Saint Francis of Assisi


The following quotes are all drawn from the book with the above title written by G.K. Chesterton (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1990, first published in 1924).


"St. Francis was in advance of his age…(he) anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property. All those things that nobody understood before Wordsworth were familiar to St. Francis.  All those things that were first discovered by Tolstoy had been taken for granted by St. Francis…..the first hero of humanism….a sort of morning star of the Renaissance" (pp. 9-10).


"He was a lover.  He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation…But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ.  Say if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.  And for the modern reader the clue to the asceticism and all the rest can best be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics" (p. 15).


Newspapers "…do give some sort of a summary of the story, while they never give anything remotely resembling a summary of the history.  Newspapers not only deal with news, but they deal with everything as if it were entirely new" (p. 19).  Chesterton tries to avoid this flaw in presenting St. Francis by giving the reader a depth of understanding of the situation.


"…The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were an awakening of the world.  They were a fresh flowering of culture and the creative arts after a long spell of much sterner and even more sterile experience which we call the Dark Ages" (p. 25).


It is so easy to see St. Francis as a beautiful but unapproachably extreme example of how one should live life.  Chesterton attempts to help us see him differently, as someone that we can touch, we can emulate, we can utilize as a role model.  He helps us see St. Francis as a dedicated but balanced human being.  That balance is sometimes hard to see due to the dedication he had toward his love of God and humanity.  But, nonetheless, the balance was ever present and applied to his entire life including his health.  St. Francis, especially given the times and the stressors of his era, lived a healthy life because he was not a fanatic.  He loved his body, he loved everything that God gave us as wondrous gifts, but he did not worship those gifts.  "The truth is that people who worship health cannot remain healthy" (p. 28).


At the time that St. Francis was growing up, "Italy was dotted with little states, largely democratic in their ideals, and often filled with real citizens.  But the city no longer lay open as under Roman peace, but was pent in high walls for defence against feudal war and all the citizens had to be soldiers.  One of these stood in a steep and striking position on the wooded hills of Umbria; and its name was Assisi….it was out of all these fragmentary things of feudalism and freedom and remains of Roman Law that there was to rise, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, vast and almost universal, the mighty civilisation of the Middle Ages" (pp. 32-33).


"The monastic institution itself, of  course, was far older than all these things; indeed it was undoubtedly almost as old as Christianity.  Its counsels of perfection had always taken the form of vows of chastity and poverty and obedience.  With these unworldly aims it had long ago civilised a great part of the world.  The monks had taught people to plough and sow as well as to read and write; indeed they had taught the people nearly everything that the people knew" (p. 33).


For much of the early history of humankind, we worshipped nature.  Animals, the earth and sky, nature were the source of our gods.  This changed over time and in part due to the advent of Christianity.  As St. Francis entered the world, "Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature-worship, and can return to nature" (p. 36).  If St. Francis had preached the beauty of nature earlier, he would most likely not received the support of the church.  However, at the time he brought his ideas forward, the Christian world was eager and ready for them.


St. Francis' "father was Pietro Bernardone and he was a substantial citizen of the guild of the cloth merchants in the town of Assisi" (p. 39).  As a young boy, "Francis was one of those people who are popular with everybody" (p. 39).  He was "slight in figure….middle-sized…of the brownish Southern colouring" (pp. 85-6).  He could be found as a young man "selling bales of cloth from a booth in the market" (40).  One of the early stories about him involved how a beggar interrupted a sale that he was involved in.  "Francis was evidently torn two ways with the botheration of two talkers, but finished his business with the merchant somehow; and when he had finished it, found the beggar was gone…looking for his beggar, whom he eventually discovered; and loaded that astonished mendicant with money.  Then he straightened himself, so to speak, and swore before God that he would never all his life refuse help to a poor man.  The sweeping simplicity of this undertaking is extremely characteristic.  Never was any man so little afraid of his own promises.  His life was one riot of rash vows; of rash vows that turned out right" (p. 41-42) 


However, it is very important to see him as a very well adjusted, rather normal person.  As a young man, "Over and above his main ambition to win fame as a French poet, he would seem to have most often thought of winning fame as a soldier…he had the human horror of leprosy…the love of gay and bright apparel…and seems altogether to have been rather a festive figure" (p. 42).


