Francis & the Purging of Paganism
©2009, Randall A. Beeler
Contemporary school history texts teach that the 1,000 years between c. 450 AD and c. 1450 AD were the "Dark" Ages and that the Renaissance was a reawakening to all the glories of Greco-Roman pagan culture that had been mired in a millenium of Catholic superstition.
In his Saint Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton offers a starkly contrasting portrait of that period and sees it not as a fall into darkness but a severe purging. In describing the world that Saint Francis of Assisi greeted, Chesterton notes
the penance that followed paganism. There is something in all these movements that is bracing even while it is still bleak, like a wind blowing between the clefts of the mountains. That wind, austere and pure, of which the poet speaks, is really the spirit of the time, for it is the wind of a world that has at last been purified. To anyone who can appreciate atmospheres there is something clear and clean about the atmosphere of this crude and often harsh society. Its very lusts are clean; for they no have longer any smell of perversion. Its very cruelties are clean; they are not the luxurious cruelties of the amphitheatre. They come either of a very simple horror at blasphemy or a very simple fury at an insult. Gradually against this grey background beauty begins to appear, as something really fresh and delicate and above all surprising. Love returning is no longer what was once called platonic but what is still called chivalric love. The flowers and stars are have recovered their first innocence. Fire and water are felt to be worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint. The purge of paganism is complete at last.Today is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, and our world hungers so much for this return to nature. Our fervent, starved materialism hungers for a mother, for a matter, worthy of our nature--to see our matter, our mater, our nature, in its true light. Not as the be-all and end-all of our existence (so-called "naturalism"), nor as the endless accumulation of material objects, power, and pleasures (so-called "materialism"); but rather, as a sense of our nature that matters.
For water itself has been washed. Fire itself has been purified as by fire. Water is no longer the water into which slaves were flung to feed the fishes. Fire is no longer that fire through which children were passed to Moloch. Flowers smell no more of the forgotten garlands gathered in the garden of Priapus; stars stand no more as signs of the far frigidity of gods as cold as those cold fires. They are like all new things newly made and awaiting new names, from one who shall come to name them. Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world. They await a new reconciliation with man, but they are already capable of being reconciled. Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature worship, and can return to nature.—Chapter 2
The nature of the human person that distinguishes us from all creatures is that we are embodied souls whose freedom is to embrace the good and resist evil. Our current age seeks a purpose everywhere but in our true nature, and this culture of death has declared a war on our very nature--a war that smacks of the paganism that the Middle Ages had purged us of.
At its root, paganism is the attempt to control the mysteries of the world on our own terms, by at least an illusion of power. The animals (and many times, people) offered in sacrifice were the tokens of a business contract with the "gods"--a this-for-that exchange in which we sought the power we needed to make the crops grow, hold back the earthquakes and storms, cope with our enemies.
Sadly, this system of exchange gradually erodes our freedom, just like a deal with an organized crime syndicate becomes the offer we cannot refuse. Inexorably, the goods we offer descend from grain to meat to our very flesh, our very nature, as the grist for these grisly gods who demand our supply. Inevitably, we offer deeds and deals that are the antithesis of our nature, acts so hideous and dark that they would appeal only to the lowest of the low demons, whose fires, lashing up at the addition of new fuel, blazon out for us an illusion of power, a mirage of command over the exigencies of supply and demand--that fades until we seek our next fix.
So the ancient pagan world lost its hope in the Garden of the Hesperides and turned to the grove of the priapus where children and nymphs were the prey of half-men, half-goats, all-demonic.
So our current times are marked by the grist we offer of young women and children to a pornography that blazons our passions across screens and stages, victimizing woman, child, and man--twisting our nature to embrace that which is evil and to cough out as poison the good.
And so we call "good" and "free" the "speech" that enslaves men, women, and children to the industrialization of sex and call evil any attempt to protect us from the Pans that lurk after our children, lost in a culture forested by the growth of aberrant sexuality, blooms that burst forth seeds and nectars that pervade our very sense of decency itself.
But take hope! If we still celebrate Saint Francis, it is because even such evils cannot eradicate the image of God in us--and because this renaissance of paganism is not a victory of the demons but a death throe before their final destination in the Lake of Gehenna's Fire.
Saint Francis is not a nostalgic outlier of an attitude that we have left behind, but a heralding angel of the dawn that is upon us. All of us suffer the depravities of this final battle. But if Saint Francis renounced the armor of war for the habit of the poor man, it is not because he had given up on fighting but rather because he had found that the only way to fight such a scourge is to let it lash us in our powerlessness, and to surrender ourselves to the One Who Himself is lashed, nailed, killed, and risen from the dead:
While it was yet twilight a figure appeared silently and suddenly on a little hill above the city, dark against the fading darkness. For it was the end of a long and stern night, a night of vigil, not unvisited by stars. He stood with his hands lifted, as in so many statues and pictures, and about him was a burst of birds singing; and behind him was the break of day. —Chapter 2, Saint Francis of Assisi, by G. K. Chesterton
The Canticle of the Sun
by Francis of Assisi
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.