G K Chesterton: Glimpses of Francis of Assisi


St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi (New York: Doubleday, 2001; orig. pub. George H. Doran Company, 1924).

Chesterton’s book is full of quirky and penetrating insights on Francis, the culture of his time, and the movement he started.Though Chesterton was no academic, he saw deeply into his subject, as he did into Thomas Aquinas, the subject of his other famous short biography–which the great student of medieval philosophy Etienne Gilson described as “without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas.”

As with the David Bell and Jaroslav Pelikan “glimpses” and the glimpses of Benedict and Francis by Columba Stewart and William Short, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 6-7 [Discussing how people/writers (e.g., Matthew Arnold and Renan) for whom religion was a philosophy stumbled over the stigmata]: “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty nearly like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.”

Q, 7-8: “Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea. And for the modern reader the clue to the asceticism and all the rest can best be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics. Tell it as the tale of one of the Troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole of the modern puzzle disappears. In such a romance there would be no contradiction between the poet gathering flowers in the sun and enduring a freezing vigil in the snow, between his praising all earthly and bodily beauty and then refusing to eat, between his glorifying gold and purple and perversely going in rags, between his showing pathetically a hunger for a happy life and a thirst for a heroic death. All these riddles would easily be resolved in the simplicity of any noble love; only this was so noble a love that nine men out of ten have hardly even heard of it.”

Q (religious affections, see Kempe), 8 [Continuing the theme above]: The reader cannot even begin to see the sense of a story that may well seem to him a very wild one, until he understands that [your opening quote marks here] to this great mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love-affair. [your closing quote marks here] . . . And the only purpose of this prefatory chapter is to explain the limits of this present book; [your opening quote marks here] which is only addressed to that part of the modern world which finds in St. Francis  certain modern difficulty; which can admire him yet hardly accept him, or which can appreciate the saint almost without the sanctity. [your closing quote marks]

Q, 13 (I’d like to take this as my motto!) [Discussing the selectivity of historical writing]: “Men for whom reason begins with the Revival of Learning, men for whom religion begins with the Reformation, can never give a complete account of anything, for they have to start with institutions whose origin they cannot explain, or generally even imagine.”

Q, 24: “It was out of all these fragmentary things of feudalism and freedom and remains of Roman Law that there was to rise, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, vast and almost universal, the mighty civilisation of the Middle Ages.”

Q, 27 [Discussing the society of the time]: “To anyone who can appreciate atmospheres there is something clear and clean about the atmosphere of this crude and often harsh society.”

Q, 33 [On Francis]: “His life was one riot of rash vows; of rash vows that turned out right.”

Q, 49: “The whole philosophy of St. Francis revolved round the idea of a new supernatural light on natural things, which meant the ultimate recovery not the ultimate refusal of natural things.” (Gregory’s world sacramentalism but in a more positive way)

Q, 51: “The adoration of Christ had been a part of the man’s passionate nature for a long time past. But the imitation of Christ, as a sort of plan or ordered scheme of life, may in that sense be said to begin here [when F engaged in the architectural reconstruction of the little church of St. Mary of the Angels at the Portiuncula].”

U, 55-56 [In context of F’s architectural pursuits with the three churches]: 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.

Q, 64: “It is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”

Q, 66: “We cannot follow St. Francis to that final spiritual overturn in which complete humiliation becomes complete holiness or happiness, because we have never been there.”

Q, 66 [Discussing F’s spiritual revolution in his dark cave, where after going down and down he finds himself going up and up]: “The more candidly and calmly we red human history, and especially the history of the wisest men, the more we shall come to the conclusion that it [such an experience] does happen.”

Q, 66 [Still in context of spiritual revolution in cave]: “…when Francis came forth from his cave of vision, he was wearing the same word ‘fool’ as a feather in his cap; as a crest or even a crown. He would go on being a fool; he would become more and more of a fool; he would be the court fool of the King of Paradise.”

Q, 72: “It [asceticism] is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.”

Q (one of the best things I’ve read on our misunderstanding of asceticism), 72: “Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it; we are most of us too mean to practise it. We are not generous enough to be ascetics. A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden.”

Q, 73: “He devoured fasting as a man devours food.”

Q, 76: “The mediaeval world was far ahead of the modern world in its sense of the things in which all men are at one: death and the daylight of reason and the common conscience that holds communities together.”

Q, 77: “There is no answer [to the question of why so much happened to and through Francis] except that Francis Bernardone had happened.”

U, 78: It is truly said that Francis of Assisi was one of the founders of the mediaeval drama, and therefore of the modern drama.

Q, 89-90 [In context of the explosion of Francis’ movement or monasticism after him]: “What St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered.”

Q, 101 [Discussing the friars filling the streets of Italy]: “It was a world of wandering; friars perpetually coming and going in all the highways and byways, seeking to ensure that any man who met one of them by chance should have a spiritual adventure. The first Order of St. Francis had entered history.”

4 responses to “G K Chesterton: Glimpses of Francis of Assisi

  1. I loved this amigo…

  2. Thanks Mark. I love GKC, even though he sometimes gets caught up in his own rhetorical bombast. And he pretty much figured Protestants were apostate. But boy, did he have insight. And was master of the essay form.

  3. Great quotes and notes. I’ll have to revisit Chesterton’s work on Brother Francis. Currently, I’m reading Chesterton on the great dumb ox: Thomas Aquinas.

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