Saint Francis of Assisi in a New Light
by H. G. Hughes
|Free eBook: Liturgical Year 2023-2024, Vol. 3
Probably none of the great lovers and imitators of our Lord Jesus Christ has so closely approached their Divine Exemplar as St. Francis of Assisi in universality of appeal to all sorts and conditions of men.
It is not only to Catholics, who are in the position to appreciate in greater or less degree the supernatural side of his character, the wonders of divine grace exemplified in him, that St. Francis makes his appeal; he is widely recognized outside the Catholic Church as one to be admired and reverenced; as a truly human saint whose holiness does not even in appearance remove him from sympathy with common humanity; as one whose character, in consequence, draws also to himself the sympathy of his fellow men.
In our own time we have seen the Salvation Army take him as a sort of patron and publish an account of his life, and the appearance of Mr. G. K. Chesterton's little book on the saint in a popular series containing works on such varied subjects as Victorian Poetry, The Story of the Renaissance, Atoms and Electrons, and others, is a further proof of the universality of the interest taken in the founder of the three Franciscan Orders.
Mr. Chesterton is well fitted to write of this greatly loved saint, both by his special and always telling way of presenting to the public his subjects, and, one does not hesitate to say after reading this book, by a real spiritual kinship with St. Francis in a great understanding of and love for our common humanity. The task before him was not an easy one. He had to show to those not of the household of the Faith how the supernatural attitude toward the things of nature is the reasonable, we may even say, the natural attitude, since the things of earth by the very purpose of their creation are, if rightly used, steps to heaven. He had to insist on the irrationality of the procedure of those historians who willingly accept the testimony of contemporary witnesses for events in the natural order and reject it arbitrarily when those same witnesses speak of miracles or other supernatural happenings; he had to do this with tact and persuasiveness, with a straightforward appeal to common sense, and at the same time with a certain wise "economy" which, avoiding what might prove to be rocks of offence to readers who cannot yet grasp any true idea of mysticism, should be wholly loyal to truth.
It is fairly certain that only few English writers of note could have done all this with equal success, because the author has himself gone through the process of discovering the real significance of the life and character of St. Francis, a fact which makes him an excellent guide for others. His purpose is to enable the ordinary man, the man for whom "The People's Library" is published, to gain a better understanding of St. Francis than he can get from a purely secular or a "defiantly devotional" treatment of the saint's history. "Here", he writes, "is an historical character which is admittedly attractive to many of us already, by its gaiety, its romantic imagination, its spiritual courtesy and camaraderie, but which also contains elements (evidently equally sincere and emphatic) which seem to you quite remote and repulsive. But after all, this was a man and not half a dozen men. What seems inconsistency to you did not seem inconsistency to him. Let us see whether we can understand, with the help of the existing understanding, these other things that seem now to be doubly dark, by their intrinsic gloom and their ironic contrast" (p. 10). Again: "I am here addressing the ordinary man, sympathetic but skeptical, and I can only rather hazily hope that, by approaching the great saint's story by what is evidently picturesque and popular about it, I may at least leave the reader understanding a little more than he did before of the consistency of a complete character; that by approaching it in this way, we may at least get a glimmering of why the poet who praised his lord the sun, often hid himself in a dark cavern, of why the saint who was so gentle with his Brother the Wolf was so harsh to his Brother the Ass (as he nicknamed his own body), of why the troubadour who said that love set his heart on fire separated himself from women, of why the singer who rejoiced in the strength and gaiety of the fire deliberately rolled himself in the snow, of why the very song which cries with all the passion of a pagan, 'Praised be God for our Sister, Mother Earth, which brings forth varied fruits and grass and glowing flowers,' ends almost with the words 'Praised be God for our Sister, the death of the body'" (p. 11).
The Hour and the Man
The secret of St. Francis, as of all the saints, was that he was in love; a truly great lover. All the saints, we may say, had a genius for loving. The object of their love was a Person, vividly realized and intimately known. It was God. Their love of God made them love men too. Not in all the saints does their love of men take the same form, and it was one of the special characteristics of St. Francis, as Mr. Chesterton shows, that his love of men was even romantically affectionate. If a mere reviewer may adopt a much misused word which an author of Mr. Chesterton's standing would purposely avoid, St. Francis was "gushing" in his demonstration of affection and love for his fellow men. Witness his affectionate treatment of the young man who did not think the saint loved him. "Francis suddenly walked up to the young man, who was of course secretive and silent as the grave, and said, 'Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even amongst the number of those who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore come to me, in confidence, whenever you will, and from friendship learn faith.' Exactly as he spoke to that morbid boy he spoke to all mankind. . . . Something in this attitude disarmed the world as it has never been disarmed again. He was better than other men; he was a benefactor of other men; and yet he was not hated. The world came into church by a newer and nearer door; and by friendship it learnt faith" (p. 121).
