Review: Saint Francis of Assisi

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.

Review: Mere Believers

Mere BelieversMere BelieversMarc Baer. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013.

Summary: Can individuals seeking to live faithfully to their calling change history? These profiles of eight British believers demonstrate that “mere believers” can indeed have a transformative influence in matters both of the heart and of the intellect.

Marc Baer, a professor of modern British history begins this book by narrating his own journey to faith during graduate school. And then he goes on to explain how and why he chose to write about the eight British figures profiled in this book (six individuals and a couple). Four he sees as those whose calling is a matter of the heart as they passionately gave themselves to causes of social justice and societal improvement. The latter four he identifies as those whose transformed intellect was employed in commending the Christian faith.

In the first group, he begins with Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, whose calling is reflected in her philanthropy and her efforts to improve the quality of preaching through the formation of a preachers academy and her ongoing support of a number of these ministers. Then we have the former slave Olaudah Equiano, whose narrative of his life and speaking on behalf of abolition played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery in the British empire, in concert with the efforts of the next two individuals. Hannah More was a gifted playwright, who, in addition to her advocacy for abolition, wrote Village Politics, which may have dissuaded her people from following France down the path of revolution, a series of popular tracts promoting moral improvement and religious faith, and several books related to forming the character of young women. Finally, we have William Wilberforce, a rich and gifted young member of the House of Commons whose conversion leads to devoting his life to slavery’s abolition, as well as a variety of other social justice issues, in concert with his friends in the Clapham Sect.

The first persons we meet in the second group are Oswald and Biddy Chambers. Oswald thought he was called to a ministry in the arts, only to find himself called to the work of training others in Christian thought and discipleship. This eventually led to service as a World War 1 chaplain, and strangely, to his premature death. Biddy was a full partner in his work, joining him both in lectures and hospitality. After his death, she took his papers and edited them into a number of books, the most famous of which is My Utmost for His Highest, a devotional guide given to many young believers (I still have a copy given me by a mentor) that fuses keen intellectual and spiritual insight. G. K. Chesterton not only wrote prolifically as an apologist for Christian faith who could turn arguments on their head, but campaigned vigorously against eugenics, forestalling Britain from going down the road Germany pursued. Dorothy L. Sayers, left an ad agency to write, first murder mysteries, and then plays and even a theology of work, perhaps her signal contribution as she saw Christian faith freeing people not from work but to work with excellence.

What I appreciated about this work is that Baer has given us brief vignettes of eight truly interesting people. He doesn’t spare us their flaws, whether it be Hannah More’s temper, Oswald Chambers’ struggles with doubt and despair, Chesterton’s gluttony, or Sayers’ illegitimate child. He sets them in their time, narrates their conversion stories (all as adults) and their search for their callings. Then, rather than an exhaustive treatment of their lives, he focuses on a particular pattern of faithfulness to that call and its impact on society and history. The chapters conclude with a “text” illustrative of the person’s thought and questions for reflection.

This is a helpful book both for those wondering about the difference Christian faith makes, and for those seeking to discern their own calling. What is so helpful is that we have eight unique individuals of differing temperament, gifts, and social situations (from wealthy heiress to former slave), and both men and women. We see that no matter who we are, we may find a life of meaning and significance as we pursue the calling of “mere believers.”

The Mess We Are In

I can be light-hearted. Really. You might not believe it if you just read the posts from the last couple days. Atomic bomb book reviews. Kent State. And just wait until you see my post on the book I am reading right now on genocide (Samantha Powers’ A Problem from Hell). Sobering is an understatement. After I finish, I think it is time for a baseball book or a good mystery!

My problem is that the world is a mess! I know there are times when we’d rather not think about it, and perhaps times when it is good to remember what is good and beautiful and true in the world. But that doesn’t make the mess go away.

G. K. Chesterton was once asked to contribute to an essay to a collection written by famous people of his day opining on the subject of “What is wrong with the world?” His was by far the shortest contribution of all. He wrote just two words, “I am.”

It is easy for me to distance myself from things like making atom bombs, participating in campus riots and shootings, or genocide. It is easy for me to blame the mess on others, and perhaps to be a bit smug and self-righteous about it. But I’ve paid taxes that support our nuclear arsenal. I may even owe my existence to the fact that my dad never needed to be redeployed to Japan in World War 2 because of the bomb. I stood aside and watched the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and too easily accepted the explanations of complexities and national interest while people died. The only way not to be part of the mess is not to exist, it seems.

I’m not just a part of others’ messes! I’m very good at creating my own. The careless word that leaves wounds. The indulgences that waste time, money, and the opportunities that can never be retrieved. The addictions and compulsions that I might suppress in one place only for them to pop up in another.

I can hear someone out there saying, “come on Bob, lighten up. We’re all like that!” And that’s my point. We are  all like that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 

Paradoxically, I have good reason to be both serious and light-hearted at the same time. Tim Keller, a New York City pastor has written, “We are more flawed and sinful than we ever dared believe, yet we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope at the same time.” My faith is about a God who didn’t wring his hands over the problem of evil but rather invaded our world to take it upon Himself so that I could stop pretending that I am better than I really am and stop despairing that I’m worse than I care to admit. God did this so I would stop running away from Him and instead run to be embraced by Him and live under his care.

So don’t be surprised when whimsy and joy crop up in these posts. It is not a denial of the ugly stuff. It is simply that it doesn’t get the last word.