There is something that seems odd, based on modern American sensibilities, about someone preaching to birds. (Foster, 297-298) I was struck by this account of St. Francis and was immediately drawn to him. As odd as he seemed from that account, there was something that drew me toward the patron saint of animals and the environment.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Long have I been a lover of nature and animals. My free time is spent outdoors running, hiking, camping, canoeing, etc. Never have I lived in a house that was not full of a variety of pets. I am known among my friends as being “crunchy.” One day as I passed a small heard of does in the park on my morning run, I called out, “Good morning, girls!” This greeting was no less odd than Francis of Assisi stopping to share his joy in Christ with some birds.
In order to learn more about Francis and how I can further my own spiritual journey by following his ways, I checked out several books and audiobooks about him, as well as a classic film based on The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Finally, I went through and examined the four suggested exercises in our class text (Foster, 300). Choosing several of these exercises, I either tried to apply them to my life over the course of my research or spent some time examining how they are already a part of my spiritual practices.
Biographical Information on St. Francis
St. Francis of Assisi was not born of the humble means that he is so well known for. He was born in 1182 CE, the son of wealthy parents. (Foster, 295) Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was said to have been of a light, joyous spirit from a young age. Jewitt tells us that he was often called “God’s troubadour” because of his way of joy and song. As a youth, he was allowed to join in with a group of noble youths who accepted him because he was such a fun, laugh-filled person to be around. (Jewitt, Chapters 1-2) As a young man he went to war, returning having lost his taste for the worldly life. He is said to have entered a cave in prayer so as to hide his prayerfulness from his friends and there was converted. (Jorgensen, Ch. 5)
Francis founded several religious orders. The best known is the Franciscan order of monks, which is known for its vow of poverty. He also founded the women’s Order of St. Clare and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. While Francis did not write much himself, much was written about him by friends and followers and even into the modern age, people have been writing about him and creating artwork based on his life and teaching. He is best known for his life of poverty and his communion with nature. Francis strove to live in a Christlike manner and in fact, taught that permanent withdrawal into the dessert was not an action in line with the actions of Christ (Sabatier, location 172-182).
The Little Flowers of St. Francis is the best known work about St. Francis and is a joy to read. It is appropriate that a book about someone who was said to be one full of joy would be a deeply enjoyable and, at times, even humorous book. The book is set in small stories making it easy to read and would also make it conducive to use in Sunday school or Bible study settings, among others. Rossellini’s movie was also greatly enjoyable and aptly captured the exuberance, as well as the innocence and wisdom of these stories.
There are many accounts of St. Francis’ behaviors that make the modern American reader take pause. It is important to note that even during his own time, St. Francis was a bit of an oddity to the people around him. Upon cursory reading, many of the accounts of his life can almost seem to show him as a Dr. Doolittle-like character or as being naïve and happy-go-lucky, but upon deeper study, neither of those assessments are true.
As previously mentioned, St. Francis himself did not leave us with much of his own writings to study. Much, if not most, of what we know about his values and morals comes from the stories that have been told about him by those who were close to him when he was alive. While tradition can bring a strong thread of truth to the stories, we must also be careful to note that, as with most stories of saints of long past, tradition also brings with it a thread of exaggeration and good old-fashioned story telling. We must take caution not to idolized or idealized Francis to the point at which he is somehow superhuman. These accounts should be read with the fact of his humanity and reality in mind. In any historical account, no matter how modern or ancient, it is to be noted that no telling can fully capture every facet and nuance of the situation. According to Sabatier:
History always embraces but a very feeble part of the reality: ignorant, she is like the stories children tell of the events that have occurred before their eyes; learned, she reminds us of a museum organized with all the modern improvements. Instead of making you see nature with its external covering, its diffuse life, its mysterious echoes in your own heart, they offer you a herbarium.
If it is difficult to narrate an ordinary event of our own time, it is far more so to describe the great crises where restless humanity is seeking its true path.
