Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: Saint Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton

Saint Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton takes on a challenging task in writing a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was beloved in his own life time, so even the earliest sources are bound to exaggerate (if not make up) stories. Or at least skeptics can assume so. And Francis's life was well over five hundred years ago leaving plenty of time for legends and misconceptions to grow. How can a modern, interested person get a true understanding of the man with so many obstacles in the way?

Chesterton flies over such hurdles by several methods. His first and least obvious solution is to eschew the typical biography's strictly historical retelling of someone's life, where they start with his birth on such and such a date at a certain place and recite all the famous historical and personal events up to his burial on such and such a date at a certain place. Instead, Chesterton focuses on a few key events in Francis's life and meditates on how those events reveal Francis. In an early event, he was working for his father as a cloth merchant, negotiating with a purchaser while a beggar was also asking Francis for alms. Trying to please two supplicants at the same time was impossible for Francis though he clearly wanted to. When he was finished with the merchant, he turned to help the beggar who had left. Francis left his market stall (with presumably a lot of valuable stock unattended) to hunt down the beggar in the narrow byways of Assisi and give him the money he had just made. Chesterton points out that Francis always treated everyone equally, as a brother, whether they were from a high or low station. He didn't play favorites, he was a true egalitarian. The incident also shows his unconcern for material things. Many other incidents are handled with the same depth and reflection.

Chesterton also avoids the ambiguities and misconceptions about Francis's life by looking at the world as it was when Francis lived. Many modern people cherish Francis as the harbinger of the Renaissance--a man in love with nature and unconcerned with personal possessions. He's considered a Flower Child and a proto-communist. Chesterton argues that Francis came immediately after the time known as the "Dark Ages" but those times were only "dark" in the sense of Europe being besieged by the paganism of Rome and the perpetual barbarian invasions. Paganism had finally been overthrown by Francis's time; the barbarians had settled down to become locals and Christians. Monks no longer had to live in cloisters where they kept learning alive. Francis's friars could live "on the road" as it were, relying entirely on the generosity of others for food and shelter. His call appealed to many in his day but clearly it couldn't be heeded by all or society would collapse. His love of nature sprang from a simplicity of life that accepts the world with wonder. He's fascinated by the God-given glory of animals, not just by the animals themselves. His context gives him a different view from what we might casually think today.

Chesterton writes for the modern reader who is uninformed yet curious about this romantic and fantastic character. Chesterton sets aside the skeptic's doubt (if the reader denies the supernatural is even possible, Francis will forever remain inexplicable) and assumes the inquirer's wonder (the reader is open to explanations beyond his or her own personal experience). Chesterton himself was in such a position before his conversion to Christianity and thus is possibly the best author to tackle St. Francis's biography in this way. He gives a sense of Francis's life and the sanctity he had on a level few of us experience. Francis was a true lover of God and men and lived out that love with a sense of humor and self-denial that will always fascinate the casual observer and may transform those who strive to look more closely.

This book is an unusual, fascinating, and well worth your while.

I was inspired to read this by that great podcast, A Good Story Is Hard to Find, and somehow have managed to read it before the episode posted! I may treat myself to ice cream.

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