One night he had a vision.  "There came to him in the darkness a vision splendid with swords, patterned after the cross in the Crusading fashion, of spears and shields and helmets hung in a high armoury, all bearing the sacred sign.  When he awoke he accepted the dream as a trumpet bidding him to the battlefield, and rushed out to take horse and arms…A little way along his road his sickness rose…he seems to have had another dream in which a voice said to him, 'You have mistaken the meaning of the vision.  Return to your own town.'  And Francis trailed back in his sickness to Assisi…But he was not only disappointed and humiliated; he was also very much puzzled and bewildered.  He still firmly believed that his two dreams must have meant something; and he could not imagine what they could possibly mean.  It was while he was drifting….he saw…a leper…he saw his fear coming up the road towards him; the fear that comes from within and not without…and rushed on the leper and threw his arms round him.  It was the beginning of a long vocation of ministry among many lepers, for whom he did many services" (pp. 50-52).


He took to rebuilding "the ruins of the Church of St. Damian, an old shrine in Assisi which was apparently neglected and falling to pieces.  Here Francis was in the habit of praying before the crucifix during these dark and aimless days of transition that followed the tragical collapse of all his military ambitions…as he did so he heard a voice saying to him, 'Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins?  Go and restore it for me'" (pp. 53-54).  Here again, interpretation of the message is very important.  "My house" can be seen as a metaphor for the Church as a whole which was in need of restructuring.


In order to follow this voice, Francis sold "his own horse and then…(sold) several bales of his father's cloth, making the sign of the cross over them to indicate their pious and charitable destination.  Peter Bernardone did not see things in this light…old Bernardone took up the matter in the hardest style; in a legal and literal fashion" and dragged his son before the Bishop who "told Francis that he must unquestionably restore the money to his father; that no blessing could follow a good work done by unjust methods" (pp. 54-55).  Francis' response was that he "stood up before them all and said, 'Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernardone father, but now I am the servant of God.  Not only the money but everything that can be called his I will restore to my father, even the very clothes he has given me.'  And he rent off all his garments…piled the garments in a heap on the floor and tossed the money on top of them.  Then he turned to the bishop, and received his blessing…he went out half-naked…into the winter woods, a man without a father.  He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearance without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song" (pp. 55-56).


In the early years, St. Francis worked on three churches: St.Damian, St. Mary of the Angels at the Portiuncula, and a church dedicated to St. Peter.  "The original church of St. Damian afterwards became the seat of his striking experiment of a female order, and of the pure and spiritual romance of St. Clare" (p. 59).


The first two men identified with becoming St. Francis' followers "were a solid and wealthy citizen named Bernard of Quintavalle and a canon from a neighbouring church named Peter…These three strange figures are said to have built themselves a sort of hut or den adjoining the leper hospital.  There they talked to each other, in the intervals of drudgery and danger (for it needed ten times more courage to look after a leper than to fight for the crown of Sicily)" (pp. 59-50).  St. Francis had "a dark beard thin and pointed such as appears in pictures under the hoods of elves; and his eyes glowed with the fire that fretted him night and day…he turned naturally to a passionate pantomine of gestures…(he was) a dramatic person." (p. 86).  He called himself "the Brother of the Sun and Moon…As he saw all things dramatically, so he himself was always dramatic…he was a poet and can only be understood as a poet…He was a poet whose whole life was a poem.  He was not so much a minstrel merely singing his own songs as a dramatist capable of acting the whole of his own play.  The things he said were more imaginative than the things he wrote.  The things he did were more imaginative than the things he said" (p. 89).  Towards the end he was going blind and "he was not fifty when he died, worn out with his fighting and fasting life" (p. 93).


"St Francis really meant what he said when he said he had found the secret of life in being the servant…There was to be found ultimately in such service a freedom…" (p. 69).  "St. Francis said, 'Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything'" (p. 75).


"The transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution; by which one for whom all things illustrate and illuminate God becomes one for whom God illustrates and illuminates all things.  It is rather like the reversal whereby a lover might say at first sight that a lady looked like a flower, and say afterwards that all flowers reminded him of his lady" (p. 76).  "The shortest statement of one aspect of this illumination is to say that it is the discovery of an infinite debt" (p. 79).

