What would Francis do?

So as I mentioned before, Francis of Assisi is mostly known as a nature lover. Lots of statues in gardens. Lots of statues holding up birdbaths. Stories of him preaching to birds. Stories of him saving earthworms from the road. Stories of him negotiating peace between a wolf and a city. This is the cuddly Francis.

Almost 800 years later, Pope Francis paid homage to this part of his namesake’s spirituality by naming his first major encyclical (or teaching document), Laudato Si, after a prayer song that Francis composed near the end of his life. The song, which I’ll put at the end of this, is a hymn of praise to God for various elements of creation – Brother Sun, Sister Moon, that kind of thing. It’s also thought to be the first work of literature composed in modern Italian (and unlike the “Prayer of St. Francis,” he actually composed this one!). It gives rise to all sorts of precious images of nature like the two paintings posted here that we bought from an artist on the streets of Assisi a few years back.

It might be less cuddly to know that when Francis composed this, he was living in a frigid, rat-infested hut, recovering from a botched eye surgery that took what was left of his vision, while suffering from mysterious bleeding wounds that would not heal on his hands and feet. Or that the last stanza, praising God for Sister Bodily Death, was composed and sung by Francis and his companions shortly before he died. Or that, despite his limitations, he worked in a stanza about forgiveness and reconciliation in order to bring peace between one more pair of squabbling potentates.

For some, it may also be less cuddly to dig into why Francis treated Creation the way he did. Drawing on a deep reserve of Biblical imagery that post-Enlightenment Christians overlook, Francis fully embraced the notion that all the things that Christianity says that God has done – all the creating, loving, redeeming, sanctifying – apply not only to the creatures that are smart enough to write about them, but to all creation itself. We talk about being “one with nature” as a sort of pantheistic communion; for Francis, nature isn’t that thing that is bigger than ourselves; it’s a universe of fellow creatures, drawn to please that One that is truly bigger than ourselves, our Creator, together. You, me, the worm, the sun: we’re all part of God’s family.

But most decidedly uncuddly is the question of how we hold ourselves up to the example of Francis’ camaraderie with creation. And it is here, maybe even more than the examples of poverty and peacemaking, that you get smacked in the face by the sheer absurdity of the contrast between Francis’ radical example and the culture we have created.

I was having this conversation last week with a friend, who was bemused by the folly of trading in a gas-guzzling pickup truck for a diesel-guzzling pickup truck, the better to tow a camper that allows closer communion with nature and simpler living. We are all stuck in a system that is wired to ruin what God created; we can’t win for losing. Even the most virtuous choices feel like drops in the bucket (and they probably are). Even the best efforts and intentions are drowned by the whirr of air conditioning and engines. Almost all you can do is shrug.

They say that you shouldn’t ask a question unless you’re willing to hear the answer, so I won’t ask “What would Francis do?” Francis’ life choices were consistently too radical for my sensibilities. I find myself tempted to ask to be graded on a curve. Maybe I can be 10% more fuel efficient. Or maybe I can do a better job of noticing the damage that our system is wreaking on my fellow creature-kin. Or maybe if I apologize for all the recycling I didn’t do, would that count?

Francis was gracious and generous with others, even as he refused to let himself off the hook. As with poverty and peacemaking, I am not sure that I can do anything but appreciate his witness, shrug at the absurdity of the system I consent to be trapped in, and open myself to let that gap between model and reality continue to prod and nudge me in the night.

Here is St. Francis’ canticle:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord, 

Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong, 

and no man is worthy to mention 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 splendour! 

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, 

in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, 

and through the air, cloudy and serene, 

and every kind of weather through which 

You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,

which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, 

through whom you light the night and he is beautiful 

and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, 

who sustains us and governs us and who produces 

varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

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.

Praised be You, my Lord, 

through our Sister Bodily Death, 

from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin. 

Blessed are those who will 

find Your most holy will, 

for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord, 

and give Him thanks 

and serve Him with great humility.

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