In so much as I loved Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, because it so profoundly sketched a saint I know and love, Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi left me desiring to know St. Francis more intimately because the sketch was hardly the full portrait of this great saint. It is fair to say, and Chesterton says so himself, that Chesterton’s biography on St. Francis merely scratches the depth of all that St. Francis did in his life. He leaves the chronological details to other biographers who, in his own opinion, already have done an excellent job in that area while instead capturing within his sketch the essence of St. Francis in a most profound way.
Written with his usual wit, Chesterton challenges the modern man who would deny the stigmata as a false story while at the same time accepting all the natural stories of St. Francis’s frolics in the woods. For, as Chesterton rightly puts it, why should one trust the statement that St. Francis traveled to the camp of the Saracens unscathed but deny he bore the stigmata when both statements are drawn from the same historical source. Either the historical source is trustworthy or not. If miracles are indeed impossible as modern man proposes, then the whole historical account which includes miracles should be held in distrust, not just the parts which describe miracles and supernatural works.
As Chesterton brings to light in his sketch of St. Francis, one cannot divorce the historical figure of St. Francis from the supernatural beliefs St. Francis held. One cannot focus on St. Francis’s love of nature while at the same time ignoring that this very love of nature arose from his love of God and St. Francis’s wholehearted trust that God held all of creation – from the smallest bee to the largest tree – in being; a belief that meant that nature itself would fall into nothing if the invisible love of God’s providence did not actively hold it all together. This key piece of St. Francis, that his supernatural aim led him to speak so highly of nature, is often ignored or forgotten by modern man, but it must be understood to understand St. Francis.
Chesterton’s biography does not satiate my longing to know the story of St. Francis’s life, but instead spurs me to learn more. I believe it gives the essence of who St. Francis was, without many of the details and that this sketch is a perfect companion to another biography of St. Francis I have on my shelf. Written by Omer Engelbert, I hope to crack open this additional volume soon so as to glean the story of St. Francis now that I’ve been shown his fascinating and mystifying character.
Now, in regards to the sketch that is not so much St. Francis but Franciscan, Chesterton, in his unexpected and brilliant way, culminates his biography on St. Francis with profound insight indeed that is much needed to be heard by modernity. Carrying far beyond that which St. Francis lived or taught, some extreme followers of St. Francis sought to simply deny themselves possessions, but to deny property all together. This, it seems, caused some controversy with the Pope whose job it was to shepherd the whole of the Church.
“It is therefore only necessary to note…what was the general nature of the controversy that raged after the great saint’s death…The dominant detail was the interpretation of the vow of poverty, or the refusal of all possessions. Nobody so far as I know ever proposed to interfere with the vow of the individual friar that he would have no individual possessions….But some Franciscans, invoking the authority of Francis on their side…proposed to abolish not only private property but property. That is, they refused to be corporately responsible for anything at all; for any buildings or stores or tools; they refused to own them collectively even when they used them collectively…It is also perfectly true that the Pope and the authorities of the Church did not think this conception was a workable agreement, and went so far in modifying it as to set aside certain clauses in the great saint’s will…That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly…for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church.” (p.311-313)
To help further this point, Chesterton noted that while it might be of the greatest good for St. Francis as an individual to ignore and to a certain extent discourage books and intellectual study, this is hardly the case for the entirety of the Church. It could be said that the simple asceticism of St. Francis helps to show the grandeur and universality of the Catholic faith that encompasses it. As Chesterton noted, “The mood was indeed originally the good and glorious mood of the great St. Francis, but it was not the whole mind of God or even of man.” (p.316) For to narrow the faith to only that which is Franciscan would have followed the path that “every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church” (p.316) which Chesterton has so often stated. If we lose sight that the Franciscan life is a part of the universal Church and state that all the Church should be like the Franciscan is to abandon the faith indeed. But, if instead we embrace the Franciscan ideal as a part of that which is Christ and His Church, how great is the fruit!
St. Francis, pray for us!