Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Chesterton's Saint Francis of Assisi

Now that I finished up The Everlasting Man it seems I couldn't wait long to start a new title by the same author. I picked up Saint Francis of Assisi and finding it a nice follow-up to TEM, especially since there's some related thoughts on history. (Also handy since I expect to be reviewing Nancy Brown's study guide for St. Francis in the near future). Here are a "few" highlights from what I read today.

He starts by discussing history in order to set forth his reasons for giving us a picture of the world into which St. Francis of Assisi was born. It's a nice little reminder of mankind's tendency to forget its need for perspective in understanding people of other times and places...

The modern innovation which has substituted journalism for history, or for that tradition that is the gossip of history, has had at least one definite effect. It has insured that everybody should only hear the end of every story.

Newspapers not only deal with news, but they deal with everything as if it were entirely new Tut-ankhamen, for instance, was entirely new. It is exactly in the same fashion that we read that Admiral Bangs has been shot, which is the first intimation we have that he has ever been born.

Most modern history, especially in England, suffers from the same imperfection as journalism. At best it only tells half of the history of Christendom; and that the second half without the first half. Men for whom reason begins with the Revival of Learning, men for whom religion begins with the Reformation, can never give a complete account of anything, for they have to start with institutions whose origin the cannot explain, or generally even imagine. Just as we hear of the admiral being shot but have never heard of his being born, so we all heard a great deal about the dissolution of the monasteries, but we heard next to nothing about the creation of the monasteries. Now this sort of history would be hopelessly insufficient, even for an intelligent man who hated the monasteries.

The Crusaders doubtless abused their victory, but there was a victory to abuse. And where there is victory there is valour in the field and popularity in the forum. There is some sort of enthusiasm that encourages excesses or covers faults. For instance, I for one have maintained from very early days the responsibility of the English for their atrocious treatment of the Irish. But it would be quite unfair to the English to describe even the devilry of '98 and leave out altogether mention of the war with Napoleon.

We learn about reforms without knowing what they had to reform, about rebels without a notion of what they rebelled against, of memorials that are not connected with any memory and restorations of things that had apparently never existed before.

...I am not going to discuss here the doctrinal truths of Christianity, but simply the broad historical fact of Christianity, as it might appear to a really enlightened and imaginative person even if he were not a Christian. What I mean at the moment is that the 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.

He then moves on to explain the significance of the "flowering of culture and the creative arts" in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and what went on during the Dark Ages to allow that to happen.
Now everybody knows, I imagine, that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were an awakening of the world. They were a fresh flowering of culture an the creative arts after a long spell of much sterner and even more sterile experience which we call the Dark Ages. They may be called an emancipation; they were certainly an end; an end of what may at least seem a harsher and more inhuman time.

Anybody who supposes that the Dark Ages were plain darkness and nothing else, and that the dawn of the thirteenth century was plain daylight and nothing else, will not be able to make head or tail of the human story of St. Francis of Assisi.

The end of the Dark Ages was not merely the end of a sleep. It was certainly not merely the end of a superstitious enslavement. It was the end of something belonging to a quite definite but quite different order of ideas.

It was the end of a penance; or, if it be preferred, a purgation. It marked the moment when a certain spiritual expiation had been finally worked out and certain spiritual diseases had been finally expelled from the system. They had been expelled by an era of asceticism, which was the only thing that could have expelled them. Christianity had entered the world to cure the world; and she had cured it in the only way in which it could be cured.

The mistake was too deep to be ideally defined; the short-hand of it is to call it the mistake of nature-worship It might almost as truly be called the mistake of being natural; and it was a very natural mistake.

The wisest men in the world set out to be natural; and the most unnatural thing in the world was the very first thing they did. The immediate effect of saluting the sun and the sunny sanity of nature was a perversion spreading like a pestilence. The greatest and even the purest philosophers could not apparently avoid this low sort of lunacy.

It was the discovery of that deeper thing, humanly speaking, that constituted the conversion to Christianity. There is a bias in man... 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.

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