Monday, March 18, 2013

Canticle of Brother Sun

This is the second post of two today in honor of St. Francis/Pope Francis (the first post). I think St. Francis is really fun to study and have done two papers on him in my studies. The guy called everything in nature his brother or sister and lived the simplest life he could figure out.  How can you not love him?

This essay is on a piece written by Francis of Assisi called "Canticle of Brother Sun."



Canticle of Brother Sun
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve him with great humility.

Introduction

St. Francis of Asissi was born in 1182 to wealthy parents in central Italy. He was known for his fun-loving and playful attitude. The young Francis spent time in the military, but after having a revelation, he turned to a religious life. He subsequently started several religious orders. Francis was very popular with many people, especially the poor to whom he ministered; however he was also highly unpopular with many other people, especially his father, whose money he spent ministering to the poor.
The Canticle of Brother Sun is a poem/hymn written by St. Francis of Assisi. As such, it is written for corporate use out of the experience of an individual. Originally, it would have been used primarily in the monastic setting that Francis was immersed in. Today it is used broadly in the Catholic Church. Most of what we have today from St. Francis was not recorded by St. Francis himself, but rather was recorded after his death by others who were close to him. This is an historically unusual piece in that it is actually attributed directly to St. Francis himself.

Unique Features of the Passage

            One of the most charming and unique features of this canticle is the way in which Francis refers to all of creation as his brothers and sisters. He has a high regard for God the Creator and for all creations that come from Him. Because of his reverent awe of God, Francis sees all of God’s creation as kindred spirits. While many writers show great respect for nature, Francis takes this a step further than most. He goes so far as to refer to things such as “Sister Moon” and “Brother Fire.” He even speaks of physical death in this congenial, philial manner.
He is careful to refer to these aspects of nature as siblings, however. Francis is careful not to tip over into pantheism. He is not worshiping these creations, but rather thanking the Triune God for his created siblings. He gives all the glory to the “Most High Almighty Good Lord.” (Egan, 219) Francis always addresses this poem to God directly and only refers to other creations. He does not deliver this prayerful hymn to any of his “sisters and brothers” but to God who created them.

The Communion of the Holy Spirit and the Human Spirit

            In this passage, Francis clearly experiences communion with the Holy Spirit through his kinship with creation. He postures himself in submission and praise to God and thanks Him for all His great works in nature. Creation is, for Francis of Assisi, a symbol or reflection of God and a way through which one can experience intimacy with God. The sun is “beautiful and radiant with great splendor . . . of You, Most High, he is a symbol!”
Francis looks to other portraits of the Spirit’s light as well. He thanks God for providing guidance and light, and for the creations that reflect that light. Other creations are symbols of God’s provision and sustaining power. He sees the Holy Spirit as not just light and sustenance, but also as protection. Francis says that “Blessed are those whom she (Sister Bodily Death) will find in Your most holy will, for the Second Death will not harm them.” There is a peace that flows from this confidence in the protection provided because of the Holy Spirit and the will of God.

Scripture Use

            St. Francis’ immersion in the Psalms as part of his monastic practices is clear in this piece. The Canticle of Brother Sun sounds very much like many of the Hebrew Psalms that use rich imagery of creation. It bears a striking resemblance in attitude to Psalm 8. This Psalm begins with, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:1) compared to Francis’ opening line, “Most High Almighty Good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessings!” Psalm 8 goes on to talk about “the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established” (Ps. 8:3). Other Psalms with a similar reflection on nature include Psalms 19, 24, 33 and many more.
      Toward the end of his hymn, St. Francis shifts a bit. “Blessed are those who shall endure them (infirmities and tribulations) in peace. . .” is a reflection of the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-11. To those who have suffered on Earth, Matthew says at the end of the Beatitudes that “your reward is great in heaven” and St. Francis says “the Second Death will not harm them.” For both, there is something greater to hope in than that which is suffered in the present.
      In Romans 3:23, Paul writes that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Shortly thereafter, in Romans 6:23, we see the completion of the thought St. Francis is reflecting at the end of his canticle. We are all prey to “Sister Bodily Death.” Nobody is exempt, but there is something eternal for those who are found in God’s “most holy will.”

Major Themes

            In this short hymn, St. Francis touches on several major themes of Christian spirituality. An overarching theme for him in much of his life and work is how God’s love is shown in creation. Francis expresses his love for God His father and provider, as well as his love for all of his brothers and sisters in creation.
            While neither Jesus nor the cross is explicitly mentioned in the canticle, they are nonetheless an important theme in it. Suffering will come and those who endure it in peace will be blessed. God has provided shelter from “Second Death,” giving the Christian reason to praise God for “Sister Bodily Death.” Both the suffering and the victory of the cross are expressed in the last few lines of the canticle.
            Glory and the Light of God is the most central theme in this piece. The very first thing St. Francis does is to attribute all glory and honor to God. He speaks with the same awe and reverence seen when Isaiah says, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Just as Isaiah was overwhelmed by his heavenly vision of glory, St. Francis is overwhelmed by the glory of God seen in the beauty of His creation. He acknowledges that even in their beauty and splendor, these earthly things are mere shadows of the brilliance and glory of their Creator.

Francis and Mainstream Christian Understanding

            On the surface, this hymn can be difficult to parse in a modern, mainstream setting. However, upon careful analysis, it shows itself to be quite consistent with most modern Christian understanding. The fact that the Catholic Church still holds this hymn in high regard to this day suggests that it does in fact still have much to say to the modern Christian.
The primary obstacle for the modern Christian is the way in which Francis expresses these themes. Upon first glance, this passage can appear pantheistic in nature with all of its talk of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Water.” One must look closely at how St. Francis treats these siblings and to whom the hymn is actually addressed.
            St. Francis has a pause and stillness that mainstream Christian understanding has lost.  In today’s high paced culture, even the church seems caught up in a state of busy-ness. St. Francis sought simplicity in a way that is anathema to today’s thinking. In that simplicity he saw beauty, wonder and God’s creative prowess in things so routinely ignored today. While the Church in word approves of simplicity and stillness, in deed it is generally a very different picture.
            Most Western thinking, Christian or otherwise, does not see death as something to be embraced. St. Francis praises God for “our Sister Bodily Death.” Rather than seeing physical death as some sort of end, St. Francis admits that there is no escape and embraces it. Writing this piece at a time he was suffering great ailment, he still kept his focus on God. His confidence that he has lived in the will of God shows in his willingness to look  bodily death in the eye cheerfully.  He is confident that while physical death is unavoidable, he is under the protection of his Creator.

Conclusion

There seems today a general disinterest in spending enough time with one passage – be it Scripture, hymnody, devotional writings, or any other Christian writing – to get beneath the surface.  This passage is a perfect example of one that is nice to read quickly at first glance, but has great depth waiting to be explored if the reader will only dedicate the time and prayer needed to truly explore it.

*I have not included a bibliography.  The only sources used were the text  (H. Egan, An Anthology of Christian Mysticism: Second Edition [Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1996], 219-220) and lectures from the class (Biblical Roots of Christian Spirituality taught by Dr. Edith Humphrey) and my Bible so we were not required to list sources in this reflection. I generally use the English Standard Version.

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