Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lenten Reading

Last year I tried to read Augustine's City of God (the Penguin translation) for the third time, and got as far as halfway through book 3 (out of a total of 22 books). It's not even a personal best: I got up to book 8 on my first attempt, almost twenty years ago. Of course, back then I was a student, and had read the Confessions three times pretty much in a row.

So this year I thought I'd go for something a bit lighter, that I might actually get to the end of, and happened in quick succession on G. K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi and the Oxford World Classics edition of The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi and the Life of Brother Giles, "rendered into English verse by James Rhoades". In light of last year's holiday on the Tuscan-Umbrian borderlands it seemed almost providential. If you want to hear more, click below.

St Francis was one of the great antidotes to a mood of otherworldliness that found its most extreme expression in the Albigensians (a nasty lot with a proclivity for letting babies starve, on the grounds that earthly life was a bad thing and babies were better off without it; one reason why they always get such a favourable press from a media not otherwise given to promoting long-dead sects of world-hating fanatics begins to dawn on me). Everything that Francis did combined a repudiation of worldliness with an embrace of the world. He not only celebrated the Creation, he did so creatively - as a builder, a poet, a performer - in the case of the first Nativity scene, as a director of performance art. I've never been one to go misty-eyed about St Francis (the line in Chesterton's book that most chimed with me is "the Church could contain all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not contain all that was good in the Church") but I do have much more of an appreciation of him now than I did twelve months ago.

The other thing that struck me quite forcibly was Chesterton's point about the Spiritual Franciscans, these days perhaps best known from featuring in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose:

Many idealists of a socialistic sort, notably of the school of Mr. Shaw or Mr. Wells [and would it be unjust to add Professor Eco?], have treated this dispute as if it were merely a case of the tyranny of wealthy and wicked pontiffs crushing the true Christianity of Christian Socialists. But in truth this extreme ideal was in a sense the very reverse of Socialist, or even social. Precisely the thing which these enthusiasts refused was that social ownership on which Socialism is built; what they primarily refused to do was what Socialists primarily exist to do; to own legally in their corporate capacity.

They didn't hold anything in common, because they refused to hold anything at all.

Chesterton is well known, and at one time or another I've read quite a lot of what he wrote, despite an early resistance based on my mother telling me he was worth reading (teenagers are strange things). James Rhoades, the translator of the Little Flowers (first published 1904), is a name otherwise unknown to me. He's not in the Oxford DNB. A lecture he once gave on the subject of "The Training of the Imagination" is available online (a scan with poor OCR conversion, to judge from the spelling), and contains the wonderful sentence:

"Inconveniences," says Sir Thomas Elyot, "always doe happen by ingurgitation and excessive feedinges," and this is no less true of the mind than of the body.

I'm sure it's a line I've come across before somewhere, but I can't place it. Copac turns up translations of Virgil's Aeneid and Georgics, and some volumes of original verse, including "The Prince of Wales at the Tomb of Washington: A Poem" (Rugby, 1861): written when the author was 20. The last piece is bizarrely tempting, but on the whole I'm not inspired to hunt any further: his "rendering" of The Little Flowers is appalling.

Here's his version of the reception of Fra Angelo:

And since this answer liked Saint Francis well,
Within the Order he forthwith received,
And blessed, and named him Brother Angelo

And here's the prose version in Dom Roger Hudleston's edition (published in 1926):

This answer greatly pleased St Francis, and giving the young man his blessing, he received him immediately into the Order, and gave him the name of Brother Angelo.

Which might not be in verse but has the inestimable advantage of being in decent English. Still, I'm not so fond of reading extended texts online, or of reams of printout, and the Oxford World Classic (1925 edition) is not only to hand, but inscribed with my mother's name and the date 1967, when she would have been a 2nd or 3rd-year History student at Manchester University. The Little Flowers is not, in any real sense, a source about St Francis's life. It's a collection of striking stories about him that were doing the rounds over a hundred years after his death (converting the wolf, preaching to the birds, converting three robbers, preaching naked, preaching to the Sultan of Babylon, healing a leper, etc.) so strictly it's only a source as to how his life was perceived and remembered at a later period. Which isn't to say there aren't good sources, just that this composition doesn't really count as one.

To end, here's the chapter How Saint Francis Kept Lent (from Hudleston, to spare you the backward-running sentences):

The true servant of Christ, St Francis, was in certain things like unto a second Christ given to the world for the salvation of souls. Wherefore God the Father willed that in many points he should be conformed to his Son, Jesus Christ, as we have already explained in the calling of his twelve companions, as also in the mystery of the holy stigmata, and in a fast of forty days which he made in the manner following:

St Francis, one day of the Carnival, was near the Lake of Perugia, in the house of one of his devout children, with whom he had spent the night, when he was inspired by God to go and pass the time of Lent in an island on the lake. Wherefore St Francis begged his friend, for the love of God, to convey him in his boat to an island uninhabited by man: the which he should do during the night of Ash Wednesday, so that none might know where he was; and the friend, because of the great devotion he bore to St Francis, agreed to his request, and conveyed him to the said island, St Francis taking with him naught but two small loaves. When they had reached the island, his friend left him and returned home; the saint earnestly entreating him to reveal to no one where he was, and not to come and fetch him before Holy Thursday; to which he consented. St Francis being left alone, and there being no dwelling in the island in which he could take shelter, entered into a thick part of the wood all overgrown with brambles and other creeping plants, and forming as it were a kind of hut, there he began to pray and enter into the contemplation of divine things. And there he passed the whole of Lent without drinking or eating save half of one of the small loaves he had taken with him, as we learned from his friend who, going to fetch him on Holy Thursday, found one of the loaves untouched and the other only half consumed. It is believed that St Francis ate this half out of reverence for our Blessed Lord, who fasted forty days and forty nights without taking any material food; for by eating this bit of bread he put aside the temptation to vainglory, and yet fasted forty days and forty nights in imitation of the Saviour. In later times God worked many miracles, through the merits of the saint, on the spot where St Francis had fasted so wonderfully, on which account people began to build houses and dwell there, and little by little a town rose up, with a convent called the Convent of the Isle; and to this day the inhabitants of that town hold in great respect and great devotion the spot in which St Francis passed the time of Lent.


barblaster said...

Really puts giving up sweets and alcohol for lent into perspective!

Paul said...

Yes! And it explains the picture, which I'd seen before but without knowing the significance of his carrying a loaf and a half.