Chesterton’s little biography of St. Francis is essential reading, not only because of its penetrating insights into the magnificent person of Francis but also because of its insights into the magnificent person of Chesterton. It is not a conventional biography, but then it is not a conventional subject, much less a conventional author. (See how you start sounding like Chesterton when you type right after reading Chesterton?! Ha!) Rather, it is a spiritual biography of Francis of Assisi that seeks to explore a matter more interesting than the details surrounding his life, mainly, Francis’ actual mind and heart.
The book does assume some knowledge of Francis, but, in truth, enough of the rudimentary details of his story are provided where the reader with no knowledge of Francis will not be completely lost. Still, if Chesterton’s approach is confusing, it may be better to read one of the more fundamental biographies available today, probably Omer Englebert’s work (which is at least available on ebook format).
What Chesterton does (with uncanny but, for him, typical brilliance) is draw the reader into the mind-boggling simplicity and singleness of vision that characterized Francis’ view of life after breaking with his old way of life as the son of Pietro di Bernardone. Chesterton treats Francis sympathetically, describing him as a man who, quite literally, started over. When Francis gave himself to God, embracing the principles of poverty, charity, and obedience, he did so with a startling purity and, some might say, naiveté. Chesterton is at his best when defending this naiveté. He recognizes the danger of trying to institutionalize or force these virtues on all of Christendom in the way that Francis embraced them personally, arguing that it was more necessary for Francis to be absorbed into Christendom than for Christendom to be absorbed into Francis, but he sees Francis nonetheless as a necessary and crucial reminder and challenge to the church and the world.
Chesterton fairly marvels, as any observer must, at Francis’ courage and daring. His treatment of Francis’ attempt to convert the Muslims to Christianity during the Crusades is fascinating and insightful. Furthermore, Chesterton’s treatment of Francis’ “ignorance” (in his discussion of Francis as a poet) was really well done.
Along the way, Chesterton rightly skewers the skepticism of the modern world, specifically regarding the more fantastic stories surrounding Francis (which Chesterton, himself, does not necessarily buy hook-line-and-sinker), but more generally regarding the modern penchant of swallowing camels and straining on gnats. He is right to do so, and Chesterton is at his best in pointing out these modern hypocrisies.
Above all, however, this book, more than any Chesterton book I have ever read, is amazingly inspirational. There are times when your heart soars reading a book like this. I suspect that part of this is the similarity between Chesterton and Francis. Now, of course, there are MANY dissimilarities. Chesterton could not be called a champion of self-discipline and restraint! However, they both maintained a kind of childish wonder at the world that God has made. They both evidenced a purity of faith. They both, in a sense, lived lives quite against the current of the cultures into which they were born. One can imagine Chesterton laughing at a bird just as easily as one can imagine Francis doing the same, and both from the same deep theological storehouse.
Chesterton is no Francis. Chesterton himself would say that very quickly. But it is hard to imagine a writer who could understand Francis like Chesterton did, or who, in ways fascinating and compelling, saw the world in the same way.
This a very good book.