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GK Chesterton – The Life of St Francis

Gilbert Keith Chesterton [29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936] wrote approximately 80 books, 2000 essays, 200 short stories and several plays, and today he’s probably best know for the Father Brown BBC TV Series staring Mark Williams as Father Brown and Sorcha Cusack as Mrs McCarthy.

GK Chesterton’s book about St Francis of Assisi is unlike any of his other biographies. Firstly it contains a lot more facts and secondly his writing is straight forward and highly dramatic.  The analysis is supportive rather than overwhelming. Chesterton not only gets St Francis to speak for himself, he does it in the way the little friar would have preferred: by conveying not his words, but his life. Chesterton describes St Francis as “a poet whose whole life was a poem.”


GK Chesterton is another of the great minds who converted from the Church of England to the Catholic tradition of faith, he joins Blessed John Henry Newman, both of whom converted in their late 40s.  When asked why he became a Catholic GK Chesterton would say:

The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, “It is the only thing that…” As, for instance,

(1) It is the only thing that really prevents a sin from being a secret.
(2) It is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the sense of supercilious.
(3) It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.
(4) It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message.
(5) It is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man.
(6) It is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws; and so on.

The “Life of St Francis” is the first significant book written after Chesterton’s reception into the Catholic Church [from High Anglicanism], the others being collections of poems, essays, and mysteries. Yet, we cannot sense much transition in Chesterton’s writing. One reason is that his conversion to the Catholic faith was the culmination of a long steady process in which he never really changed his way of thinking. It was more of a full flowering of all the ideas he had in him. There is another reason, and it has to do with St Francis. Chesterton had always admired this saint. Francis, he says, had “never been a stranger” to him and was like a bridge connecting Chesterton’s early literary life with the later.

Chesterton holds Francis up as a mirror of Christ, reflecting the light of Christ as the moon reflects the sun. Francis’ humility prevented him from ever realizing this. He “was full of the sentiment that he had not suffered enough to be worthy even to be a distant follower of his suffering God.” He did not feel he was “worthy even of the shadow of the crown of thorns.” But he apparently was worthy. Francis, the Mirror of Christ, literally bore on his body the wounds of Christ.

Text : Adapted and quoted from Dale Ahlquist ©
Video : Vincent Cole ©

Music : Kia Engel © – Transcending Heaven
Licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0

Elizabeth is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. She has had an interest in Franciscan Spirituality for over 20 years.