It is also worth mentioning that while St. Francis’ lifestyle is appealing from a scriptural sense and certainly has great spiritual value, not everyone is called to completely monastic life. One must carefully assess how certain monastic practices can fit into their own vocation and circumstances while avoiding guilt over the absence of practices that do not work. I, for example, could not very well sell everything, turn from my husband and three children and move to a monastery. I can, however, bring certain aspects of a monastic lifestyle into my life, home and family while still maintaining my ethical and moral responsibilities to my family. In the latter scenario, in fact, I can pass on these habits and disciplines to the next generation in much the way that those in monastic orders like the Franciscans do. It must simply be tailored to this different type of community life that I find myself in.
Perhaps one of the reasons I felt so drawn to St. Francis is because I already hold dear many of the values he taught. It makes sense that I would find myself wanting to explore more deeply the life of someone who seemed to exude an ethos similar to my own. In looking at the text exercises in the section on Francis (Foster, 300), I realized that they are all things I tend to do anyway. This was a nice chance to very consciously take a look at those acts. I planned on specifically focusing on two of the four suggestions and ultimately focused on three of them due to personal circumstances. I also added a fourth of my own that while not suggested in our class text fits the spirit of this project and class.
The first suggested exercise was:
If you are facing a dilemma of some importance this week, humbly turn to a few friends to help you make a decision. Ask them to pray and listen, and, like Francis, receive their words as if they were the words of Jesus.
This exercise is, of course, only helpful if you happen to have a dilemma cross your path. This is one instance in which I can say that the unexpected occurrence of a difficult extended family situation was well-timed. It was a situation in which I would normally have consulted my husband and his parents before acting, as well as some close friends for extra prayer and guidance. In fact, it was an issue that had been rising for months and I had a group of people already joining me in prayer about it. Because of this project, I was able to very intentionally think about how I asked for this prayer and guidance, as well as how I responded to it.
There were several specific developments over the course of a week that spurred me to ask for this prayer and guidance. In each instance, I received a unanimous answer from those around me about what to do. None of the family and friends I consulted talked with one another before telling me what they felt God wanted of me in the situation. In the end, I believe that they very clearly heard God and that in listening to them and considering their answers to be those of Christ himself, I was better able to hear what God intended me to do in the situation.
The Foster book secondly suggests that one:
Learn the joy of creation this week. In the spirit of Francis, take time to be with the birds and the animals, seeing them not as dumb animals but as creatures who are an important part of God’s creation.
It strikes me as ironic that when I first read about Francis preaching to the birds, I thought he might be a little odd, despite the fact that I frequently find myself talking to animals as if they are humans. This exercise was for me not so much an exercise in something new or a deliberate practicing of something I have done in the past, but rather an examination of myself and how I am already doing this very thing I thought was so strange.
As previously mentioned, I have always loved nature and animals. One of the most calming meditative practices I have is running and hiking through the woods near my home. I find it hard to feel far from God when surrounded by the beauty of His creations. Rarely do I go about my household chores without my dog by my side or spend my morning quiet time without a cat purring next to me. I even find myself talking to our fish each morning as I feed them. My mind knows that the fish have no idea what “How are you this morning?” means, but my spirit seems to feel a creature to creature connection to them. My cat could not care less what I’m learning about St. Francis as I prepare to write a paper, but somehow, it feels fitting to share this knowledge with him. He may not understand what I’m talking about, but he seems to truly enjoy that I care to talk to him at all.
This also afforded me an opportunity to be specific about where I ran and walked recently. I purposely went to lesser traveled places where I could spend more time with God’s creation. When that was not possible, I made it a point to look for God and his creation in the midst of the city. Living in the city made this a very interesting exercise and brought to light an interesting point about tailoring spiritual exercises. With a family and full school load, getting away into the woods somewhere isn’t always possible. However, taking a moment to admire a tree in the park or say hello to a squirrel on campus is possible every day and can bring an important moment of reflection to an otherwise harried day.
The third exercise suggestion I took from our class book was:
Both Jesus and Francis caution us not to “store up earthly treasures” but rather to be “rich toward God.” Strive to increase your godly wealth this week.
For several years, my husband and I have felt moved to take a serious look at our finances and means of living. Are we using our money in a way that Jesus would? Are we living for the “stuff” of the world or are we living for the Glory of God? There are many ways that we have worked to get the “wealth” aspect of our lives in line with Christ. Long ago, we chose to strike out on the path of a one car family. We don’t have cable television in our home and we shop almost exclusively at thrift stores. Our house is an old home in a lower middle class neighborhood with diminishing schools and crime rates that fluctuate drastically from block to block. Francis believed in community and I like to think that he would appreciate our little church where most of the members live within blocks of one another and are willing to take anyone in need into the fold.
