Saint Francis of Assisi (Paraclete Heritage Edition), G. K. Chesterton. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013 (Originally published in 1923).
Summary: Less a biography than a reflection on the meaning of the life of St. Francis.
l will begin with a caveat. If you are looking for a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, this is not your book. It is not that there is not biographical information about St. Francis to be found here. However, you can probably find all that is here biographically in a Wikipedia article. Chesterton himself describes his approach as neither that of a secular biographer or a devotional biographer, but as an admiring outsider trying to make sense of what may be baffling about St. Francis from what we understand of him. How do we understand the mixture of gaiety and austerity in his life, his love of all creation and the abuse of his own body. How do we make sense of his attempts to convert the Muslims? Or the climactic episode of his life on Alverno?
A theme that runs through it all for Chesterton is that what is senseless to the outside observer is not to the lover, and what we have in the story of Francis, God’s Troubadour, is the life of one passionately in love with God, with humanity, indeed all of creation. Indeed, Chesterton suggests that his very name foresees his love of the French troubadours and the gaity of the jongleur de dieu may be seen in his fun loving youth and eager response to the call to war. His dream that leads him to enlist in the Crusades is one more example of not only his zestfulness but longing for glory, until turned back by illness, accompanied by another vision that pointed him to a different quest that began with a downward ascent, culminating in the embrace of the leper.
This leads to Damiano and the call to restore the ruined church, a concrete expression of a larger church in ruins. He gets in trouble for selling his father’s goods to do this, and when confronted renounces it all, and his heritage, going into the woods with a hairshirt and a song, begging stones. Chesterton observes that the way to build a church is to build it. And as he does so, and Portiuncula to follow, others are drawn to his song, Bernard, the rich burgher and Peter the church Canon, who are the beginnings of a new society, living in a hut next to the leper hospital.
Chesterton then stops to consider the Jongleur de dieu image further–not only as jester, or joculator, or juggler, but also as tumbler. He reflects on Francis’ journey to this point, from the son of an affluent merchant to his dark night of imprisonment and illness, his stripping himself all, and the tumble from there into the praise of God, having been shorn of all else. He explores Francis discovery of the richness of and love for every creature, and in turn, every person as an individual, a royal personage in the courts of God, whether beggar or Pope. He traces out the attempt to regularize this growing movement of friars, itinerant rather than secluded monastics, holy among the world.
Later chapters reflect on his attempt to pass through the lines to convert the Muslim Sultan as the “mirror of Christ” the accounts of the miracles surrounding Francis and the encounter with Christ at Alverno and the reports of the sigmata. Chesterton neither dismisses nor argues for any of this but takes the course of simply telling the story. He argues that beyond supposedly supernatural events was the supernatural life of Francis himself, up until his final moments, removed from his bed to lie on the ground.
Whether one likes this, it seems has to do with what one is looking for in reading about Francis. At times, this felt to me as if Francis was a foil for Chesterton, and his ways of drawing out paradox and turning ideas on their head. No doubt there is that in the life of St. Francis, whose downward way began the rebuilding of a church in ruins. I appreciate the approach Chesterton takes of neither debunking nor devotionalizing (is that a word?) Saint Francis. Yet I felt I was reading about St. Francis through a very Chestertonian lens, and while I like Chesterton, I think I would have liked more of Francis, even at the expense of making sense of conflicting data. Perhaps that is a fourth approach, that leaves the more baffling aspects of Francis unresolved, allowing each of us to wrestle with what to make of this most unusual saint.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.