Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Feast of St. Francis Post

Francis, Francis and Frances: the Meaning of Light

We are now on the sixth day of our Lepanto Novena. These nine days provide a rich stellar display of feasts:

Sept 29: St. Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, archangels
Sept 30: Doctor St. Jerome
Oct 1: DOCTOR St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower
Oct 2: Holy Guardian Angels
Oct 4: John Bernardone (an alias - but read on...)
Oct 5: St. Maria Faustina
Oct 6: St. Bruno
Oct 7: Our Lady of the Rosary (and the victory at Lepanto)

In fact, October 3 seems to be the only date of the new calendar without a saint - though in the old calendar that used to be Doctor Terry's feast. (Although it may be of interest, I have no time to go into these calendar shifts; I have enough of that at work. "Clock Day" is one of the true horrors for those of us who have to watch clocks... and it's not far off.)

I mention this stellar lineup because with our entry into October, there is a lot of excitement for those of us who think about the stars. There are always thrilling things to see on a clear night - now is the time when we can see the great Andromeda galaxy, some 2 million light years away! And soon we'll be into the very dramatic season when there are a whole lot of really bright stars all visible at once... Aldebaran, Capella, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Procyon, Sirius, Castor, Pollux, Regulus, Spica... and the splendid three-in-a-row, the Belt of Orion, called the "Three Marys" by some. (Oh, boy, I can't wait!)

I have quoted elsewhere one of the most profound comments ever made about the stars, and since it is very impressive, I shall quote it again here:
"Considered as a collector of rare and precious things, the amateur astronomer has a great advantage over amateurs in all other fields, who must content themselves with second and third rate specimens. For example, only a few of the world's mineralogists could hope to own such a specimen as the Hope diamond... In contrast, the amateur astronomer has access at all times to the original objects of his study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world."
[Robert Burnham Jr., Burnham's Celestial Handbook, 5, emphasis added]
Of course, all Chestertonians will hear a mystical harmony with another link of gems and stars:
I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one. [GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:268]
Remember that next time somebody comes up with terms like "parallel universes", "multiverse" or such nonsense.

But what is a star? A gem or jewel? A big ball of hydrogen being fused at themonuclear temperatures? Faint sky lights you can ignore when you're out at night? Something for experts? Or something else?

In order to find out, we ought to find the right expert. Hmmm...
A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good - " [GKC, Heretics CW1:46]
Yes, Chesterton tells us, "all depends on what is the philosophy of Light." OK. Then what is light?

Er... a wave or a particle, something moving at 3e8 m/s, a stream of photons, energy dependent on the frequency... Oh, sure, if you know some physics, you can write
E = m c2

c = l f

E = h n

all you want, and then there's Maxwell... (ooh!)

But we need the philosophy, not the physics.

OK! (Ahem.) But what does the philosophy of light have to do with Francis, Francis and Frances? Press here to find out.

Here is the pivotal quote by which I hope to disentangle myself.

In the words of G. K. Chesterton, who married Frances Blogg and took Francis as his confirmation name:
the whole philosophy of St. Francis revolved round the idea of a new supernatural light on natural things, which meant the ultimate recovery not the ultimate refusal of natural things.
[GKC, St. Francis of Assisi CW2:59]
One of the deepest and most mystical of all words I know is a word from ancient Greek - the word Qewria - that is theôria, where the ô is a LONG o. It is the word from which the English word "theory" is derived. I shall not attempt to define it or even begin to explore it - it would take more disk space than I have, both at home and at work. But among the many curious and deep things about it is the link to another Greek word which means "I see".

For the mental thing (whatever it really is) which is called "theory" (in its most general sense) might also be called "vision" or "contemplation" - somehow it is linked to a kind of abstract "seeing" within the mind. And that is where the Light - in its philosophical sense - comes in.

Ahem. You are lost. Doc, you're really tiresome today. Lots of Greek, lots of math, lots of physics. One of the DARKEST essays you've tried to read recently - right?

Perhaps I can enLIGHTen you. I will try an analogy.

I have an idea, wandering around in my head. I will NOT tell you what it is NOW - I will represent it by the @ sign. I want to tell you about my idea. So I say:
There is green at the bottom, and blue at the top. Standing on the green is a big something - the @. The @ faces left, and seems to be chewing something. There is a brass bell around its neck. The @ is black and white, and has horns. The @ makes a sound (I will spell it "moo"). Somebody comes to the @, does something I cannot quite make out, and soon there is a pail of milk.
Sure, you laugh. Oh silly Doctor, you could have said "cow" and saved yourself a lot of typing!

Is that beginning to make any sense?

