Francis of Assisi
October 4 is a fun day in many churches. It’s the Feast of Saint Francis, and for many churches, of various denominations, that’s a perfect day for the blessing of the animals. Many different kinds of animals — along with their human companions — gather for the blessing: dogs, cats, parrots, ferrets, even snakes and hamsters. It makes for a worship experience that skids along the thin line separating order from chaos. In the midst of the barking and meowing that join into the prayers of the day, one cannot help but think about how the good friar from Assisi would surely approve.
The Patron Saint of Animals and the Environment was born Giovanni Francesco Bernardone in approximately the year 1181 or 1182. He was the son of an affluent merchant, and all indications of Francis’ early life suggested he would follow his father in the life of a merchant. But after spending time as a prisoner of war during a regional conflict in his twentieth year, Francis came home to where he suffered a serious illness — from which he emerged with a commitment to pursue a life of prayer. During a visit to Rome, the wealthy young man was moved by encountering the suffering of poor beggars on the street; and then, taking seriously Jesus’ call to leave all and follow Him, Francis did just that: he abandoned his life of middle-class luxury and adopted voluntary poverty in the name of his faith. Soon others joined him, and so the Franciscan Order was born.
Unlike many other mystics, Francis did not leave behind much in the way of the written word, although a small number of letters, songs and texts are reliably attributed to saint of Assisi. One of the most loved of Francis’ works is the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” perhaps the most succinct statement of how his love for God manifested as a profound sense of delight and kinship with the natural world.
This song of praise offers glory and thanksgiving to God by honoring element after element of the natural world. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Mother Earth are each celebrated in turn. Full of sensuous imagery and poetic descriptions of the beauty of nature, this thoroughly Christian song of praise never fails in declaring that the beauty of nature unites in giving glory to the Creator of All Things. No wonder that Francis, the champion of the poor, has become especially loved as a voice for the world of nature.
What can we learn from St. Francis today? Perhaps few of us are called to embrace the life of joyful renunciation that marked the lifestyle of Francis and his followers. But while it is not necessary to be poor in order to follow Christ, still there could be an important message in the Franciscan ideal. After all, we live in a time when spiraling energy costs and rapidly diminishing resources have forced all of us to rethink what is required in order to protect our natural resources. The spirituality of St. Francis is the most truly holistic approach to caring for Mother Earth. Loving nature is only half of what is required. Equally important is the decision to choose a life of simplicity. Reducing the amount of resources we consume, and reusing and recycling all that we can, are all values consistent with the Franciscan ideal of holy poverty. When we live simply, we love nature. And when we do both, God is glorified.
For further reading:
- Francis of Assisi and Clare of Assisi, The Complete Works
- Edward A. Armstrong, Saint Francis: Nature Mystic
- Raphael Brown, tr., The Little Flowers of St. Francis
- Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale
- Ilia Delio, Franciscan Prayer
- Fiona French, ill., Saint Francis of Assisi: Canticle of the Sun
- Julien Green, God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi
- Adrian House, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life
- Susan Pitchford, Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone