Review: St. Francis of Assisi (G. K. Chesterton)

Rating: ★★★

Who: St. Francis of Assisi, Italian friar who lived in voluntary poverty, and founded several religious orders. He felt deeply connected with nature and tried to bring peace to the Crusades. He was also credited with several miracles in his lifetime and is now venerated as a “saint” in the Catholic church.

The author, G. K. Chesterton, was an English writer and journalist. He wrote biography, literary criticism, novels, poetry, and lay theology, and has been aptly named “the Prince of Paradox.”

When: St. Francis lived from around 1181 to 1226. Chesterton published this biography in 1923.

Where: Francis was raised in Assisi, Italy, but also travelled widely in the Mediterranean, meeting with the Sultan in Egypt, and visiting Palestine.

Overview: Chesterton gives us a somewhat fanciful introduction to the life of St. Francis. He deals with issues surrounding the life of St. Francis but does not delve into problems of historiography or attempt to untangle the plethora of legends about Francis. Rather, he focuses on St. Francis’ sublime life of worship and the meaning behind his great influence, seen through a few key decisions and events. This short book is suitable as an introduction to the life of St. Francis and is not written solely for Catholics.

Meat: Chesterton’s historical and biographical books read more like essays than stories. After finishing this book, it might be hard to reconstruct an orderly account of St. Francis’ life and influences; instead, Chesterton dissects key events of Francis’ life in his rambling, lavish style, often stepping off the beaten track to offer perspective on the meaning of these events. For example, Chesterton does not give us a medical analysis of the stigmata—rather, he tries to show that Francis’ ironic desire for martyrdom is a major key to understanding his work, and the stigmata were one scene in that panorama.

Chesterton presents St. Francis as a figure out of time, more contemporary than the most progressive moderns. He envisages Francis’ monastic life as joyous, effusive, worldly, and charitable. He brings out all that is childlike and sublime in Francis’ worship. He praises Francis’ “marriage to poverty” out of a middle-class Italian life, though he points out that some of Francis’ followers may have missed the sublimity of his monastic poverty.

Francis’ intentions to preach to the Saracens (=Muslims) and make peace from the Crusades makes him, for this reviewer, a beam of light in an otherwise dark and turbid age in which religious identity and nationalism walked hand in hand.

Bones: The only disappointment of this book is the many interesting stories that it leaves out. Tales surround the life of St. Francis, as one of the most interesting and influential saints of Catholic tradition. Perhaps Chesterton was trying not to write a fabulous hagiography, distanced from real life by its many unverifiable legends; he places the biography in the context of true history, and tries to maintain that context fully.

Quotes: “To this great mystic, his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” (ch. I)

“A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty nearly like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.” (ch. I)

“He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearance without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.” (ch. IV)

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