Let's give Chesterton a try:
Out of some dark forest under some ancient dawn there must come towards us, with lumbering yet dancing motions, one of the very queerest of the prehistoric creatures. We must see for the first time the strangely small head set on a neck not only longer but thicker than itself, as the face of a gargoyle is thrust out upon a gutter-spout, the one disproportionate crest of hair running along the ridge of that heavy neck like a beard in the wrong place; the feet, each like a solid club of horn, alone amid the feet of so many cattle; so that the true fear is to be found in showing, not the cloven, but the uncloven hoof. Nor is it mere verbal fancy to see him thus as a unique monster; for in a sense a monster means what is unique, and he is really unique. [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:149-50]
And again you say "horse" - very good. (I think his is better than mine.)

But what if the idea is something much more profound? What if the idea is something you have never seen, and will never see in this life?

It was for this reason - and here I hear the "Great Chorus" of two millennia of writers sing in harmony - indeed, it was for this reason that the Word was made Man - and this is the reason that we confess in our Sunday Creed that Jesus is "Light from Light". Or, as the priest says in the Preface for Christmas: "In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see." It is the most wonderful of ideas - God - which has been set forth in the person of Jesus - and in Him this idea was elucidated much better than I could - or even GKC - could.

Alas, after 1100 years, the memory of this idea had gotten - well, maybe a little faded and torn around the edges. (Was that a black and white thing standing on something green, or perhaps a green thing standing on something black and white? Was the neck long, or the beard?) Remember, the idea was still around, and people still called it "cow" or "horse" or "Jesus" - but it was the fine and brilliant detail which had faded.

And then from a small Italian town God called forth a playboy-soldier, a troubador who liked to sing and dance - a young man named John Bernardone. (See October 4, above) He kept on singing and dancing, but he did it, and a lot more, for a whole new reason.

For in himself he made visible an image of Jesus. A man, a poor man, a happy man, a man interested in all things, but especially in other persons, and most of all interested in God.

It was this man, called "Francis" from his youth, who wrote one of the greatest love-poems ever written. He wrote it in a language which was just beginning to be its own fresh Italian instead of a very tired Latin. He wrote it very much like certain psalms or Bible canticles, or the ever-rich and ever-confusing first chapter of Genesis, simply by putting together a list. (I'd like to see your neighborhood cosmologist try that!) GKC told us that "The greatest of poems is an inventory." [Orthodoxy CW1:267] And in this love-song, John (aka Francis) Bernardone inventories all the things in creation, and put them - much like the brilliant Scholastics - into their proper order and place - that is, in their relation to God.

This song is the great Canticle of the Creatures, and here, at almost the very beginning, is the height of the description of light:

All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Please read those last two lines again:

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Ah - perhaps now you can see! I hope these words of St. Francis have helped to shine some light on light.

Happy feast of St. Francis to all!

--Dr. Thursday

PS: Perhaps today you might try to read a little of GKC's own book about this wonderful saint. Don't forget that our bloggmistress Nancy Brown has a helpful Study Guide for GKC's book. I should warn you - you don't have to be a child to take advantage of it.


  1. Of the many things I could say, I have LIGHTED upon this - Dr. Thursday soars for he takes himself LIGHTLY.

  2. An epic post, Dr. Thursday!

    thank you for your weekly contributions. I look forward to them!

  3. I wanted to post yesterday, but I didn't find the time. I enjoyed reading your essay very much, Doctor. I had the opportunity yesterday to speak with the 7th graders to whom I teach Confirmation prep, as well as with some folks at a rosary meeting, about the great Saint Francis. I extolled his simple way of looking at things. All anybody seemed to care about was his love for animals, and I felt several times the futility of making clear the distinction between being simple and being a simpleton. It is a shame that many people nowadays take Saint Francis for a simpleton.

    Yet he was, as you point out, truly illuminated. He saw things in their true light. Only today did I find a wonderful sermon by Monsignor Knox that makes eloquently the point I spent all day trying to get across to the parishioners. I am posting a quote because I think it illustrates what Saint Francis's enlightenment was all about, and also because it gives quite an honorable mention to our man, Chesterton:

    "Do let us get rid at once of a favourite mistake; that of supposing that to be simple means to be ignorant.... No, to be simple is to see things with the eye of God, that is, to see them as they really are, without the trimmings. To be able to distinguish what is important from what is incidental and doesn't matter; to get down to the broad, primary truths, and forget what is merely conventional. I think if you asked me who was the simplest person I have ever known I should mention the name of one of the cleverest men of our generation, Mr. G.K. Chesterton, who died this summer." (from his sermon on October 4, 1936)

    Of course, the Light which illuminated Chesterton is one with the Light that radiated from Saint Frances in his perfect imitation of Christ, so the comparison is apt.

    Keep up the good work, Doctor!

  4. October is simply STUFFED with Teresian feasts, Nancy. (And frankly I thought they left the 3rd blank in order to give the Little Flower two feast days. ;-)

    Ditto Franciscan! (On the 10th see Francis Borgia, who single-handedly redeemed the Borgia name.)


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