Today we remember Francis of Assisi, an eccentric Italian who died on this day almost 800 years ago. His story has proven to be enduring and endearing to us Western Christians, as it embodies several dimensions of our faith that we hold dear. Francis was first and foremost very human; he was also unique and self-determined; generous and compassionate to people of every social status, as well as to every one of God’s creatures; and, he identified with the passion and identity of Christ. The current leader of the Catholic church has chosen to be called after him (for the first time in the history of the Catholic church) because Francis was “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation”, which is how Jorge Mario Bergoglio summarized it in his own words.
Which aspects of St Francis’ story do you find particularly fascinating? Is it the general arc of his journey: from learning his father’s cloth trade and going to parties wearing his DIY juggler’s costume -- to fighting and languishing in prison as a soldier and a knight -- to stealing and selling his father’s possessions to rebuild a church -- to dying of emaciation and stigmata at the age of only 45 years-old. Or are there specific episodes that come to mind, from his encounters with the wild animals, and lepers, and even a muslim sultan, and his companiship with St Clare?
Yes, there are so many stories we could recall, but what you might not know is that in spite of it all, Francis is by no means a universally revered “saint”. The Orthodox Church has not canonized him for many interesting reasons. He did establish a newer spiritual tradition that developed after the Orthodox-Catholic split in 1054, but even more problematically, he chose to pray with his whole being (body, emotions, and imagination) -- a practice considered to be nothing less but the devil’s beguilement in the Christian East. In addition, the Orthodox perceive him to be motivated by pride in desiring to experience the very suffering of Christ in his own body, in petitioning to receive the visions of Christ, and in reporting to have seen himself as an orb of light next to that of Christ (the height of presumptuousness!).
A harsh stance, perhaps; certainly, a stark contrast between even the Protestant esteem of the man (though not a “saint”), and definitely a significant impediment to the hopes of developing a closer equmenical relationship between the East and the Catholic West. But interestingly enough, among their own saints, the Orthodox, too, have a prominent lover of nature, named St Seraphim of Sarov (18th century). Another ascetic who embraced poverty and suffering, ate grass, lived in the woods, never resisted evil with violence, and communed with the wild animals; and who has, notably, also seen the vision of Christ delivering a blessing from the altar of heaven. I will not go into the whole argument of St Seraphim’s superiority over Francis, which hinges on the fact that the former had never considered himself worthy to even pray for a vision. I don’t know enough to give the full consideration to each side; nor is it the point I am trying to make here.
What I do want to note, however, is just how attractive we still find such stories of men and women from different times, places, and spiritual traditions, yet sharing two significant features: 1) the full renunciation of the material world (considered as corrupt), and 2) an equally full communion with the natural world (considered innocent). Both are seen as the pathways to a union with the Transcendent, which we all desire deeply, though often unconsciously. And another of our deep desires -- to tame the wild creatures, to become the new Adam and Eve, the new Francis and Seraphim -- is what manifests our awareness of the wild impulses within our hearts, which stand in the way of our union with God, and thus require considerable reining in. I think it is to such an awareness that Jesus refers in the words of our gospel reading as his “easy yoke”, and “light burden”.
The stories of Francis and Seraphim, and other holy men and women of our traditions, have been treasured and passed down from one generation to another precisely because they managed to perfect the taming of the wild beasts of their hearts, and achieve the full sincerity of worship -- that is, worship as an act of a full and unconditional acceptance of the “yoke of Jesus”. The greatest expression of Francis’ worship is found in his poem “Canticle to Brother Sun”, which in fact, became the first recorded work of Italian literature. It is based on Psalm 148, as well as the apocryphal portion of Daniel (3:35-66) called a “A Song of Three Children”. We will read it later today -- a hymn of praise that was sung by the three youths upon their deliverance from the Babylonian fiery furnace. The hymn “All Creatures of our God and King” is essentially this canticle set to music in 1919. Francis was close to death when he wrote it, having experienced life in prison, homelessness, poverty, and possibly leprosy contracted from those for whom he cared. Though physically blind, with unparalleled clarity he perceived the reality that God dwells equally in, and thereby gives dignity to all the creatures.
Therefore, we are called to a partnership with all creatures as the co-worshipers of God. (Last week, I referred to partnering with angels in such work). May we, like St Francis, write our own canticles? Sing it? Paint it? Yes, all manners of artistic expression are, indeed, our vehicles for worship. For instance, St Francis’ canticle is illustrated with an exquisite beauty by a series of colour lithographs by Charles Dulac (1866-98), which I encourage you to look up. Each of his artworks looks to be suffused with the heavenly light -- the very mystery of God’s presence.
How else does each of us glorify God? Yes, in “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”, as we receive our sacraments; yes, in the lifting of our hearts and voices as we gather in our sacred spaces. Does praise also happen outside of these walls? Of course: in every act of prayer, or artwork, or loving one another. We do not know exactly how animals, planets, storms, and mountains can praise God. We don’t know how infants and people with cognitive disabilities praise God either. But I suspect that there is a shared element of praise that all us creatures offer to God, in unison and continually - and that is, simply by our existence. Thanks be to God.