Saint Francis of Assisi
There are so many endearing stories told about Saint Francis of Assisi. One legend remembers Francis speaking to the birds:
“My bird sisters,” he says, “you are much beloved by God your Master, and always, in every place, you ought to praise [God], because [God] has given you liberty to fly everywhere; and [God] has given you also clothing double and triple. You are loved also by the air which [God] has given to you; and moreover, you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you, and gives you the rivers and the fountains from which to drink. [God] gives you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees for your nests, and, although you do not know how to spin or sew, God clothes you and your children. God loves you so much…”[i]
Isn’t that enchanting? On and on go the legends about Francis with birds of every feather; of animals large and small; of creatures in the sea; of flowers, grasses and grains; of trees big and small; of stars and galaxies.
Learning from Saint Francis does not encourage anthropomorphism – that is, attributing human characteristics to birds, and animals, and sea creatures. Francis inspires me in the opposite direction, what is called zoomorphism: figurative language that characterizes people with the attributes of animals and other living beings.[ii] Actually one of my Brothers here in the monastery asked me recently what kind of dog I am? “Dog I am…?” That was a first. I responded quite spontaneously that I hoped to be a Labrador! Wag wag. And you? You may or may not find zoomorphism intriguing; however my point – I would say Saint Francis’ point – is about our sharing an intimate relationship with all sentient beings and beyond, and not just other people. Every living being, every element of creation, is a “creature” of God, all of us given a share of God’s magnificent panoply of life. One of the astronomers for the newly-launched James Webb telescope said that there is so much shining in the galaxies, it’s as if it all wants to be discovered. Quite so. Some of you may remember back into the 1970s, various groups of people who particularly loved trees began seeing themselves “tree huggers.” I rolled my eyes. I don’t any more. I hug trees and a lot more. Try it!
Our opening lesson today from the Book of Job asks a rhetorical question: “Where were you, [Job]” God asks,when all else that surrounded Job was being created?[iii] The Book of Job puts us in our place, a place of recognition that we – and everything else in all creation – emanate from God and have a place in God’s heart. Our lesson from the Letter to the Galatians speaks of Christ’s heralding “a new creation.”[iv] Our invitation is to co-operate with Christ’s intention to make new, that is, to renew not only what goes on in human souls, but also what goes on in the whole of creation with which we share life. We are all interconnected.
An inspiration we can take from the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi is to be in a reverenced relationship with God’s gift of life both within us and around us. None of us has a global outreach; however all of us are within arm’s reach of some practice of restoration or renewal, some act of justice-making on behalf of other creatures that can suffer somuch discrimination from us through things we have done, and things we have left undone. Where can we give voice and muscle on behalf of some constituent part of creation that suffers injustice, discrimination, abuse, or neglect? To what people and for what other members of creation can you and I take a stand? When I hear Jesus say on behalf of the poor, suffering, and neglected, “as you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done to me,” I am thinking about people… but more than people as we serve the creation which has come into being through Christ.[v] Saint Francis is an inspired, inspiring mentor for us to embrace the whole of life as God does.
But Saint Francis’ legacy is not just rosy. As an adult, in his early days Francis attracted a huge audience, and there was such unanimity between Francis, his own burgeoning group of friars, and the church at large. But things changed. The church hierarchy was as smitten as it was suspicious of Francis. Was Francis building up the church, or was he sabotaging it? By the time of Francis’ death, there were even strident factions within the Franciscan brotherhood. Some groups of friars thought Francis had become too rigorous; some groups of friars thought he had become too laxed. Every faction thought it was right. Though we want to remember Francis as such an inspiring emissary of love and mutuality for everyone and everything, even within his own lifetime Francis also faced and engendered controversy.
