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St. Francis of Assisi

The merely modern mind has justified every detail of its facile existence by the simplest means: we are selfish survivalists whose only real wishes are hedonistic and bestial. Not only is such an approach fatally misconstrued, it also really applies to that subsection of humans who believe that whatever they do is good because they want it, and have the ridiculous idea of calling such desire the power of the will. Modern philosophy, in its efforts to reinvent the wheel, the chariot, and the horseman, has smiled upon the silliness of gratitude, of beneficence, of unwarranted and unreturned kindness as some childish desire to blunt a jagged conscience. Somewhere, in our depths, we are compensating for the evil we have inflicted upon others (the common explanation for those who left a life of debauchery behind in favor of a good and pure existence, such as this Russian actor). But these are modern views to age-old questions. They are necessarily as ignorant of what has occurred over the course of human history as today’s agnostic who claims – in the same timid and wishy-washy way he does everything else – that religion, organized or in riot, has always been the refuge of the poor and downtrodden. A refuge, mind you, designed by the reigning elite to palliate the inequities that reality maintains between the privileged and the very underprivileged. Apart from a story about some birds, that same agnostic may or may not have heard of this Saint; but he surely will know little about the man described in this book.

The argument in such an endeavor does not devolve into what St. Francis set out to do, nor what we should think of St. Francis as a human being; this is not, as it were, the tale of a Nordic explorer. The appearance of the man we now call St. Francis of Assisi cannot and should not be explained away by divine intervention, because there has only been one such intervention in the history of Christianity. No, St. Francis must be explained as a man, and as a man he is remarkable in ways that have rarely been ascribed to anyone else among the ranks of mankind. His way was perhaps the Way of the Cross, but it had not the same ends – nor could it have presumed to have – as what Jesus Christ brought to the world. This oddness, an ascetic strain so restrictive as to seem incredible to the modern hedonist, is appropriately addressed in unusual terms:

The truth is that people who worship health cannot be healthy. When Man goes straight he goes crooked. When he follows his nose he manages somehow to put his nose out of joint, or even to cut off his nose to spite his face; and that in accordance with something much deeper in human nature than nature-worshipers could ever understand. It was the discovery of that deeper thing, humanly speaking, that constituted the conversion to Christianity. There is a bias in man like the bias in a bowl; and Christianity was the discovery of how to correct the bias and therefore hit the mark. There are many who will smile at the saying; but it is profoundly true to say that the glad good news brought by the Gospel was the news of original sin.

On this basis Francis Bernardone, a young Italian who grew up at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century, became the most austere admirer of Christian mores the world had ever learned of, and not because he was the most austere of all persons to have ever walked in the massive shadow of Calvary. History is replete with tales of self-flagellating monks, believers burning and starving themselves, in a futile attempt to make up for the sin they feel has made them mortal and wicked. What history lacked before the advent of Francis Bernardone, however, was a soul who committed himself to the trinity that is the vow of the monk – poverty, obedience, and chastity – and did so with such unadulterated and genuine cheerfulness. In a way, Francis was the first among us to divine the teachings of Christianity as the paradoxical amalgam of utter destitution and utter rapture; the first to make happiness and poverty synonymous; the first, in other words, to show us that the meek truly will inherit the earth.

The Brothers Minor, an order that still numbers in the tens of thousands, have persisted through our faithless days as a sort of sideshow attraction. Witness the innumerable popular references to the hooded friar in brown garb with a rope as his belt and the soil as his shoes. Many of us think such an existence to denote enslavement – if not enslavement, then a sad and meaningless resort for the desperate – although no one to my knowledge has ever been forced to become a Franciscan monk. Yet the key to asceticism can be elegantly resolved: if you believe the world to be made by laws that do not change, you cannot believe in anything that violates those laws. As such, if you believe that we were meant to live and survive, you can hardly believe in any culture or mores that shorten your life so that you may repent for our collective moral turpitude. For St. Francis, this is precisely what makes the most sense:

It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks. Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it; we are most of us too mean to practice it. We are not generous enough to be ascetics; one might almost say not genial enough to be ascetics. A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden. But whether he sees it or not, the truth is in that riddle; that the whole world has, or is, only one good thing; and it is a bad debt.

The use of the term “debt” will certainly appeal to those modern industrial souls who measure every gesture and nuance of speech in light of their financial solvency; but there is more at stake here than pure self-immolation which can easily be interpreted as guilt. One thing that did not plague St. Francis was guilt. He did not feel the burden of the Cross upon his shoulder blades or the Weltschmerz that has made many a philosopher sob in the corner of his private study. His only burden was his clothes, which in a much-belabored scene he quickly shed. He then encountered a peasant in brown habit, begged politely for the most measly and holed garment that peasant owned, found some hemp with which to bind the habit to himself, and the rest as they say is history.

The point of Chesterton’s book, of course, is not history or anything resembling historical fact. That is not because St. Francis is fictive or because what he did and said was attributed to him posthumously in a sort of deifying Festschrift; he did not do or say that much to begin with. If what we know of St. Francis of Assisi is that he loved animals, especially birds, and that novels such as this one continue to depict him as a nature boy with a heart for heaven, our perpetuation of these trusted captions is as much our fault as the fault of those who cannot be bothered to learn about anything outside the lifetime of their grandparents. So why does Francis matter at all? Perhaps because he reminds us in a very distant way of what we have always believed:

St. Francis is the mirror of Christ as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is also more visible. Exactly in the same sense St. Francis is nearer to us, and being a mere man like ourselves is in that sense more imaginable. Being necessarily less of a mystery, he does not, for us, so much open his mouth in mysteries.

Mysteries cannot come from someone who is ordinary and plain, in the complimentary meaning of both words, and in our world of never-ending doubts, conspiracies and mystifications, we should be thankful for such clarity. But whatever we do in life, we will never be as gracious or as thankful as that young Italian in brown habit.

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