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Chesterton and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce

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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 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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