G. K. Chesterton’s short autobiography of Saint Francis of Assisi has, amongst many other qualities, the singular virtue of successfully separating Saint Francis from modern images of him as some sort of super-tolerant, all-inclusive eco-warrior. Instead, Chesterton places him in his true context – as a fervent lover of Christ whose love of the world and all things in it can only be properly understood in light of that greater Love, and whose life can only be properly understood in light of the extreme asceticism which allowed him to further purify his vision so that, paradoxically, by denying the trappings of the world he might see it more clearly and thereby love it all the more. His vision is outlined by Chesterton here:
‘St. Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague. In short, the hermit might love nature as a background.
Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every coloured creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.’
Saint Francis of Assisi (2008), pp.71-72, Dover Publications.
Thus, in Saint Francis of Assisi, the key thing to remember with respect to his view of the natural world was that he did not value it for itself, nor did he value it as a vague generality, permeated by divine energy or energies. He valued the natural world as he did because every element of it came directly from the hand of God, and because each thing therefore had its own particular purpose and character, given to it by its Creator:
‘In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man…
…This is the quality in which, as a poet, he is the very opposite of a pantheist. He did not call nature his mother; he called a particular donkey his brother or a particular sparrow his sister. If he had called a pelican his aunt or an elephant his uncle, as he might possibly have done, he would still have meant that they were particular creatures assigned by their Creator to particular places; not mere expressions of the evolutionary energy of things.’
The central difference between Saint Francis of Assisi and the modern romantic or pantheistic lover of nature is in that key passage above where Chesterton says that he ‘did not call nature his mother’ – there is a difference in priority between the medieval saint and the modern pantheist (of whatever stripe – though principally a New Age or even secular phenomenon, some Christians have regrettably adopted a theological stance indistinguishable from pantheism), in that Saint Francis loves nature because of God, not because it is God; his love for God comes first, and validates the lovability of everything else in creation, precisely because it is what God has made.
This, as Chesterton rightly observes, is why he insisted on referring to the various aspects of the natural world in fraternal or sororal terms – to make plain that they were his co-creatures, and that his harmony with them was based not on romantic sentiment but on a common source; Saint Francis and his brothers and sisters in nature were all subjects of the same Lord, and children of the same heavenly Father. Similarly, the reason he so revelled in the existence of his earthly co-inhabitants was the same reason he revelled in his own existence – he had a profound and consistent vision that all their lives were rooted in and upheld by absolute gratuity; all life is a gift, from start to finish.
It is this awareness of the gift-like nature of existence, that we may not be here but are, and are so on the basis not of our own decision but because of the continual self-giving of Another, that enabled Saint Francis to live such a life of untrammelled joy, even and particularly when living through moments of great poverty and intense suffering. His capacity – shared, though experienced and expressed differently, by all the saints – to know the joy of Christ’s love in all situations, was itself connected to this awareness and gratitude for the utterly gratuitous and utterly dependent nature of existence; something that is shown with great vividness in the account of an attempted treatment for the blindness he was experiencing towards the end of his life:
‘St. Francis was a dying man. We might say he was an old man, at the time this typical incident occurred; but in fact he was only prematurely old; for he was not fifty when he died, worn out with his fighting and fasting life. But when he came down from the awful asceticism and more awful revelation of Alverno, he was a broken man. As will be apparent when these events are touched on in their turn, it was not only sickness and bodily decay that may well have darkened his life; he had been recently disappointed in his main mission to end the Crusades by the conversion of Islam; he had been still more disappointed by the signs of compromise and a more political or practical spirit in his own order; he had spent his last energies in protest.
At this point he was told that he was going blind. If the faintest hint has been given here of what St. Francis felt about the glory and pageantry of earth and sky, about the heraldic shape and colour and symbolism of birds and beasts and flowers, some notion may be formed of what it meant to him to go blind. Yet the remedy might well have seemed worse than the disease. The remedy, admittedly an uncertain remedy, was to cauterise the eye, and that without any anaesthetic. In other words it was to burn his living eyeballs with a red-hot iron. Many of the tortures of martyrdom, which he envied in martyrology and sought vainly in Syria, can have been no worse. When they took the brand from the furnace, he rose as with an urbane gesture and spoke as to an invisible presence: “Brother Fire, God made you beautiful and strong and useful; I pray you be courteous with me.”’
As Chesterton goes on to point out, it is not often that opportunity is given to a poet (or to a philosopher) to put their vision to the test – he writes, ‘William Blake would have been disconcerted if, while he was re-reading the noble lines “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” a real large live Bengal tiger had put his head in at the window of the cottage in Felpham, evidently with every intention of biting his head off.’ Yet Saint Francis’ vision of the world as total gift, with everything in it beautiful and dignified because of the precise purpose it had been given by God, was upheld by him right to the point of his Brother Fire being used to cause him unbearable pain. In the moment of anticipation, knowing suffering to be imminent and unavoidable, he still retained that sense of wonder that such a thing as fire (or such a person as Francis) should be at all.
There is something childlike in Saint Francis’ character – a disposition of trust, thankfulness and mirth that we see in little children; a disposition which Our Lord calls us all to develop, that we might better be able to receive the Kingdom of God (c.f. Luke 18:15-17) and which He displayed Himself during His earthly ministry in the loving trust that He placed in the Father. It is in this respect – in the total giving of himself to God in a spirit of gratitude and trust – that Saint Francis appears to us most clearly as an alter christus. He was only able to imitate Our Lord by way of sacrifice and suffering because of this prior realisation and acceptance of the total dependence of all things on God.
It is also this clear and childlike (or rather clear because childlike) vision which enabled Saint Francis to revere the natural world as he did. In seeing the existence of each animal or plant around him as originating directly from the loving will of God, it focused his vision and allowed him to see each created thing as something completely unique and therefore wholly valuable in and of itself. Saint Francis’ vision was the complete opposite of a vague pantheism or a romanticism that loves nature for its own sake – he saw with the utmost clarity beyond creation into the depths of divine Love and, via the continued purification of that vision through a life of asceticism and self-sacrifice, was able to see the created world with even greater vitality than a purely natural appreciation can afford. Because his love of the world was rooted in the Love that made the world, he could welcome everything in it with open arms – even the searing heat of his Brother Fire.