In this effervescent love of men, a form of love, or rather of the manifestation of love, of which many even of the saints must needs be fearful, was the secret of the personal charm of St. Francis. This gave him his power over men's hearts. It must also be said that he was the man for his time. God fitted the man to the hour. How this was so is shown by Mr. Chesterton in his chapter on "The World St. Francis Found". He gives us a delightfully humorous, and at the same time true and serious disquisition on the "modern innovation which has substituted journalism for history," which "has insured that everybody should only hear the end of every story". "Most modern history", he tells us, "especially in England, suffers from the same imperfection as journalism. At best it only tells half of the history of Christendom; and that the second half." For instance, "Just as we hear of the admiral being shot, but have never heard of his being born, so we all heard a great deal about the dissolution of the monasteries, but we heard next to nothing about the creation of the monasteries."
This method quite understandably leads to a misunderstanding of history and its real significance and of historical characters, their work in the world, and their point of view. To have any understanding of and sympathy with St. Francis, "It is necessary to realize, in however rude and elementary a fashion, into what sort of a world St. Francis entered and what has been the history of that world, at least in so far as it affected him" (pp. 18-24).
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, according to Mr. Chesterton, were an awakening and an emancipation. From what? "The end of the Dark Ages was not merely the end of a sleep. It was certainly not merely the end of a superstitious enslavement. It was the end of something belonging to a quite definite but quite different order of ideas. It was the end of a penance; or, if it be preferred, a purgation. It marked the moment when a certain spiritual expiation had been finally worked out and certain spiritual diseases had been finally expelled from the system. They had been expelled by an era of asceticism, which was the only thing that could have expelled them. Christianity had entered the world to cure the world, and she had cured it in the only way in which it could be cured" (p. 26).
The mistake of the pagan world had been "the mistake of nature-worship". The result was that men "defiled their own earth and even their own heaven". So they "needed a new heaven and a new earth" (p. 3 r). "How could their case be met by looking at the sky, when erotic legends were scrawled in stars across it; how could they learn anything from the love of birds and flowers after the sort of love stories that were told of them?" Not till the pagan spirit had been exorcised by renunciation of the enjoyment of the beauties of nature, by asceticism, that is, could a cleansed and purified love of nature, a love of nature as the mirror of its Creator, take its place. St. Francis was the exponent, the poet, the saint of that new love. In his own person he experienced the cleansing process, became the living exemplification and pattern of this purified love in a supreme degree and so was the fit instrument for the propagation of a spiritual life which, though not new in its source, divine charity, was new in its attitude to the world.
The Christian was able to take up this new attitude to the world because the world itself had been changed by its long penance and purgation. Speaking of this world renewed by Christian asceticism Mr. Chesterton says: "Gradually . . . beauty begins to appear, as something really fresh and delicate and above all surprising. Love returning is no longer what was called platonic, but what is still called chivalric love. The flowers and stars have recovered their first innocence. Fire and water are felt to be worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint. The purge of paganism is complete at last . . . Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world . . . . Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature-worship, and can return to nature." Then came St. Francis to teach him how to do it, and "stood with his hands lifted, as in so many statues and pictures, and about him was a burst of birds singing; and behind him was the break of day" (p. 39)
In his chapters on "Francis the Fighter", "Francis the Builder", and "Le Jongleur de Dieu", the author takes us through the years of St. Francis's preparation for his mission to men. We are told of the incidents which constituted "turning points" in the career of the saint, and of those elements in his character, due either to his natural disposition or to his surroundings and personal experiences, upon which divine grace worked, making them, in their supernaturalized form, powerful aids in his task of winning and persuading the hearts of his fellows, enhancing, not destroying the charm of their appeal as beautiful human characteristics in a very human personality.
We cannot follow, nor would it be fair to follow Mr. Chesterton in detail in the working out of his theme. The object of this notice is to send readers to his book, confident that they will be delighted with it and that their own understanding of the saint will gain immensely by its perusal. Many of those readers know their Chesterton well, and will expect to find the author's well known "way of putting things" brought to play on his subject in this volume with its usual happy effects of illumination and incisiveness. They will not be disappointed. In his treatment of the most relevant incidents of the youth of Francis Bernardone his disappointment in the quest of military glory, his quarrel with his father, his disillusionment and flight from home, his imprisonment, his realization that he was looked upon as a fool and his determination to accept the character and become the Fool of God, Mr. Chesterton throws a very clear light upon the saint's development.