"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" (p. 80).  Just as with any profound love, "it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done" (p. 81).  "It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control.  It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure.  He devoured fasting as a man devours food.  He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold" (p. 81).


St. Francis "not only loved but reverenced God in all his creatures.  St. Francis "honoured all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all" (p. 96).


Through his vision, through the power of his ideas and dedication to them, thousands joined him.  "The servants of God who had been a besieged garrison became a marching army; the ways of the world were filled as with thunder with the trampling of their feet and far ahead of that ever swelling host went a man singing; as simply he had sung that morning in the winter woods, where he walked alone" (p. 98).


St. Francis said, "If we had any possessions, we should need weapons and laws to defend them" (p. 101).


"His argument was this: that the dedicated man might go anywhere among any kind of men, even the worst kind of men, so long as there was nothing by which they could hold him.  If he had any ties or needs like ordinary men, he would become like ordinary men.  St. Francis was the last man in the world to think any the worse of ordinary men for being ordinary. They had more affection and admiration from him than they are ever likely to have again.  But for his own particular purpose of stirring up the world to a new spiritual enthusiasm, he saw with a logical clarity that was quite reverse of fanatical or sentimental, that friars must not become like ordinary men…And the difference between a friar and an ordinary man was really that a friar was freer than an ordinary man" (pp. 101-2).


One of the strokes of genius of St. Francis is how he created "friars" to be profoundly different than the "monks" who had been around from the beginning of Christianity.  "One distinction between the old monks and the new friars counted especially in the matter of practicality and especially of promptitude.  The old fraternities with their fixed habitations and enclosed existence had the limitations of ordinary householders.  However simply they lived there must be a certain number of cells or a certain number of beds or at least a certain cubic space for a certain number of brothers; their numbers therefore depended on their land and building material.  But since a man could become a Franciscan by merely promising to take his chance of eating berries in a lane or begging a crust from a kitchen, of sleeping under a hedge or sitting patiently on a doorstep, there was no economic reason why there should not be any number of such eccentric enthusiasts within any short period of time…(St. Francis) asked the laity for food as confidently as he asked the fraternity for fasting" (pp. 104-5).


"The whole point of a monk was that his economic affairs were settled for good; he knew where he would get his supper, though it was a very plain supper.  But the whole point of a friar was that he did not know where he would get his supper.  There was always a possibility that he might get no supper" (p. 108).


Pope Innocent III gave his approval of this new way of reaching out to the masses and once he had, it became a "world of wandering; friars perpetually coming and going in all the highways and byways, seeking to ensure that any man who met one of them by chance should have a spiritual adventure.  The First Order of St. Francis had entered history" (p. 110).  Second and Third Orders were founded later at separate times.  The Second Order was an "order for women and owed its existence, of course, to the beautiful friendship of St. Francis and St. Clare" (p. 110).  The Third Order "has been an inspiration to innumerable crowds of ordinary married men and women; living lives like our own, only entirely different" (p. 113).


St. Francis towards the end had a vision.  "St. Francis beheld the heavens above him occupied by a vast winged being like a seraph spread out like a cross…St. Francis saw above him, filling the whole heavens, some vast immemorial unthinkable power…and all that winged wonder was in pain like a wounded bird" (p. 131).  As St. Francis observed this vision, he looked down at his hands and "he saw the marks of nails in his own hands" (p. 132).  This is an example of stigmata.  It was not long after this he began to go blind (p. 133).  Towards the very end of his life, "he was lifted at his own request off his own rude bed and laid on the bare ground; as some say clad only in a hair-shirt, as he had first gone forth into the wintry woods from the presence of his father.  It was the final assertion of his great fixed idea; of praise and thanks springing to their most towering height out of nakedness and nothing.  As he lay there we may be certain that his seared and blinded eyes saw nothing but their object and their origin.  We may be sure that the soul, in its last inconceivable isolation, was face to face with nothing less than God Incarnate and Christ Crucified"


On page 158, the final page of Chesterton's biography of St. Francis, Chesterton  notes of St. Francis that:



"He has lived and changed the world."