And so when Francis prays, “Make us instruments of your peace,” he is speaking autobiographically. He was witnessing enormous conflict and dissension, both within his own community of friars and within the church at large. When Francis prays, “Where there is hatred” (because there was hatred), “let us sow love.” When he prays, “Where there is discord” (because there was searing discord surrounding him), “let there be union.” When he prays, “Where there is doubt” (because there was grave doubt that Francis had it right), “let there be faith.” When he prays, “Where there is despair” (because there was despair about Francis succeeding… and about Francis not succeeding), “let there be hope.” “Where there is darkness” (because there was darkness on the path ahead), “let there be light. “Where there is sadness” (because there was so much grief), “let there be joy.” And the phrase on his lips which I find most revealing, “Where there is injury, pardon.” Francis prays, “Where there is injury, pardon,” because he knew how easy it would be to retaliate. The prayer of Saint Francis, “Make us instruments of your peace…” is not a nice prayer; this is an urgent prayer, and this prayer certainly pertains to our own lives today.
The witness of Saint Francis’ gives us both an inspiration and a warning as we live today in this frightening time both of warring political factions near and far, and amidst the ecological collapse and climate emergency that surrounds us. In the spirit of Saint Francis, here are some practices to consider:
- A fascinating experience is to bestow the title “teacher” on some bird or animal, fish or flower, star or galaxy. And then become the student. Learn everything you can from your “teacher.” There are an infinite number of these “teachers” out there. It’s magnificent how complex, choreographed, and correlated the life of each of God’s creatures, one with another.
- Saint Francis was not anthropocentric. “Creation” includes all that God has created. It’s not all about us human types. You might consider including in your intercessory prayer some other constituents of creation – a certain breed of bird or animal or fish, a type of tree or flower, something as vast as the Amazon rain forest or as sequined as a coral reef. Whatever attracts your heart’s attention. Ask this fellow creature the question, “How is it for you?” and then intercede on behalf of this other member of creation with which, with whom, we share life. Give voice on behalf of the voiceless. We all have been given a share of life to share. Saint Francis is such a troubadour heralding how interconnected we are with everything in the magnificent, interdependent constellation of creation.
- Just as in Saint Francis’ day, so today we witness such “moral individualism” with the presumption that I – or “thems like me” – have it right, and the others have it wrong.[vi] Dead wrong. The Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai writes, “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the Spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled. Like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world.”[vii] Many of Saint Francis’ followers “hardened” and would not listen to one another. In actuality, they all shared many of the same core values, but addressed them differently. For those with whom we differ, we will learn so much more, we will find arable ground in our souls if we prioritize a curious “why” about our differences, not just the “what.” “So you value such-and-such. Why?” Searching for, finding, and claiming our common ground converts the equation from “what we are working against” to “what we are working towards.” It’s what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls “intersectionality.”[viii] If we are only listening to ourselves we become deaf because we don’t hear what we are missing outside our own silo. We need one another.
- When you pray, how do you use your body? My default when I pray has been to close my eyes and be very still and silent. But my prayer has greatly enlarged as I open my senses and let the world that surrounds me be an icon. You may know the wondrous prayer of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”[ix]
When you pray, rather than closing your eyes you might also want to pray with your eyes wide open. Look outward or look downward to quite literally “ground” your prayer. When you pray, rather than folding your hands, you may also want to use your hands to touch or caress some other creature of God, another creature whose existence is as magnificent and as mysterious as our own God-given creation. There’s the old warning about “being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.” We need to embody our prayer.
Francis of Assisi is a saint for us today. God loves what God created. All of it. All of us. By God’s design, we belong to one another. We need one another.
[i] God’s Troubadour; The Story of St. Francis of Assisi, by Sophie Jewett (1910), p. 93.
[ii] The figurative language of zoomorphism derives from the Greek zōon, meaning “animal,” and morphē, meaning “shape” or “form.” Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics or behavior to an animal or object.
[iii] Job 39:1–18.
[iv] Galatians 6:14-18.
[v] Matthew 25:31-46; Colossians 1:16.
[vi] Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics, by Donna M. Orange (2017), p. 13.
[vii] Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) was a much-revered German-born Jewish writer and poet.
[viii] A Wild Love for the World and the Work of Our Time, by Joanna Macy (2020).
[ix] “God’s Grandeur,” by the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889):
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.