One of the richest experiences we have had during this time of exploring “godly wealth” is that of sponsoring children around the world. Several years ago, we chose to shut off our cable television and put the money toward sponsoring a child in Ethiopia. Leme has become like a part of our family and has added richness to our lives that we never expected. We were so blessed by the experience that two years ago, we began sponsoring Karen in Guatemala. She is the same age as our oldest daughter and the two have enjoyed writing to one another. Seeing my child learn the value of God’s wealth vs. earthly wealth has been wonderful. It is so wonderful that last month, we took on two more children: Supun in Sri Lanka and Ahmed in West Gaza.
While St. Francis might think we’d still have a way to go in the area of poverty and paring down, there are plenty of people in our lives that think our views on this topic are “weird.” Many people think we give too much. We have family and friends who do not understand our choices. Our choices are not as extreme as those of St. Francis, but I can sympathize with how he must have felt at times.
In addition to the suggestions in our class text book, I took some time to meditate on one of the classical music albums dedicated to St. Francis. I was surprised by the sheer number of musical recordings that are written about him. The specific piece I chose was Suter’s Le laudi di San Francesco d'Assisi, Op. 25: Laudate et benedite mio Signore as recorded by the Bern Symphony Orchestra (Bern Symphony Orchestra, 2010). It is a beautiful piece. It is very triumphant and complex. In some ways, the piece feels too formal or complex to fit St. Francis’ spirit. That said, it very much feels like it should be played from the top of a mountain to celebrate the beauty of the world below. The piece builds as it goes on until the end where it almost suddenly drops to the simplicity of a children’s choir. I believe that this contrast of glory and simplicity is exactly the aspect of Francis’ life and spirituality that Suter was aiming for in this piece.
While the movie The Flowers of St. Francis almost seemed to make the Franciscans out to be too childlike, this piece of music brings to mind and heart the essence of what Francis was trying to communicate. The world that God created is so complex and intricate that we must pare down the manmade distractions to really experience it. The simplicity and complexity of it all are in beautiful contrast with one another.
I began this project fully expecting to learn about and try new disciplines or practices that I hadn’t experienced before. I was pleasantly surprised to find that instead, this project offered a fresh look at some of my current practices, including ones that I might not have labeled as “Spiritual Practices” in the past. The connection that I found with St. Francis provided a connection not only with one person’s story, but with a whole segment of history that brings a richness I had not known about.
Before this project, I was unaware that Francis of Assisi was the saint of nature and animals. Had I known that, I probably would have chosen to study him based on that alone. Rather, I simply felt drawn to Francis in a way that suggested God had something there for me to learn. I also did not know that what was there for me to learn was less about a saint who lived centuries ago and more about finding God in the here and now and experiencing His Presence in what seem to be the everyday things of life.
1. Bern Symphony Orchestra, Suter: Le laudi di San Francesco d'Assisi, Ars Musici, 2010, Digital Album.
2. Chesterton, G. K.. St. Francis of Assisi, Audiobook. Ashland, Oregon: Blackstone Audiobooks, 1992.
3. Foster, Richard J., and James Bryan Smith. Devotional classics: selected readings for individuals and groups. Rev. and expanded. Ed. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2005.
4. "Francis of Assisi - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_of_Assisi (accessed October 28, 2011).
5. Jewett, Sophie. God's troubadour : the story of St. Francis of Assisi, Audiobook. N/A: Librivox Recordings, 2007.
6. Jorgensen, Johannes, and T. O Sloane. Saint Francis of Assisi: a biography, Audiobook. N/A: Librivox Recordings, 2011.
7. Sabatier, Paul, and Louise Seymour Houghton. Life of St. Francis of Assisi, Kindle Edition. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1894.
8. The Flowers of St. Francis (The Criterion Collection). Film. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. n/a: Criterion, 1950.
9. Ugolino. The little flowers of St, Francis of Assisi, Kindle Edition. Unkown publisher and date.