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Chesterton and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce
This essay appears in Joseph Pearce's new book Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics.
enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Saint Francis of Assisi. As a small
boy, long before he had an inkling of the nature of Catholicism, Chesterton
was read a story by his parents about a man who gave up all his possessions,
even the clothes he was wearing on his back, to follow Christ in holy
From the moment the wide-eyed Gilbert first heard the story of Saint Francis,
he knew he had found a friend. As such, long before he had submitted to
the reason of Rome, Chesterton had succumbed to the romance of Assisi.
Perhaps inevitably, childlike wonder was followed by adolescent doubt.
As Chesterton groped toward manhood during the early 1890s, he succumbed
temporarily to the beguiling power of the Decadents. Under the charismatic
and iconoclastic seduction of Oscar
Wilde, the world of Chesterton's youth seemed under the mad and maddening
influence of those who preferred the shadows of sin and cynicism to the
light of virtue and verity. Romance itself had donned the mask of darkness.
It was in this gloom-laden atmosphere that the young
Chesterton wrote a poem on Saint Francis of Assisi, published in November
1892. The questions it asks were a quest for answers in a world of doubt.
To most people ... there is a fascinating inconsistency
in the position of Saint Francis. He expressed in loftier and bolder
language than any earthly thinker the conception that laughter is as
divine as tears. He called his monks the mountebanks of God. He never
forgot to take pleasure in a bird as it flashed past him, or a drop
of water as it fell from his finger: he was, perhaps, the happiest of
the sons of men. Yet this man undoubtedly founded his whole polity on
the negation of what we think the most imperious necessities; in his
three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he denied to himself
and those he loved most, property, love, and liberty. Why was it that
the most large-hearted and poetic spirits in that age found their most
congenial atmosphere in these awful renunciations? Why did he who loved
where all men were blind, seek to blind himself where all men loved?
Why was he a monk and not a troubadour? These questions are far too
large to be answered fully here, but in any life of Francis they ought
at least to have been asked; we have a suspicion that if they were answered
we should suddenly find that much of the enigma of this sullen time
of ours was answered also.
Is there not a question rises from his word of "brother, sister",
Cometh from that lonely dreamer that today we shrink to find?
Shall the lives that moved our brethren leave us at the gates of darkness,
What were heaven if ought we cherished shall be wholly left behind?
Is it God's bright house we dwell in, or a vault of dark confusion ...
This poem, dedicated to the "lonely dreamer" of Assisi, illuminates the
darkness of Chesterton's adolescence. The young poet, seeking to make
sense of the conflicting visions of reality vying for his allegiance,
was beginning to perceive that the Decadents had cast out Brother Sun
so that they could worship Sister Moon. Within three years of the publication
of this poem, Wildean Decadence had decayed in the squalor of the police
courts. Wilde himself would repent and would be received into the Catholic
Church on his deathbed. In his conversion, he was merely following many
of the other Decadents, both in England and France, who, having dipped
their toes in the antechambers of hell, had decided, prudently, that it
wasn't somewhere they wished to spend eternity. Baudelaire, Verlaine,
Huysmans, Beardsley, Johnson and Dowson had all followed the "Decadent
path to Christ", repenting of their sin and embracing the loving forgiveness
to be found in Mother Church. Paradoxically, the path to Christ was always
to be found in the implicit Christian morality of much of the art of the
Decadents, particularly, and most memorably, in Wilde's masterpiece, The
Picture of Dorian Gray.
Chesterton's own response, and riposte, to the Decadence of the 1890s
can be found in his novel The
Man Who Was Thursday. Whereas the Decadentstaking their
own perverse inspiration from the dark romanticism of Byron, Shelley and
Keats-had stripped the masks off reality" and discovered darkness, Chesterton
stripped the masks off reality" (from the "anarchists" in his novel) and
discovered light. By the dawn of the new century, Chesterton had emerged
from the subreal dream of Decadence into the real awakening of a Christian
perception of the cosmos. In this journey from darkness to light, he had
as his constant ally and companion the "lonely dreamer" of Assisi. On
1 December 1900 the day after Wilde had died a Catholic in Paris, Chesterton,
not yet a Catholic, was singing the praises of Saint Francis in an article
published in The Speaker.
