Francis and Nature, Part I

st-francis-of-assisi-birdsSt. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Italy, merchants, stowaways, ecology, but most famously, of animals.  If one searches the internet, you can easily find all kinds of pious, ecologically insightful, and often amazingly-modern sounding quotes from St. Francis. And they are inevitably without a citation from one of Francis’ writings or at least a later Franciscan source writing about Francis. As I noted in the beginning of this series, Francis has always been reinvented and marketed as needed.  Perhaps the one book most responsible for casting Francis as the lover of animals and nature is a collection of stories – many miraculous and all very saintly – that first appeared in 1390 in Tuscany: the Fioretti (The Little Flowers). It should be noted that this is about 160 years after Francis’ death.

But can we say about St. Francis, the patron saint of animals?

When one inspects the writings of Francis and then the later 14th century writings and collection of stories about Francis, there seems to be a broad division of what is conveyed. Several scholars have noted that the later writings tend to portray Francis as either having “power” over the animals in that they are part of a miraculous event or the animals are simply an opportunity for moralizing about humanity. It is a different picture when one considers Francis’ own writings. Augustine Thompson, OP, describes it well:

“When Francis used images from nature in his own writings, he did so in two ways. First, he used phrases and similes drawn from scripture: ‘sheep among wolves,’ ‘the birds of the air,’ and, later, ‘the ox and the ass’ in the tableaux of the manger at Greccio. Second, he was fond of giving animal names to friars as a means of criticism: ‘Brother Fly’ for a lazy and worthless brother; ‘Brother Ass’ for his own body when it was proving recalcitrant or troublesome. This language, while often critical, had a playful element that brings us close to Francis’ affinity with nature. Both of these uses of nature images come together in one of Francis’ most famous dreams, one he used to criticize his own failures. He dreamt of himself as a little black hen, who was comically unable to shelter her numberless scattering chicks under her wings. For Francis, the dream symbolized his own inability to provide and care for all the friars of this rapidly growing movement. He identified himself as the weak little creature, an identification both self-critical and playful. He took his inspiration from scripture, for Christ used a very similar image when speaking of Jerusalem: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ (Luke 13:34) But Francis blames only himself, not his wayward friars. That Francis experienced such a complex and beautiful image in a dream shows that identification with creatures came naturally to him. As a ‘servant of all,’ including natural creatures, Francis avoided using nature or natural imagery for teaching others, other than in labels like ‘Brother Fly.’ When he used nature homiletically, in preaching or teaching, the images were biblical, rather than experiential.”

Francis had spent many years, during the “in between years,” wandering the fields and forests around Assisi. It is likely that through that period of wandering and intense religious conversion that Francis developed a deep union with all living creatures and nature as a whole. This is because all these were signs that pointed to the presence of the living God active, caring, and loving in the world.  Francis saw in the lilies of the field and birds of the air a complete reliance on God which came spontaneously and naturally. While he does not write that this then is the model for religious life, we do have a later report of Francis’ description of one of his favorite birds, the lark: “Our Sister Lark has a hood like a religious and is a humble bird, who gladly goes along the road looking for some grain. Even if she finds it in the animal dung, she pecks it out and eats it. While flying, she praises the Lord, like good religious who look down on earthly things, and whose life is always in heaven. Moreover, her clothes, that is her feathers, resemble earth, giving an example to religious not to wear clothes that are colorful and refined, but dull, like earth.”

Whether he considered them a model for religious or not, they followed the Gospel of complete reliance on God better than some of Francis’ followers. Here was a “religious community” that needed no leader, no rules, no formation, or all the other necessities that went along with helping a diverse group of people to become followers of Christ.

Francis also experienced creation directly and intensely, a reality sometimes hidden by the symbolic use of animals in his writings. He loved living things; they moved him to prayer and, most typically, to compassion, especially toward animals themselves. His first response to nature was to praise its Creator and to love the creature. Animals were for him a gift, not an opportunity for a homily, lecture, or misuse. When speaking of Francis’ relationship to nature, those who knew him personally said nothing about his preaching to the birds. Rather, what impressed them was his deep affinity for creatures, his habit of speaking to them with affection, and their attraction to him. He was like them in his great simplicity.

Other than his “Canticle of the Sun,” written near his death, Francis mentioned creation and animals rarely in his own writings. He only twice gave rules to the brothers as to the use of animals: they were not to ride horses, and they were not to keep pets. The latter of which is always a surprise to folks.  Next week: Francis and Nature – Part II.

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