virtuous lives that prove
beneficial to others and the world. In his book on the life of Saint Francis, Chesterton does not
necessarily encourage his readers to mirror the great saint’s behavior exactly, but he does suggest
that his readers would greatly benefit to strive to approximate Saint Francis’s great reverence for
God and pure appreciation for all of God’s creation. Saint Francis of Assisi was Chesterton’s
first major theological work written after he entered the Catholic Church, so it is infused with the
energy of a convert who has recently found his way home and is now seeing the world with fresh

–Chris Chan

To top