K. Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi

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A Grammar of Gratitude:
A Defense of History in G. K. Chesterton’s
St. Francis of Assisi (1923)

“Athleticism in England is an asceticism, as much as the monastic rules. Men have overstrained themselves and killed themselves through English athleticism. There is one difference and one only: we do feel the love of sport; we do not feel the love of religious offices. We see only the price in the one case and only the purchase in the other. The only question that remains is what was the joy of the old Christian ascetics of which their asceticism was merely the purchasing price? . . . It does not occur to us that the mere assertion that this raging and confounding universe is governed by justice and mercy is a piece of staggering optimism fit to set all men capering. The detail over which these monks went mad with joy was the universe itself; the only thing really worthy of enjoyment. The white daylight shone over all the world, the endless forests stood up in their order. The lightning awake and the tree fell and the sea gathered into mountains and the ship went done, and all these disconnected and meaningless and terrible objects were all part of one dark and fearful conspiracy of goodness, one merciless scheme of mercy. . . . We insist that the ascetics were pessimists because they gave up three-score years and ten for an eternity of happiness. We forget that the bare proposition of an eternity of happiness is by its very nature ten thousand times more optimistic than ten thousand pagan saturnalias.”—“St. Francis” (1902)

G. K. Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi is the first important work of his Roman Catholic period—he was received into the Church July 30, 1922, yet in many ways the biography does not constitute any sort of radical break with the customary themes and approaches of Chesterton. True to form, he offers us a picture of the popular saint that is romantic, adventurous, and full of zest and pomp. At the same time, he also is working to undercut a number of popular versions of Francis that he felt reduced the saint to something less than the “tumbler of God.”

St. Francis of Assisi does represent a return of Chesterton to the genre of the popular biography and prepares the way not only for his other two important medieval biographies, Chaucer (1932) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1933), but also of two of his personal heroes, the political writer and activist, William Cobbett (1925) and the adventure writer, Robert Louis Stevenson (1927). Indeed, it stands between the four works. It acts as the first pane in his medieval triptych, yet is also along with Cobbett and Stevenson stands as a portrait of a man who would oppose the madness of his age with something others might judge (and quite wrongly) as insanity.

To offer this portrait, Chesterton must not only seek to set the record straight about Francis, but also about the Middle Ages, and this includes for him putting things such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or the Gregorian Reform in a proper narrative with motives, characters, as well as beginnings and endings:

[T]he majority of doubts are made out of details. In the course of random reading a man comes across a pagan custom that strikes him as picturesque or a Christian action that strikes him as cruel; but he does not enlarge his mind sufficiently to see the main truth about pagan custom or the Christian reaction against it. Until we understand, not necessarily in detail, but in their big bulk and proportion that pagan progress and that Christian reaction, we cannot really understand the point of history at which St. Francis appears or what his great popular mission was all about. (2.36)

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