Since his death nearly eight centuries ago, St. Francis of Assisi has been the subject
of some of the worlds most admired works of art. His image is also found quite
often in what we call the popular arts: in the form of greeting cards, plastic statues,
medallions and plaques. These forms of art often get mixed reviews.
People at times poke fun at some of the more sentimental or sappy images
of Francis holding a rabbit or with birds flying around his head. And there are always
those who like to belittle admirers of the saint when they place his statue in flower gardens
or on a birdbath.
In most cases, I beg to differ with this point of view. With the feast
of St. Francis once again approaching us (October 4), I would like to share with you some
reflections on this topic that I put into writing a few years ago:
Perhaps the most popular sculptured image of Francis is that of the
ragged little man standing on a birdbath. This figure, which has become so universal, could
be discovered as easily in a Methodists backyard or a Buddhist prayer garden as at
a Franciscan retreat center.
To those who grumble that this birdbath art is too lowbrow and sentimental,
I say Lighten up! Francis belongs to the popular arts as much as with the fine artsand
he certainly belongs to the birds. To set Francis on a birdbath or in a flower garden
or to depict him with birds circling around his head is just a popular way of saying: This
man had a special link with all of Gods creatures, and its just like him to
be standing there among them.
Francis was in awe of the swallow and cricket and rabbit. Where
the modern cynic see something buglike in everything that exists, observed
German writer-philosopher Max Scheler, St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness
Another reason Francis should keep his place on the birdbath or amid
the daffodils in that his being there helps us see, as Francis himself did, that the world
of nature and the world of God are one. Francis did not fall into the trap of dualism,
which creates an artificial wall between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular
and the sacred. For Francis, every creature was sacred. The world he lived in was not something
wicked to be rejected but a sacred ladder leading to its Creator.
Francis would say that the birds coming to the birdbath are holy. Water
is holy. Bugs are holy. Why shouldnt Francis be there in the garden where he can
be pelted by rain or sleet or kissed by the sun and wind or a passing butterfly?
In 1992 the Catholic Bishops of the United States published a statement
on the environment entitled Renewing the Earth. In it, they praised St. Francis
and emphasized: Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly in it, rather
than managing creation as though we are outside it. We should see ourselves, they
added, as stewards within creation, not as separate from it. Francis was ahead of his time,
He saw himself, as do todays ecologists, as part of the ecosystem, not as some proud
master over and above it.
Francis addressed creatures as brother and sisteras
equals, not subjects to be dominated. And thats why the humble figure of Francis
standing at the birdbath or among the plants and shrubs is so right for our day. He truly
saw himself as a simple servant and steward of creationlittle brother to the birds
and the fish and the lowly ivy. St. Francis reminds us that we are a part of our environment
and are called to love and protect it.
Patron saint of ecology. In 1979 Pope John Paul
II proclaimed Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology. The pope cited him for being an
example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation
.St. Francis, he
added, invited all creationanimals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun
and Sister Moonto give honor and praise to the Lord.
respond to Friar Jims Catechism
Quiz: The Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Dear Friar Jim: Can an ordained deacon give the last rites on
a deathbed or anywhere else? Thanks. Mary Ann
Dear Mary Ann: No, the Sacrament of Anointing, celebration of
Mass and hearing of confessions are ministries of priests and bishops only. Friar Jim
Dear Friar Jim: Your article on the Sacrament of Holy Orders addressed
the vows of obedience and celibacy taken by diocesan priests, and it also spoke of vows
of poverty, obedience and chastity taken by Franciscan Friars and other orders. In Church
law is there a discernible difference between vows of celibacy and chastity? Thank you. Joe
Dear Joe: Both celibacy and chastity have the same effect (remaining
unmarried and living chastely). The difference is in the sense that the vows of chastity,
poverty and obedience are taken in the context of religious community life. Friar Jim
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