It's a shame that in a review of G.K. Chesterton's gem of a book, St. Francis of Assisi, I am obliged to stop for a moment to answer a certain obscene passage in which he writes, slyly, underhandedly, euphemistically, a blank check to who knows what tortures and murders in the name of religion, which he calls "fighting for what you believe in." He has to go rather out of his way to do it, since in neither the life of St. Francis nor in the life of his Model and Master is there the slightest hint of condoning such goings-on. It would pleasanter to say nothing about it at all, but liberty requires vigilance, and if we are not to throw in jail men who let words slip from their pens which, if taken seriously, would amount to declarations of provisional war against free societies to compel the submission of heretics to the Church of Rome, war to be initiated, presumably, if and whenever they have enough power to do so, we must at least take a moment to condemn such notions whenever they appear, lest someone get the idea that they are not only legally tolerated, but socially and morally tolerable. Chesterton is a clever writer and can be brilliant in making the just cause appear the unjust when he chooses to do so, yet in this case the truth is so plain that I suspect that here there are few readers whom even he manages to confuse. For there is, of course, a difference between "fighting for what you believe in," in the sense of fighting for the right to profess what you believe, and fighting to compel someone else to deny what he believes and/or profess what he disbelieves. The former is perhaps sometimes right, though it is worth noting that Jesus Christ did not even do that. The latter is always, everywhere, and utterly wrong, and Chesterton, a 19th/20th-century Englishman living in a society that took tolerance for granted, probably knew that as well as you and me. I doubt he really wanted to drive a sword through his atheist acquaintances. His anti-modern bigotry is like an American suburban teenager wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt: he gets a contrarian buzz out of being on the other side. That he was probably insincere is the best defense there can be of Chesterton on this point. Most of the anti-modern bigotry in St. Francis of Assisi is silly but harmless, a small price to pay for the ecstasy of reading so much of the book, but the few passages in which he blusters in defense of inquisitions are really wicked, because it is such stumbling-blocks that make good men conclude sadly that Christianity, for all its beauty and noble aspirations, is in the end a bad thing that must be rejected and condemned. Which would be exactly right and proper, if that really were Christianity.
Given that Chesterton can't seem to write a single book without condoning crimes, why do I bother to read him at all? It was not, in this case, because of his prodigious talent, his delicious eloquence, his considerable erudition and imaginative sense for history, his ability to bring a theme to life a hundred times more inspiringly, more illuminatingly, more entertainingly, than the typical hagiographer, who more or less just recites the facts. It was not because Chesterton is a sumptuous banquet next to the mere bread of most "Lives of the Saints." It was simply because I wanted to read about St. Francis, and Chesterton's was the only biography I could find in audiobook. I was, perhaps, a little glad that it gave me an excuse to read him. Were any other biography available, I would have felt obliged to buy it in preference to Chesterton's, knowing that Chesterton is not quite appropriate for devotional reading.
Lives of the saints is the most fitting of themes, and was once one of the major genres of literature. It ought to be still. I've noticed that whereas reading the lives of the saints makes me feel joyful and inspired, other biographies-- of politicians, or economists, or artists-- usually sadden me. The Christian doctrine that we all must end in either the beatific or the miserific state seems to have intimations even in this life.
There are some lives that seem like gradual, sometimes tortuous, ascensions into light, lives punctuated by falls, failing, and failures which, however, are transformed by some twist of fate or some moment of enlightenment into jokes or joys, lives that may grow less comprehensible, more strange and remote near the end, perhaps merely because they have less time to tell us about the last things, yet as if the person is beginning a new journey, so that death is like the pages torn out of a novel one was desperate to read the end of, lives which leave behind a sadness, more poignant because alloyed with joy, and a wistful love that wishes to follow them, and one regrets that the waywardness of one's mind will prevent you from contemplating the life as long and as devoutly as you would like to, and it is easy to understand why people might treasure every relic or anecdote long afterwards. There are other lives that seem to unravel in frustration and futility; lives animated by virtues, perhaps great virtues, with early promise and splendid possibilities, with schemes and dreams, the beginnings of adventures and quests and grand designs, yet where the mistakes loom with lengthening shadows, and the years become a shrinking, a narrowing into tedium and quiet desperation, as what in youth were real virtues become habits kept up from pride at an ever-increasing toll in effort; and at last, when they trail off irrelevantly into death, one must suppress a shudder.
I am not saying that I know, merely from reading his biography, whether a man is saved or damned. It is the story, not the man, which points one way or the other, and human biography might well miss the point of the real story of a man's life. A life apparently of service and sanctity may mask a gnawing demon of pride that destroyed a man from within; or decades of frustration and failure may have been blown away like dust before the wind of an eleventh-hour rejuvenation and reawakening. The proverbial "eleventh hour," of course, is an allusion to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard: those who were hired at the eleventh hour received the same payment as those who worked from the first hour of the day. Anyway, it is the happy, edifying stories, the stories that shine and not those that shudder, that are worth telling. Actually, a lot of modern literature is a sort of fictional hagiography, an author showing, through a model or figure, what he thinks is the right way to live. That is fine, I think, but it would be nice if a more deliberate and historically-minded hagiography were practiced, too.
St. Francis of Assisi is the most beautiful book by Chesterton that I have read, and I am almost inclined in the enthusiasm of the moment to say that in some passages it is the most beautiful prose I have ever read in my life, though in truth the feat of memory involved in supporting such a claim is far beyond my capacity. St. Francis reminds me of the 1960s, for example of a song indirectly named after him: "Are you going to San Francisco? Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. In the streets of San Francisco, you're gonna meet some gentle people there..." The term "flower child" is, indeed, very apt for a man who saw flowers and birds and fire and water as his sisters and brothers, who believed, in John Denver's words, that "the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers," and the Franciscans were like hippies, turning their backs on bourgeois values, wandering, happy, free. St. Francis imitated the life of Jesus and there is perhaps no better example of living out the teachings of the Gospel, including the radical poverty-- do not worry about what you will wear, nor about what you will eat-- and the love of enemies. Chesterton thinks that he was a dawn, a new childhood, of a world at last cleansed from the demons-- "this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting"-- of paganism. I was reminded of the historic role of the 1960s hippes, of the sublime forgetfulness of a generation that knew nothing of the titanic struggles that had scarred their parents and knew a joy of living that had been half-lost amidst the noble struggles against Nazism and communism. St. Francis had all that was good in the hippies without the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and that is perhaps the best approach that I, no Chesterton, can give to the feelings of wonder and gratitude that flow from almost every page of Chesterton's book.
Pity about the bad parts. I feel a vague regret that there isn't some body of wise, responsible, good men who would read books before they were published and blot out certain iniquitous passages which violate all norms of ordinary decency, to prevent them from marring otherwise worthy works. I recognize the irony of the wish.