As a Franciscan friar for over 50 years, I am very familiar with the stories of St. Francis of Assisi and animals. Many of you no doubt are familiar with the story of this brown-robed friar preaching to the birds. Or maybe that of his releasing Brother Rabbit from a trap, or letting Sister Raven serve as his "alarm clock" to awaken him for early morning prayers. Historians have credited Francis with composing the first great poem in Italian—a poem or hymn that bears the title The Canticle of Brother Sun (also known as The Canticle of the Creatures). In this hymn St. Francis invites all his brother and sister creatures—whether minerals, plants or animals—to praise their Creator. These creatures include "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon," "Brother Fire" and "Sister Water," as well as "Sister Earth our Mother," with all her various fruits and colored flowers.
For years, I have asked myself why: Why did Francis do this? Deep down, I wondered, what intuition prompted Francis to address all creatures as "brothers" and "sisters"? Over 30 years ago, I concluded that Francis came to the conviction that all creatures form one family of creation. Indeed, this is the view of St. Francis immortalized in his Canticle of Brother Sun. As Murray Bodo, O.F.M., observes regarding this canticle, "St. Francis calls us to...to see that all created things are our brothers and sisters, that we are interdependent" (from Fr. Murray's timely little book, Poetry as Prayer: Saint Francis of Assisi, Pauline Books & Media, 2003).
We will meditate on St. Francis' Canticle in segments. Although the Canticle is a very spontaneous poem or prayer flowing from the heart of Francis, it falls into distinguishable segments. The first six lines are devoted to God alone, our Creator, whose exalted status deserves first place in our reverence and high praise. And so we do well to imitate St. Francis by letting ourselves be swept up into giving "all praise" and "all glory" and "all honor" to our most high Lord.
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.
Looking ahead at the Canticle's next 19 lines, we focus on the various "brother" and "sister" creatures God has made. We praise God for their beauty and preciousness and for the way they reflect God's own goodness. It is fitting therefore that we embrace these creatures as brothers and sisters and as members of the same family to which you and I belong. As Fr. Murray affirms in Poetry as Prayer, St. Francis "did not turn away from creatures; he became one with them in a fraternal relationship that resisted domination." It is with great joy and reverence therefore that we warmly accept these creatures and praise God with them and through them.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods,
By which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful is he, how merry! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our Mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
On Pardon and Peace
Some time after St. Francis wrote and joyfully sang the original lines of the Canticle, he composed the following four lines to help resolve a dispute that had arisen between the mayor of Assisi and the bishop. St. Francis asked a friar to sing these lines in the presence of the two men so they might be reconciled. And, indeed, a reconciliation did take place. The lines were added later to the original parts of the Canticle presented above. These words also inspire us in our day to seek reconciliation with one another out of love for God. They will also lead us to peace—and to great blessings from the Most High.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of you; through those who endure
Sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Finally, not many days before Francis saw his own death approaching, he added the following seven lines to his great Canticle of the Creatures.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
How dreadful for those who die in sin!
How lovely for those found in Your Most Holy Will.
The second death can do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.
Throughout this canticle, we have seen how Francis saw God’s goodness, radiance and beauty in all creatures. He saw them indeed as benevolent friends, as brothers and sisters—as family. And now even the reality of death itself becomes “Sister Death” for Francis, and thus takes on friendly and even “sisterly” aspects. For who of us is afraid of our sister? Indeed, under usual circumstances we are not afraid of our sister. And so, neither does Francis see this sister as threatening to him. In fact, according to Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of the saint, St. Francis went “joyfully to meet [death]” and “invited it to make its lodging with him. ‘Welcome,’ he said, ‘my sister death!’” (See Celano 2, CXLIII,217.)
We all owe a great debt to St. Francis of Assisi and to his Canticle of the Creatures for leading us to the conviction that all brother and sister creatures make up one family under God’s loving care! May all these wonderful creatures continue to lift our hearts upward to God in this glorious prayer of praise!
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