It’s too easy to sugar coat any of the saints to make the medicine they offer us more palatable. Stories we’ve read in the Little Flowers tempt us to do the same to Saint Francis. Here’s a corrective from GKC. Happy Feast Day to all Franciscans!
I ask the reader to remember and realise what the story really looked like, when thus seen from the outside. Given a critic of rather coarse common sense, with no feeling about the incident except annoyance, and how would the story seem to stand?
A young fool or rascal is caught robbing his father and selling goods which he ought to guard; and the only explanation he will offer is that a loud voice from nowhere spoke in his ear and told him to mend the cracks and holes in a particular wall. He then declared himself naturally independent of all powers corresponding to the police or magistrates, and takes refuge with an amiable bishop who is forced to remonstrate with him and tell him he is wrong. He then proceeds to take off his clothes in public and practically throw them at his father; announcing at the same time that his father is not his father at all. He then runs about the town asking everybody he meets to give him fragments of buildings or building materials, apparently with reference to his old monomania about mending the wall.
It may be an excellent thing that cracks should be filled up, but preferably not by somebody who is himself cracked; and architectural restoration like other things is not best performed by builders who, as we should say, have a tile loose. Finally the wretched youth relapses into rags and squalor and practically crawls away into the gutter. That is the spectacle that Francis must have presented to a very large number of his neighbours and friends. How he lived at all must have seemed to them dubious; but presumably he already begged for bread as he had begged for building materials.
From “Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis, by G. K. Chesterton.
We are created, called, to be conscious beings. There comes a time when our consciousness overflows into words; the toddler seems to acquire a massive working vocabulary almost overnight, even if the most frequently used word seems to be ‘no’.
Chesterton here seeks to understand with his readers the point at which words are of no further use to describe our consciousness of God; to realise, if only fleetingly, that we all depend in every detail, at every instant, upon God.
The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else.
He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made.
In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy. That is but a distant adumbration of the reason why the Franciscan, ragged, penniless, homeless and apparently hopeless, did indeed come forth singing such songs as might come from the stars of morning; and shouting, a son of God. This sense of the great gratitude and the sublime dependence was not a phrase or even a sentiment; it is the whole point that this was the very rock of reality. It was not a fancy but a fact; rather it is true that beside it all facts are fancies.
That we all depend in every detail, at every instant, as a Christian would say upon God, as even an agnostic would say upon existence and the nature of things, is not an illusion of imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life.
From “Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis” by G. K. Chesterton
Rowan Williams said that Christ lived a life-long Passion. It was a passion, both in terms of human suffering – just one example being when the members of his local synagogue tried to kill him by throwing him down a cliff – and in terms of zeal, enthusiasm, living each day to the full; and in terms of love. Saint Francis grasped this idea and tried to live it out, feeling his own response to being alive and loved by God as falling short.
Would we not have compromised on the form the Franciscan order should take; be more practical in many circumstances than Francis was? Let us use this Lent to become conscious of where our compromises go too far.
“St. Francis was a dying man. We might say he was an old man, at the time this typical incident occurred; but in fact he was only prematurely old; for he was not fifty when he died, worn out with his fighting and fasting life. But when he came down from the awful asceticism and more awful revelation of Alverno, he was a broken man.
As will be apparent when these events are touched on in their turn, it was not only sickness and bodily decay that may well have darkened his life; he had been recently disappointed in his main mission to end the Crusades by the conversion of Islam; he had been still more disappointed by the signs of compromise and a more political or practical spirit in his own order; he had spent his last energies in protest.
At this point he was told that he was going blind. If the faintest hint has been given here of what St. Francis felt about the glory and pageantry of earth and sky, about the heraldic shape and colour and symbolism of birds and beasts and flowers, some notion may be formed of what it meant to him to go blind. Yet the remedy might well have seemed worse than the disease. The remedy, admittedly an uncertain remedy, was to cauterise the eye, and that without any anaesthetic. In other words it was to burn his living eyeballs with a red-hot iron. Many of the tortures of martyrdom, which he envied in martyrology and sought vainly in Syria, can have been no worse.
When they took the brand from the furnace, he rose as with an urbane gesture and spoke as to an invisible presence: “Brother Fire, God made you beautiful and strong and useful; I pray you be courteous with me.” If there be any such thing as the art of life, it seems to me that such a moment was one of its masterpieces.
From Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis, by G. K. Chesterton
Another visit to the eighteenth century in the company of Doctor Johnson and James Boswell.
In The Idler, No. II, Johnson shews that ‘an Englishman’s notice of the weather is the natural consequence of changeable skies and uncertain seasons… In our island every man goes to sleep unable to guess whether he shall behold in the morning a bright or cloudy atmosphere, whether his rest shall be lulled by a shower, or broken by a tempest. We therefore rejoice mutually at good weather, as at an escape from something that we feared; and mutually complain of bad, as of the loss of something that we hoped.’
Boswell for once is quoting from Johnson’s written words rather than conversation. I found this text on the same day in winter that I took the photograph. My father called the piercing of clouds by sunbeams such as we see here ‘The Gate of Heaven’. A saying worth recording, as Boswell would no doubt have agreed.
I am reminded of the line of Chesterton: ‘The gates of heaven are lightly locked.’ But do we look up to see them? Dare we set a toe over the threshold, pausing even for a moment, to catch a glimpse of glory? What does the voice from the cloud tell us? I found myself hurrying the next moment, as my grandson’s school bell had rung and he would soon be out, scanning the playground for his adults. But the moment stayed with me.
