Sunday, October 4, 2009

Feast of St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. There is so much one could say about the man, especially after reading Chesterton's perceptive biography (which is more perceptive than biography). My original post for the day was going to be quite predictable--a quote from the aforesaid book, but an attempt to choose a theme, or an aspect of the saint's life set the gears in my head to working overtime.

Admittedly, I always feel just a wee bit sorry for St. Francis, whose image graces a hundred thousand bird feeders, as if his mission in life were to go about singing, "Feed the Birds," in a pale glow of insipid tolerance for all things. I'm not objecting to the bird feeders themselves, it is just that after a body sees a few hundred of them, St. Francis can fade away into a plaster shadow of a man, placid, passive, who sat and smiled dreamily and let the world rush by him while he nodded, oblivious in his impractical corner.

Chesterton's vision of St. Francis, on the other hand, is that of a man, if possible, more alive than other men. The journalist gives the saint fiery dark eyes, underlines the not-so-subtle results of his mission with words like "explosion." But most of all, Chesterton's St. Francis is overflowing with a sense of very real joy--not merely a plaster smile of toleration--a joy so intense as to be almost as visible and solid as a mountain. Chesterton was also the man who said that only the humble man is truly happy (I think it was somewhere in Orthodoxy, but a few forays into the same have proved fruitless, and I have to begin thinking of bed in the interest of work in the morning). So, by way of brushing a few of the cobwebs off of St. Francis, while letting the birds have their proper attention, here is a quote that is not from the biography at all and which Chesterton wrote in The Defendant, not necessarily thinking of the saint. Still it fits mighty well in suggesting why a man like Francis might be the furthest thing from passive; he might be better said to be caught up in a lifelong state of pleasant surprise:

In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood, it is stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude. Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are--of immeasurable stature. That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other. Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terrible landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here a miraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with the hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would not have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. Meanwhile, the sage whose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becoming larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them. But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are--the gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey of strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreck of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars--all this colossal vision shall perish with the last of the humble.

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