Tomorrow is the feast day of Francis of Assisi. Highly venerated throughout the world, he has a special standing in Italy (together with its female patron St Catherine of Siena), as that’s where he lived and worked in the 13th century. A friar, mystic, and preacher, he referred to himself as Il Poverello; that is, “the little poor one of Christ.”
What’s probably the best-known fact about St Francis is that he is also the patron saint of ecology and animals. Yesterday, we joined other parishes, Catholic and Anglican, in observing the tradition of blessing the household animals that became associated with his day. Indeed, I can only think of a couple other, much more obscure, saints who are as closely associated with animals: the Russian Seraphim of Sarov, and the Armenian St Blaise. All of these men deeply rejoiced in the value and beauty of creation, and the stories of their ability to be in communion with, heal, understand and communicate with the creatures inspire many of us who care about the environment and own pets.
But I would say there’s more to St Francis than his ability to silence the birds with his hymn singing; more even than his miracles unrelated to animals, such as healing a leper by washing him, casting out demons by prayer, and disarming the robbers with a loving attitude. And even after we consider that he restored multiple hopelessly ruined chapels in the countryside of Assisi, and established some of the most influential monastic orders in the Catholic church for men and, with St Clare’s help, for women, there’s still another important thing to mention about him -- the one that inevitably gets forgotten in the popular context, yet which is probably the real reason why Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose him as his papal namesake for the first time in the history of the Catholic church.
This often forgotten and yet, I would say, defining characteristic of St Francis is his commitment to preaching the message of the Gospels without regard for any social, economical, and political constraints. He even traveled outside of Italy to do so. However, what he advocated as the approach to delivering the Good News was to, “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” As such, he devoted much of his life to caring for the poor and the ill in some very practical ways. Born into a merchant’s family, he first expressed the renunciation of the wealth and social circles of his youth in a memorable instance of publicly removing all his clothing as belonging to his father. He then trained his followers to witness to Christ throughout Italy; eventually, however, he grew restless when he began to perceive this movement, which initially grew in a relatively organic fashion, as becoming an established institution in the church.
In that regard, he actually reminds me again of the Russian St Seraphim, who lived as a hermit and eschewed the communities of even like-minded believers. The key difference, however, is that St Francis went out continually towards people, while St Seraphim inhabited a cabin in the woods and let the people come to him. My first question to you today is, if you were to embrace the monastic life today and devote your life to prayer and service to God as a full time vocation, which way of life would you choose: that of Francis or Seraphim? That of a hermit, or perhaps one cloistered together with the brothers or sisters, or an itinerant preacher/social worker/hospice nurse? And having understood your temperament in this light, how can you now apply this self-knowledge to your spirituality and broader life in this world as a lay person?
St Francis did pay a hefty price for his own choice, dying in his mid-40s, possibly blind, likely infected by leprosy by those for whom he cared, and suffering from the mysterious psycho-somatic wounds mirroring those of Christ. It is on his deathbed, as tradition has it, that his closest friends first sang the Canticle of the Sun that he composed. Among the first written works of Italian literature, this poem draws on Daniel 3:57-88 and Psalm 148, and affirms the unity and dignity of all God’s creatures in their shared purpose of worshiping and praising the Creator by virtue of their existence. Famously so, Francis numbers the sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire, and earth, among his siblings, devoting a verse to each. Towards the end of the poem, he also echoes the Beatitudes, in saying, “praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned. Woe to those who die in mortal sin.” The final verse, added on his deathbed, speaks of the inevitability and in fact, desirability, of death as a way of entering the fulness of communion with God, and eternal state of worship and praise. Our beloved "All Creatures of Our God and King" is the paraphrase of this poem, completed by William H. Draper (1855–1933), set to the 17th-century German tune. And for a visual representation of the poem, I encourage you to view an exquisitely beautiful and mysterious series of nine colour lithographs by Charles Marie Dulac (1984).
What is the key element of your faith that is most dear to you? What could you do to make it clearly known to others? Would you write a song, poem, essay or play; paint or put it in dance form; bake some bread to share? Sometimes, when I suggest this exercise to people, they brush it off as something more suitable to children. As adults, we imagine more important things we can do in our “big”, active, important roles in order to serve God and influence the world. But let’s remember Jesus’ words, "Let the little children come to me... for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” St Francis was a short man, who lived a short simple life, referred to himself using a diminutive suffix, and to the Franciscan Friars -- as the Lesser Brothers. Yet, his message of peace, of which many of us have prayed “to be the instruments”, endures to this day. That peace, which surpasses all understanding, is often most effectively acquired and communicated by the simplest, smallest, mundane, and child-like actions that, first, foster peace in our hearts, before we may work towards it with others. So I encourage you to embrace the kind of creativity that may aid your contemplative stance, and enable your own expression of God’s “good news”. In this, St Francis’ Russian counterpart, St Seraphim, was fully in agreement, when he said, “acquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” Amen.