The Knightly St. Francis

October 2000By David Denton

David Denton, of Granville, Ohio, is a Railroad Safety Inspector by day, and an armchair historian by night.

St. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Volume I, The Saint.  Edited by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J.A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. Conv., and William J. Short, O.F.M. New City Press. 624 pages. No price given..



For the convert to Catholicism, or the cradle Catholic for that matter, one of the more difficult challenges in Catholic theology is how to approach those things referred to as “Mysteries.” We all grapple with them sooner or later — the mystery of the Trinity or the Incarnation, or perhaps the problem of reconciling suffering with God’s omnipotence. They are abysses into which we may pour our intellect and often our anguish. But in the universe of our Faith, there are persons, sometimes called saints, whose very lives appear to us as portals into these Mysteries. Such a person is Francis of Assisi.

There is a phenomenon in our culture called “spirituality” which congratulates itself for having appropriated St. Francis to sanctify its banality. He’s become a pre-cast concrete statue sold in mail-order catalogues. He’s an esoteric bird-feeder, an elitist garden gnome. His prayers are read in “spiritual” gatherings and chanted in environmental consciousness-raisings. Since he sang of Creation, preached to the birds, and begged men to stop warring, he is paraded as a “patron” of environmentalism, animal rights, and pacifism. The environmentalists may have a point. Nonetheless, the mystery of St. Francis cannot be dragooned into trendy causes.

In the volume under review here, St. Francis’s life is portrayed by medieval historians, poets, and liturgists, most of whom were Franciscans. All tell of a fire of a man who set impossible standards for his followers, the laity, and the clergy and hierarchy of the Church, whom he unfailingly supported.

St. Francis claimed to be the most worthless of God’s servants. He set out to live the Gospels and suffer a small part of what his Lord had suffered for us. Francis would seek out the bare ground for his bed, and then do all he could to avoid sleeping. He would go out of his way to eat the worst of food, or more likely go without. He would often afflict his flesh, throwing himself in freezing ditch water or snow to mortify his body, which he referred to as “Brother Ass.”

Though the miracles attributed to him are many and, no doubt, edifying, St. Francis’s actions were exemplary even when performing nonmiraculous deeds. When a beggar approached one of his Friars to beg food but was sent away empty, St. Francis required the brother — under obedience — to strip naked before the beggar, prostrate himself, and beg forgiveness.

The only writer of our age able to unravel the mystery of St. Francis is G.K. Chesterton. To do so, he takes us through the perversion of the Classical Age, the penitential purification of the Dark Ages, and the blossoming of the early Medieval era — into an era of tremendous cultural change into which Francis was born. In Catholic Europe agricultural surpluses were brought about by new farming methods, and new technologies were brought into the service of the growing mercantile class and the Church. At the same time the retrieval of Classical culture, an unprecedented quest for learning, and the building of universities, not to mention cathedrals, proceeded apace with the Crusades and the expansion of trade and finance. Lynn White Jr., in Medieval Technology and Social Change, attributes this technological and economic development, which continues to enfold and immerse the West, to the influence of Western Christian theology and philosophy. Along with those early material benefits, the resulting societal changes also brought widespread unrest and alienation in a time fraught with clerical laxity, which gave rise to widespread and powerful heresies. A time not unlike our own.

This medieval cultural stew was also the era of the cult of chivalry and courtly love, within a society that now had the leisured and aristocratic classes that could revere, or at least respect, those ideals. Those who sang and glorified these rarified loves and transcendent ideals were known as troubadours.

Chesterton explains that St. Francis was a knight troubadour of the Lord Jesus, who set awesome contests — jousts, if you will — for his body and soul, in living the Gospels as he understood them. The Lady, then, for whom he jousted and did great deeds was the Lady Poverty. That only he could win these struggles did not disgust or alienate those around him (as they tend to do for us) but gained the awe and admiration of all who watched or heard of them. And having been observed and marveled, these heroic and mystical deeds of St. Francis produced a rededication, a recommitment to the Church of Christ by laity, clergy, and hierarchy. St. Francis triumphed in his knightly deeds, all in emulation and adoration of his Lord, and all the while singing of his love and adoration of the wonders of God and His Creation. St. Francis assayed the same battles and sacrifices in which his Seigneur Christ had triumphed for us all.

Even the few failures of St. Francis were magnificent. When he failed to suffer (to win, he would say) martyrdom at the hands of Moslems after confronting their armies in the Holy Land, he did win their astonished admiration. This most zealous Crusader, who did battle without sword and armor to stop the bloodshed and win over the infidel, was sent home unharmed by an amazed and shaken Sultan.

In Lynn White’s essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” the most controversial attribution to St. Francis may be found, one which strengthens the environmental movement’s claim on St. Francis. White’s scrupulously researched — and now widely supported — position is that the voluntarist piety of Western Christianity was the sine qua non of European technological, scientific, and economic superiority. But White, having established the Christian source of Europe’s cultural engine, claims that Western Christianity is also the source of our present ecological crisis. He then proposes St. Francis as the new prototype for Western Christianity. Because of Francis’s mystical apprehension of all of Creation as sacred, White suggests him as a new model of ecological rectitude for all to emulate.

But here one can almost picture Hilaire Belloc slap his forehead and shout, “Of course there is an ecological crisis, and it’s the product of a spiritual crisis. But as I told you again and again, its source is Industrial Capitalism which is a result of the Reformation. Moreover,” he might add, “St. Francis is an antidote precisely because he is a saint of Catholic sensibilities and Faith and not an heir to the Reformation. Look,” Belloc would say, “at the industrial powerhouses of the last three centuries: England, Prussia, and the United States: all Protestant, not Catholic. It has been a source of pride for Protestants how much less successful Catholic nations have been — industrially, technologically, and financially — than Protestant nations. But now that the ecological piper must be paid by the heirs of Wealth, now that the industrial capitalists look for someone to blame, lo, it’s Western Christianity.” Belloc would ask, “If St. Francis is to be our patron in this crisis, well and good, but are we ready to acknowledge his Church, his Culture, and his Faith? Are we as ready as he to mortify our appetites and our selves, to ‘preach constantly and even resort to words’ to reform the Reformation and save the earth?”

The documents in St. Francis of Assisi are primarily for the more committed students of the Saint. The Latin from which most are drawn is translated powerfully, but the “thees” and “thous” with which medieval Latin used to be translated are unfortunately missing. Nevertheless, the layman will profit from these documents, if a guide such as Chesterton is at hand. These documents, moreover, remind us of our need for saints to afflict us — and to confound the enemy.



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