These words, which could have served as the introduction
to Chesterton's biography of Saint Francis published twenty-three years
later, indicated that the saint had served as an antidote to the poison
of the previous decade.
In 1902, in Twelve Types, Chesterton again lauded Saint Francis with
the lucidity and faith that had been almost wholly absent in the questioning
ambivalence of his poem of ten years earlier.
In July 1922 Chesterton was finally received into the Catholic Church. Eight
weeks later he received the sacrament of confirmation, choosing Francis
as his confirmation name. It would, perhaps, be easy to suggest that the
obvious motive for the choice was a desire to show love and respect for
Frances, his wife. It was, however, hardly surprising that he should have
chosen the saint who had been the friend of his childhood, the ally in his
confused adolescence and the companion in his approach to the Faith. In
any case, the two motives are not mutually exclusive. In pleasing his wife,
he was also pleasing himself.
At the time of his reception into the Church, Chesterton was already planning
a full-length biography of Saint Francis that would be published in the
following year. Confirming the saint's importance, he wrote that the figure
of Saint Francis "stands on a sort of bridge connecting my boyhood with
my conversion to many other things". With these words in mind, it is not
difficult to imagine that Chesterton took on the writing of Saint
Francis of Assisi so soon after his conversion as an act of thanksgiving
to the saint who, above all others, had accompanied him on his journey to
The admiration that Chesterton felt toward Saint Francis was inextricably
bound up with his belief in the superiority of childlike innocence over
all forms of cynicism. Saint Francis and his followers were called the Jongleurs
de Dieu because of the innocence of their jollity and the jollity of their
innocence. " The Jongleur was properly a joculator or jester; sometimes
he was what we should call a juggler." It was this mystical synthesis of
laughter and humility, a belief that playing and praying go hand in hand,
which was the secret of the saint's success. Ultimately, however, the laughter
and the humility were rooted in gratitude because, as Chesterton discerned
with characteristic and Franciscan sagacity, "there is no way in which a
man can earn a star or deserve a sunset".
Chesterton's life of Saint Francis was destined to be one of the most commercially
and critically successful of all his books. Typical of the enthusiastic
response of the critics was that of Patrick Braybrooke, who described the
book as "astoundingly brilliant": "The Catholic Church has found in Mr.
Chesterton the greatest interpreter of her greatest saint." Ultimately however,
the book's brilliance shone from the blurring of the distinction between
the Chestertonian and the Franciscan. It is, at times, difficult to distinguish
between Chesterton's exposition of the Franciscan spirit and his elucidation
of Chestertonian philosophy. Throughout the pages of the book, Chesterton
chases the saint, complaining that all explanations of the saint's enigmatic
character were "too slight for satisfaction". The book unravels like a heaven-sent
game of hide-and-seek, similar to the plot of The Man Who Was Thursday,
with the Man who was Francis remaining as difficult to pin down as the Man
who was Sunday. Yet, as with the plot to the novel, there is something thrilling
in the chase.
Whatever the book's shortcomings as an entirely satisfying explanation of
the saint, it remains an emphatically successful romp and romance in the
true Franciscan and Chestertonian spirit. From start to finish, Chesterton
plays cat and mouse with the Jongleur de Dieu. And, in keeping with the
poetry of the saint, it doesn't really matter that sister cat fails to catch
brother mouse. The charm is in the chase. For those reading Chesterton's
Saint Francis of Assisi for the first time, you are in for a rare
treat. Prepare to be charmed. Enjoy the chase!
"A Truly Wilde
Story" | An interview with Joseph Pearce about his book The
Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce's author page
author Joseph Pearce has
firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time,
especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary
tradition. In his new book, Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics, Pearce examines a plethora of authors,
taking the reader through a dazzling tour of the creative landscape of Catholic
prose and poetry. Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics covers the vast terrain from Dante to
Tolkien, from Shakespeare to Waugh.
Focusing on the literary revival of the 20th century, Joseph Pearce touches
on well-known authors like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also
introduces readers to lesser-known writers like Roy Campell, Maurice Baring,
and Owen Barfield. Anyone who appreciates English literature will be entranced
by the wealth and depth of this new masterpiece.
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