Who: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Overview: All Things Considered is a series of brief newspaper articles treating various topics of the day—and Chesterton is capable of treating the most serious topics with levity. We can’t read Leonard Ravenhill all the time; for this reason, God gave us G. K. Chesterton.
Meat: Good writers can point us to biblical truth; great writers, like Chesterton, can arrive at truth starting from any heading. “On Running after One’s Hat” is still one of his most famous articles. “The Modern Martyr” and “The Error of Impartiality” contain exactly the kinds of brilliant insights a reader comes to expect from Chesterton.
“Fairy Tales” (quoted below) is a fascinating explanation of the truth of children’s tales: we are hemmed in by conditions or laws, and there is no escaping the truth that our choices have consequences. In this sense, Chesterton says, fairy tales carry moral truth, or a truth about morality.
Bones: Some of the political debates here—doubtless scathing in their day—are lost on today’s reader, especially those who aren’t English. Other topics are downright trivial; but then, that is probably what makes reading them so fun.
Quotes: “One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time.”
“But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. … Our modern Press would rather appeal to physical arrogance, or to anything, rather than appeal to right and wrong.” (“The Boy”)
“If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other–the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. … A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. … A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth.” (“Fairy Tales”)
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)
Source: G. K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight & Other Poems
Many have Earth’s lovers been,
Tried in seas and wars, I ween;
Yet the mightiest have I seen:
Yea, the best saw I.
One that in a field alone
Stood up stiller than a stone
Lest a moth should fly.
Birds had nested in his hair,
On his shoon were mosses rare,
Insect empires flourished there,
Worms in ancient wars;
But his eyes burn like a glass,
Hearing a great sea of grass
Roar towards the stars.
From them to the human tree
Rose a cry continually:
‘Thou art still, our Father, we
Fain would have thee nod.
Make the skies as blood below thee,
Though thou slay us, we shall know thee.
Answer us, O God!
‘Show thine ancient fame and thunder,
Split the stillness once asunder,
Lest we whisper, lest we wonder
Art thou there at all?’
But I saw him there alone,
Standing stiller than a stone
Lest a moth should fall.