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Chesterton, St. Francis, and the bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks

How I learned that the best kind of prayer is thanksgiving, the best kind almsgiving is thanksgiving, and the best kind of abstinence is thanksgiving.

Left: G.K. Chesterton in his study (Wikipedia); right: Saint Francis in Prayer Caravaggio Alternative name: Saint Francis in Prayer (c. 1610) by Caravaggio [WikiArt.org]

How’s your Lent going? Mine has been awful. It’s been filled with death, pain and suffering. One crisis after another, coming physically, socially, professionally, spiritually. Each project pelted with slings and arrows and heavier artillery. In other words, it’s been perfect. I couldn’t ask for more reasons to be focused on God, focused on others, and focused on my sorry soul. A very clear and poignant vision of the Cross.

I’m especially grateful for having had the best preparation for Lent: reading G.K. Chesterton’s book St. Frances of Assisi. I was teaching it, as I do every year, to the sophomores at Chesterton Academy. But this year we finished just before Lent. I have to remember to do that next year, too.

This was the first book that Chesterton wrote after his conversion. For him it was an act of thanksgiving. St. Francis represented a bridge from the early part of his life to the later. Even before Chesterton came to believe in Christ, and long before he came into the Catholic Church, he felt a connection to this universal saint. He said that Francis had never been a stranger to him, which is to say he had always been a friend. When we are devoted to a saint, he is first of all, a friend. Chesterton was thankful for St. Francis, for the path he helped pave to the Church, and fittingly the book is about thanksgiving. Chesterton says, “The best kind of giving is thanksgiving.”

Lent is the time when we crank up our prayers, our almsgiving, and our acts of abstinence. Why? To master our bodies in order to scrub our souls and prepare ourselves for an intense encounter with God. I realized that after reading the St. Francis book (for probably the tenth time) that the best kind of prayer is thanksgiving, the best kind almsgiving is thanksgiving, and the best kind of abstinence is thanksgiving.

How does that work?

First of all, as Chesterton points out, St. Francis realized his utter dependence on God. Next he set out to live for others, and not for himself, to never turn his back on someone in need. He became a beggar helping other beggars, knowing that all of us are beggars. Finally, he learned to restrain himself from from physical joy for the sake of spiritual joy. Indulging in material pleasures tend to make people forget God. Refraining from those pleasures have the great effect of encouraging us to remember God at every turn. St. Francis “devoured fasting as a hungry man devours food.” He sought poverty as other men sought wealth. He basked in humility as others bask in pride and glory. Thus, nothing that happened to him could bother him. Nothing that touched him could touch him. Nothing came between him and God.

When we realize that we owe everything to God, we live completely for God. And it is a joyful relationship we have with him. Chesterton says:

Debt and dependence do become pleasures in the presence of unspoilt love… It is the key of all the problems of Franciscan morality which puzzle the merely modern mind; but above all it is the key of asceticism. It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.

Every act of penance, every act of kindness, every act of holiness, every act of praise is a payment back to God on the debt we can never repay, giving back what we can never give back. What a revelation to know that our good works, our gifts, and our prayers really do not amount to anything. Rather we are throwing them into a “bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks,” and the motivation is to keep doing so, joyfully and passionately, with a thanks that can’t be measured. Unfathomable. This is a completely new insight into Lent. Penance is thanksgiving.

Chesterton says that most of the modern world is “too mean to understand it.” That is we are too small in our thinking, too petty, too plain, too shallow, too unimaginative. And we are certainly too mean to practice it, to actually do it. “We are not generous enough to be ascetics; one might almost say not genial enough to be ascetics. A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden. But whether he sees it or not, the truth is in that riddle, that the whole world has, or is, only one good thing; and it is a bad debt.”

One of the funniest verses in the Bible is St. James 1:2. “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” How can you not laugh at the absurdity of that one? Look at the way we all handle it! Big trial. Big smile. Right? But the James explains how it should work: “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” And steadfastness leads us to be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” I’ve been meeting various trials this Lent. Thanks to Chesterton, St. Francis and St. James, I’ve been able to do it joyfully, by tossing them all into the bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.

About Dale Ahlquist 28 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

2 Comments

  1. One act of thanksgiving, when things go wrong with us, is worth a thousand thanks when things are agreeable to our inclinations (St. John of the Cross). Although I’m not well versed in Chesterton I knew I read this reflection somewhere I believe The Living Flame of Love. St John’s reflection parallel’s what is said by Ahlquist though I’m not too enthused with Chesterton’s analogy of a bottomless pit of thanks due to a never ending debt. I prefer St John’s notion of suffering for sake of love, for me the challenge of some unexpected annoyance, or accidental injury that provokes wanting to physically punish an unruly data destroying computer or cry out to the heavens in anger when I swing the pickup door against my bad leg. Giving thanks at those moments is trying usually successful following the anger. But I’m trying. Ahlquist has given me renewed impetus.

  2. GKC’s book on St. Francis … Wonderful, and it had a pretty big impact on me as I circled the Church. I was actually tipped off to it by Phyllis McGinley’s “Saint Making,” another wonderful if only quasi-Catholic book. More people should read both!

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