Impressions of “St Francis of Assisi” and “St Thomas Aquinas,” by G.K. Chesterton

Before last month, I was almost completely ignorant of the Coming of the Friars. After reading about it, I read two more books on the subjects.

The coming of the Friars is the term used in Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History. It refers to the Catholic revolution in religious life against what had been left of the Monks and the Priests in the Dark Ages. Priests re-presented the Sacrifice of the Lord, monks said prayers and copied books, and there were some monks who were also priests. These were lawful and legitimate, but what was left off was the people, and, sometimes, reverence. Normal people of could would not hear the masses said in monasteries, and in the parishes priests often did not bother with homilies. Often this extended to both monks and priests either being illicitly married or at least openly keeping mistresses. Both positions became, to some extent, heritable.

Ironically, G.K. Chesterton sees one cause of this problem as an otherworldly philosophy adopted by many in the church, and based on the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine’s Confessions was so vivid as to his personality this seems odd, but I’m aware of his Neo-Platonist sympathies. Anyway, near the end of Confessions is what I had taken for a garbled pre-psychological attempt to understand the cognitive process Chesterton makes a tremendous deal out of this, and sees it as evidence of a focus on the ideal (what Lewis would call the “hygienic”) over the Creation that God called “good.”

Francis and Thomas were very different men, Chesterton says they are as unique as saints. Chesterton always describes Francis as leaping or in a hurry, and Thomas as plodding — the “dumb ox” his old school nickname. Something of the difference between these two saints can be seen in excerpts from their writings. Both are certainly Christian writings, and indeed they were both revolutionary affirmations of the actual created world ( in contrast to an excessive, disembodied spirtuality), but who could confuse Francis:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
The Canticle of the Sun

for Thomas:

Article 1. Whether Christ should have been circumcised?

Objection 1. It would seem that Christ should not have been circumcised. For on the advent of the reality, the figure ceases. But circumcision was prescribed to Abraham as a sign of the covenant concerning his posterity, as may be seen from Genesis 17. Now this covenant was fulfilled in Christ’s birth. Therefore circumcision should have ceased at once.

Objection 2. Further, “every action of Christ is a lesson to us” [Innoc. III, Serm. xxii de Temp.; wherefore it is written (John 3:15): “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” But we ought not to be circumcised; according to Galatians 5:2: “If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” Therefore it seems that neither should Christ have been circumcised.

Objection 3. Further, circumcision was prescribed as a remedy of original sin. But Christ did not contract original sin, as stated above (III:14:3; III:15:1). Therefore Christ should not have been circumcised.

On the contrary, It is written (Luke 2:21): “After eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised.”

[etc]
Summa Theologiae, III:37

Their individuality extends to the least-probable events in their respect lives. Thomas was the cousin of a Holy Roman Emperor, who when he announced his desire to be an abbot, his well-off family effectively bought him a monastery and installed him as abbot. When he became a friar and was on his first mission his brothers, so outraged at the idea of a non-corrupt monk, they kidnapped him and paid to have a harlot seduce him! Leading to perhaps the worst performance evaluation of all time, as the young saint chased the young woman out of his room with a fire poker!

Francis’s actions were on a larger scale, though perhaps to less effect. During the military campaign of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) Sultan traveled to Crusader-occupied Egypt, crossed enemy lines, requested and received an audience from the Sultan, and tried (though failed) to convert him to Christianity. The Fifth Crusade was odd for a number of reasons, such as including the (Muslim!) Sultanate of Rum among the Crusader-alliance, but perhaps an analogy would have been a Taoist monk from China travelling to Tokyo during World War II and personally attempting to convert the Emperor from Shintoism — and surviving.

It’s odd both, near the end of their life, had a vivid and disturbing vision. Francis saw a vision of a crucified Seraph — my immediate reaction, and apparently Chesterton’s, was surprise that an Angel could be crucified. (That is, presuming the God-who-became-Man is not also a God-who-became-Angel… the Angel of the LORD. And while Francis’s version is most disturbing only in the context of angelology, Thomas (who knew angelology forwards and backwards) never shared what caused him to remark:

all that I have written seems like straw to me”

It’s somewhat distrubing that both episodes can be specifically dated. Francis saw a six-winged angel on a cross on September 12, 1224. Whatever Thomas saw, he saw on December 6, 1273.

It’s striking how many reformers lived in this period. Francis (1181-1226) and Thomas (1225-1274) were, barely, contemporaries. The Pope who Francis begged to recognize his order, Pope Innocent III (1198-126), who transformed the Papacy into a weak plaything of stronger powers and brought two empires to heel, was too. Saint Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Dominicans and who was vital in the Albigensian Crusade, met Francis before Francis traveled to the Arab world to attempt to personally convert the Sultan. Later all of these men would lead to a degeneration in another age of reform. But the reform of these men was continuous, it did not break Christian unity, even under the dangerous shoals of human corruption and weakness.

These two volumes are probably the best works by G.K. Chesterton I have read. They are far better than Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was very good, but it is a short spy thriller/satire — a very different genre. The closest book in terms of subject and quality is his reflection on the importance of Jesus Christ — The Everlasting Man (1925) — but Chesterton does a better job explaining the historical significance of Saint Francis (1923) and Saint Thomas (1933) than he does of the Lord.

I read both St. Francis of Assisi and St Thomas Aquinas in the audible editions.

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