Summing up the view "from the outside" which many of his contemporaries must have taken of the incident of Francis's quarrel with his father, and describing how it must have appeared to "a critic of rather coarse common sense, with no feeling about the incident except annoyance," Mr. Chesterton writes: "A young fool or rascal is caught robbing his father and selling goods which he ought to guard; and the only explanation he will offer is that a loud voice from nowhere spoke in his ear and told him to mend the cracks and holes in a particular wall. He then declares himself naturally independent of all powers corresponding to the police or the magistrates and takes refuge with an amiable bishop who is forced to remonstrate with him and tell him he is wrong. He then proceeds to take off his clothes in public and practically throw them at his father; announcing at the same time that his father is not his father at all. He then runs about the town asking everybody he meets to give him fragments of buildings or building materials, apparently with reference to his old monomania about mending the wall. It may be an excellent thing that cracks should be filled up, but preferably not by somebody who is himself cracked; and architectural restoration like other things is not best performed by builders who, as we should say, have a tile loose. Finally the wretched youth relapses into rags and squalor and practically crawls away into the gutter. That is the spectacle that Francis must have presented to a very large number of his neighbors and friends" (pp. 71, 72).
Yet the man, Francis Bernardone, "the man whom men met walking about on the Italian roads in his brown tunic tied with a rope", is "the explanation of all that followed; men acted quite differently according to whether they had met him or not. If we see afterward a vast tumult, an appeal to the Pope, mobs of men in brown habits besieging the seats of authority, Papal pronouncements, heretical sessions, trial and triumphant survival, the world full of a new movement, the friar a household word in every corner of Europe, and if we ask why all this happened, we can only approximate to any answer to our own question if we can, in some faint and indirect imaginative fashion, hear one human voice or see one human face under a hood. There is no answer except that Francis Bernardone had happened; and we must try in some sense to see what we should have seen if he had happened to us" (pp. 96, 97). This is what Mr. Chesterton helps us to see in his chapter on "The Little Poor Man", and indeed throughout his enlightening book.
The Man and His Work
The remaining chapters of this work treat of "The Three Orders", of St. Francis as "The Mirror of Christ", of his "Miracles and Death", and "The Testament of St. Francis".
A group of men soon gathered around Francis and, "Before describing the first steps he took to regularize the growing group, it is well to have a rough grasp of what he conceived that group to be. He did not call his followers monks . . . . He called them by a name which is generally rendered in English as the Friars Minor; but we shall be much closer to the atmosphere of his own mind if we render it almost literally as The Little Brothers. Presumably he was already resolved that they should take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which had always been the mark of a monk. But it would seem that he was not so much afraid of the idea of a monk as of the idea of an abbot. He was afraid that the great spiritual magistracies which had given even to their holiest possessors at least a sort of impersonal and corporate pride, would import an element of pomposity that would spoil his extremely and almost extravagantly simple version of the life of humility. But the supreme difference between his discipline and the discipline of the old monastic system was concerned, of course, with the idea that the monks were to become migratory and almost nomadic instead of stationary. They were to mingle with the world; and to this the more old-fashioned monk would naturally reply by asking how they were to mingle with the world without becoming entangled with the world. It was a much more real question than a loose religiosity is likely to realize; but St. Francis had his own answer to it, of his own individual sort; and the interest of the problem is in that highly individual answer." The answer lay in the utter abstention from any kind of possession of property and from every kind of tie with the world. "His argument was this: that the dedicated man might go anywhere, among any kind of men, so long as there was nothing by which they could hold him. If he had any ties or needs like ordinary men, he would become like ordinary men. St. Francis was the last man in the world to think the worse of ordinary men for being ordinary. They had more affection and admiration from him than they are ever likely to have again. But for his own particular purpose of stirring up the world to a new spiritual enthusiasm, he saw with a logical clarity that was quite the reverse of fanatical or sentimental, that friars must not become like ordinary men; that the salt must not lose its savor, even to turn into human nature's daily food. And the difference between a friar and an ordinary man was really that a friar was freer than an ordinary man. It was necessary that he should be free from the cloister; but it was even more important that he should be free from the world . . . . The world around him was . . . a network of feudal and family and other forms of dependence. The whole idea of St. Francis was that the Little Brothers should be like little fishes who could go freely in and out of that net" (pp. 114-117).
Of St. Francis as a Mirror of Christ, "compared to most of us at least . . . a most sublime approximation to his Master, and, even in being an intermediary and a reflection a splendid yet a merciful Mirror," the author has many beautiful and true things to say. The passage from page 134 onward, in which he shows how the life of Francis the disciple throws light on and interprets the life of Christ the Master, will be read with great interest. The growing intensity of the saint's desire and efforts to become more and more closely the imitator of his Lord, with consequences that seem strange to those who cannot enter into the motives of the Christian mystic, is a notable part of this effective "apologia".
A moving story is this which Mr. Chesterton has told of the Christ-like man who produced so wonderful a spiritual renewal in his time; and not the least of the services which the author has done is to show how St. Francis, despite what seemed so extraordinary in him, fits into the tradition of the great Church Catholic whose devoted son he never for a moment ceased to be.
© American Ecclesiastical Review The Dolphin Press
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