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Chesterton and Saint Francis ^ | 2011 | Joseph Pearce

Posted on 10/04/2011 5:00:45 PM PDT by Salvation

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.

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 Decadents–taking 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.

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.
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 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!

Related Links:

"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

TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; History; Theology
KEYWORDS: assisi; catholic; chesterton; conversion; gkc; saintfrancis; saintfrancisofassisi; saints; stfrancis; stfrancisofassisi
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
1 posted on 10/04/2011 5:00:48 PM PDT by Salvation
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To: Jo Nuvark

Chesterton ping, please.

2 posted on 10/04/2011 5:05:42 PM PDT by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: nickcarraway; NYer; ELS; Pyro7480; livius; ArrogantBustard; Catholicguy; RobbyS; marshmallow; ...

Catholic Ping!

3 posted on 10/04/2011 5:09:15 PM PDT by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi is on my book bucket list..

4 posted on 10/04/2011 5:30:30 PM PDT by D-fendr (Deus non alligatur sacramentis sed nos alligamur.)
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To: D-fendr; All
Chesterton and Saint Francis
Saint Francis of Assisi, 'giant of holiness,' honored Oct. 4

Franciscan Brothers Follow in St. Francis' Bare Footsteps
St. Francis of Assisi (and) St. Clare of Assisi [Catholic Caucus]
On Francis of Assisi
Franciscans ready to celebrate 800th anniversary of order's founding
'Stone-for-stone' Porziuncola reproduction erected in San Francisco
Portiuncula Indulgence can be obtained this Sunday
Away in a Manger [St. Francis of Assisi and the first Nativity scene]
The Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi -- The Wounds of Christ
St. Clare's Advice Defended Assisi Against An Attack By the Mohammedans (My Title)

The Way of the Cross, with Prayerful Meditations authored by Saint Francis of Assisi
Friar Assails "Lies" Against Franciscans of Assisi In Wake of Pope's Program
color=#e00040>Cimabue's Assisi Fresco Reconstructed
Friars Minor Support Pope's Measures for Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi and Eucharistic Adoration
Saint Francis of Assisi’s Letter to the Clergy
World Needs the Spirit of St. Francis, Says John Paul II
Saint Francis of Assisi, Founder of the Friars Minor, Confessor 1181-1226>
Assisi frescoes rise from the rubble
Christ's words to St. Francis, "repair my Church," appropriate for today says Archbishop Chaput


Prayer of Saint Francis of Assissi

Lord, make me am instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
and where there is saddness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Saint Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1182. He lived and preached a life of poverty and love of God to all men. He founded the religious Order of the Franciscans; with St. Clare, he founded the Order of the Poor Clares; and the Third Order for lay people. He died in 1226.

5 posted on 10/04/2011 5:36:58 PM PDT by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: Salvation

Very Interesting post....Thanks!!!

6 posted on 10/04/2011 5:37:26 PM PDT by savagesusie
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To: Salvation

Whew! For a few minutes there I thought I’d have to choose between the two! :)

7 posted on 10/04/2011 5:41:53 PM PDT by Diana in Wisconsin (I don't have 'Hobbies.' I'm developing a robust Post-Apocalyptic skill set...)
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To: Salvation

This great saint of the Church is a friend of God’s creation, including the animals.:)=^..^=

8 posted on 10/04/2011 6:48:51 PM PDT by Biggirl ("Jesus talked to us as individuals"-Jim Vicevich/Thanks JimV!)
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To: Salvation

I do have that book about St. Francis by Mr.Chesterton.

9 posted on 10/04/2011 6:50:15 PM PDT by Biggirl ("Jesus talked to us as individuals"-Jim Vicevich/Thanks JimV!)
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To: Salvation

Thanks for this post.

I wanted to inform readers that the linked interview with the author on Oscar Wilde is also well worth the time:

10 posted on 10/04/2011 7:12:57 PM PDT by D-fendr (Deus non alligatur sacramentis sed nos alligamur.)
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To: Salvation; nickcarraway; NYer; ELS; Pyro7480; livius; ArrogantBustard; Catholicguy; RobbyS; ...



11 posted on 10/04/2011 8:19:39 PM PDT by Jo Nuvark (Those who bless Israel will be blessed, those who curse Israel will be cursed. Gen 12:3)
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To: Jo Nuvark

Thanks for the ping!

12 posted on 10/04/2011 8:42:08 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: Salvation

Very cool, thanks! I can most certainly relate to the descent into Decadence thing. So much to learn here!

13 posted on 10/04/2011 10:26:10 PM PDT by To Hell With Poverty (CAIN/WEST 2012 - Because two bros are better than THE 0NE!)
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To: Salvation

It’s an excellent book. Well worth reading.

I would also recommend his book on “Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.”

14 posted on 10/05/2011 3:50:47 PM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius.)
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To: Salvation

I just ordered up “The Man Who Was Thursday” from the library.

15 posted on 10/05/2011 9:39:27 PM PDT by SuziQ
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