From “Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784” by James Boswell
Another reflection from Chesterton on Saint Francis*, who among many other things, could be called a Performance Poet today.
Saint Francis hails the elements with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water. So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism.
When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name.
We in the West may be over-familiar with stories of Francis calling up his Brother Fire and his Sister Water, and this partly because we have lost touch with fire and water. How many households are all-electric and possibly only light candles on birthday cakes? Many have nowhere to light a fire, keeping warm and cooking without a flame, at the touch of a switch.
In our everyday lives water is tamed to flow through pipes, to be heated in a closed boiler, disposed of when dirty through more pipes; not the way to treat a sister. Still less the pollution in rivers and the ocean. Maybe we need to listen again.
We praise you, Lord, for all your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
of you Most High, he bears your likeness.
We praise you, Lord, for Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.
*Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis” by G. K. Chesterton
Three extracts from Chesterton’s account of Saint Francis.
It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them; and they are in themselves the best working example of the idea. For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.
But there is more than this involved, and more indeed than is easily to be expressed in words. It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God. It is also true that he sees more of the things themselves when he sees more of their origin; for their origin is a part of them and indeed the most important part of them. Thus they become more extraordinary by being explained. He has more wonder at them but less fear of them; for a thing is really wonderful when it is significant and not when it is insignificant.
From “Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis” by G. K. Chesterton.
I dwell amid the city, And hear the flow of souls in act and speech, For pomp or trade, for merrymake or folly: I hear the confluence and sum of each, And that is melancholy! Thy voice is a complaint, O crownèd city, The blue sky covering thee like God’s great pity.
. From The Soul’s Travelling by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The City of God is a common theme in the Bible, Zion or Jerusalem, the earthly place where he lives among his people, or the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. A city was, and remains, a convenient setting for a more cultured life that would not have been possible in the hinterlands. Although the airwaves bring us radio, television and the internet – and of course internet shopping – the city remains a magnet for entertainment, dining out, medical care, employment. What is Elizabeth’s problem?
Perhaps it is the flow of souls looking for pomp, trade, merriment or folly: self indulgence in other words. But whether in her 19th Century London as in the first picture, or the 21st Century city, by no means all arrivals flock there for the extras London has to offer, at a price. The city may be a relatively safe haven from war or other troubles but people still have to find a welcome; somewhere affordable to live, familiar food or the sound of their mother tongue.
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
The sky in both of our pictures is more iron cope than blue cloak; we can well believe that it grows darker yet as the sea indeed rises higher. It is for each one of us to have joy without any apparent cause, and faith in God when all comfort is taken away from ourselves or the people we meet. Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom!
There are some Christian movements that shun the giving of Christmas presents. One such is Christian Science, whose founder Mary Baker Eddy told in a paper ‘The Theology of Christmas Presents’ how, instead of giving them gifts, she sat still and thought about ‘Truth and Purity’ for her friends till they were much better for it. This was derided by G.K. Chesterton who declared Eddy’s stance to be ‘un-Christian’ and who points out that ‘Christ Himself was a Christmas present’. He writes as well that, ‘A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed.’
Admittedly, the consumer spending spree that begins ever earlier in the year can get a bit out of hand, and even lead to some people ending up in debt. But how lovely it can be to both receive and to give presents, especially ones into which a lot of thought and love has gone. And the gifts don’t have to be expensive. We do ‘Secret Santas’ at the Irish Chaplaincy (a fine tradition; and one enjoyed as well, by all accounts, in 10, Downing Street!). There is a £5 guideline and people interpret that in a variety of ways. I hit the jackpot this year. I received a large white furry Christmas stocking emblazoned with the letter ‘E’ and containing a string of flashing lights (which I love) and a glass container with a Christmas scene inside that snows when you shake it (which I also love) and lights up when you press a button on the bottom! And can be hung on the tree! The Secret Santa in question had, in addition, bought a large box of chocolates for all the team and a signed photo of Jamie Carragher for Declan’s son who is a Liverpool fan. I was so touched by that.
My furry stocking has duly been hung up next to the fireplace and I wait in anticipation of it being filled with little treats when I come downstairs on the morning of December 25th. I’m aware that I might find it empty but that’s the thing about present giving, and, I suppose, life in general: sometimes you’re in luck, sometimes you’re not! But in luck or out of luck, we may never know, through our own giving, how we may have touched another person.
Chesterton argues in his riposte to Mary Baker Eddy that if the three kings had simply brought ‘Truth and Purity and Love’ to that stable in Bethlehem then there ‘would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.’ Rather they brought actual, physical gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. OK, they may not have been the most practical things to give to the mother of a new-born, but how many of us want practical gifts at Christmas? Don’t we want instead something to make us smile, to feel special; to feel known and valued and loved: in short, thoughtful gifts, which is precisely what the gifts of the kings were.
In the words of Handel’s Messiah, ‘For unto us a child is born’, and that, surely, remains the greatest Christmas gift of all.
In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.
Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
Like the child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked; and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.
Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.
She spoke not, nor turned not,
Nor any sign she cast,
Only she stood up straight and free,
Between the flowers in Athelney,
And the river running past.
One dim ancestral jewel hung
On his ruined armour grey,
He rent and cast it at her feet:
Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
Men came from hall and school and street
And found it where it lay.
"Mother of God," the wanderer said,
"I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.
"The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.
"But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is for ever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?
"When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?"
This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs:
"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher."
Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'.
Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.