Chesterton and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce
This essay appears in Joseph Pearce's new book Literary Giants, Literary Catholics.
Chesterton 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 poverty.
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.
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 Faith.
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
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com
British 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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