A Legend of Saint Francis

ST. FRANCIS, playing in the fields of heaven, had been informed by his spiritual great-grandson Friar Bacon (who takes an interest in new and curious things) that the modern world was just about to witness a great celebration in honour of the great founder. St. Francis, out of his great love for his fellows, felt an ardent desire to be present; but the Blessed Thomas More, who had seen the modern world begin and had his doubts, shook his head with the melancholy humour that made him so charming a companion. “I fear,” he said, “that you will find the present state of the world very distressing to your hopes of Holy Poverty and charity to all. Even when I left (rather abruptly) men were beginning to grab land greedily, to pile up gold and silver, to live for nothing but pleasure and luxury in the arts.” St. Francis said he was prepared for that; but although he came down to the world in that sense prepared, as he walked about the world he was puzzled.

At first he had a kind of hope, not unmixed with holy fear, that all the people had become Franciscans. Nearly all of them were without land. Large numbers of them were without homes. If they had really all of them been grabbing property, it seems strange that hardly any of them had got any. Then he met a Philanthropist, who professed to have ideals very similar to his own, though less clearly expressed; and St. Francis had occasion to apologise, with all his characteristic good manners, for the fact that his vow forbade him to carry any gold or silver in his purse. “I never carry money about myself,” said the Philanthropist nodding; “Our system of credit has become so complete that coins seem quite antiquated.” Then he took out a little piece of paper and wrote on it; and the saint could not but admire the beautiful faith and simplicity with which this scribble was received as a substitute for cash. But when he went a little deeper into conversation with the Philanthropist, he grew more and more doubtful and troubled in his mind. For instance, it was doubtless in consequence of some highly respectable Vow that the Philanthropist and most other commercial persons were dressed in black and grey and other sober colours. Indeed they seemed, in a rapture of Christian humility, to have made themselves as hideous as possible; the shape of their hats and trousers being quite horrible to the artistic sensibilities of the Italian. But when he began to talk with gentle awe about their sacrifice, and how hard he had himself felt it even to surrender the crimson cloaks and capes, the gilded belts and swordhilts of his own gay and gallant youth, he was mystified to find that the merchants of his own guild in this epoch had never felt even the obvious temptation to wear swords. More and more did he feel convinced that they were of a finer spiritual order than himself; but, as this no new feeling for him, he continued to confide in these ascetics about the defects of his own asceticism. He told them how he had cried: “I may yet have children,” and how much family life attracted him; at which they all laughed, and began to explain that few of them had any children or wanted any. And as they went on talking, that understanding which is terribly alert even in the most innocent of saints, began to creep upon him like a dreadful paralysis. It is uncertain whether he fully understood why and how they denied themselves this natural pleasure; but it is certain that he went rather hurriedly back to heaven. Nobody knows what saints really think; but he was said by some to have concluded that the bad men of his time were better than the good men of ours.

~G.K. Chesterton

Originally published in G.K.’s Weekly, Oct. 9, 1926.
Collected by Marie Smith in Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables. (1986)