God’s Clowns — St. Francis and G.K. Chesterton

“Any scene such as a landscape can sometimes be more clearly and freshly seen if it is seen upside down.”

José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), “Bendición de San Francisco”
José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), “Bendición de San Francisco” (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Chesterton’s little biography of St. Francis is one of his most sparkling and cutting-edge books. The first book he wrote after his conversion to the Catholic faith, St. Francis is Chesterton’s homage to a saint he always felt close to.

Chesterton portrays Francis as a builder and a fighter, but the image at the heart of Chesterton’s meditation is the jongleur de Dieu—God’s juggler, God’s jester, God’s clown. Far be it from me to endorse the dreaded “clown Masses,” but this image of the jaunty juggler, the traveling minstrel, the whimsical jester in God’s court is a fitting image for both Francis and Chesterton.

Chesterton points out that Francis, like a tumbler in the circus, stood things on their head. It’s the concept I had when naming my blog, “Standing on My Head.” The quote from Chesterton is, “Any scene such as a landscape can sometimes be more clearly and freshly seen if it is seen upside down.” St. Francis turns the world of power, prestige, prosperity and piety on its head with his embrace of poverty, chastity and obedience.

In a review of the book Dale Ahlquist explains how Chesterton understands Francis’ topsy-turvy commitment as integral to his mysticism. The mystic also sees the true nature of reality. By standing on his head he sees everything from a fresh perspective. The cynic sees through everything. The mystic sees into everything. Because of his unusual viewpoint he glimpses a new reality.

Chesterton wrote:

“If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. … He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards. … In a … cynical sense … men have said ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.’ It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, ‘Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.’ It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero … that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them”

Chesterton’s concluding chapter shows that Francis is therefore the “mirror of Christ.” Jesus not only turns tables in the Temple upside down. He turns our whole world upside down. Francis shows us the man who “had nowhere to lay his head” — the Son of Man who led the way in embracing poverty, chastity and obedience.

Francis himself would have said that was his only mission: to reveal Christ. And that is the truth about every saint. Each one is a unique living icon of Christ in the world. If that was the destiny of St. Francis it is our destiny too—that by God’s grace we might just show through our human weakness the face of Christ.