Saint Francis of Assisi took no created thing for granted, finding them all reflections of God and reasons to praise Him. For Francis, even the birds themselves praised God by their singing—an action we perform consciously with the assent of our reason and will.
Some of the earliest literature in the Italian language owes its existence to St. Francis of Assisi. The Cantico delle creature (Canticle of Living Creatures), a luminous poem of praise which Francis wrote after receiving the stigmata in 1224, and the Fioretti or Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of legends about the saint compiled by members of his order, are both prized today as much for their literary merit in the early Tuscan dialect as for their insight into the saint. Both works show Francis’ love of the natural world and the animal kingdom, a side of him much distorted in popular depictions like Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It’s refreshing to lay aside those pop culture glosses and go back to the original Franciscan sources in their purity and beauty. In them we find no sugary sentimentality, but profound theological insights about God, man, and creation.
The sermon to the birds (Chapter 16 of the Fioretti) is surely the most famous story about St. Francis. While walking, Francis sees a huge flock of birds gathered in trees by the side of the road. He tells his brother monks to wait for him while he “preaches to his sister birds.” Francis’ homily echoes the parable of the lilies of the field in Matthew’s Gospel (translations are mine):
My sister birds, you are very closely held by God your creator, and you must always and everywhere praise him, since he has given you the freedom to fly in every place; he has also given you a double and triple coat; and because he conserved your seed in Noah’s ark, so that your kind should not die out in the world . . . Besides this, you neither sow nor reap, yet God feeds you and gives you the rivers and streams to drink from, and gives you mountains and hills for your refuge, and the high trees in which to make your nests. And although you don’t know how to spin or sew, God clothes you, you and your brethren. So that your Creator loves you greatly, since he gives you so many blessings, and therefore guard against the sin of ingratitude, my sisters, and always strive to praise God.
The birds—all animals, in fact—illustrate spiritual poverty in their total dependence upon God. The author of the Fioretti goes on to say that Francis’ brother monks, “like the birds, possessing nothing of their own in this world, commit their life to the providence of God alone.” In fulfilling God’s will (unconsciously and without the gift of reason) all animals are models for how we should be in relation to him. Animals humble us and put us in perspective. They remind us of the biological basis of our existence, that we are but “dust,” and that reason and grace are gifts from above.
There is yet more to the tale. The birds respond to Francis’ preaching by bowing their heads to the earth and bursting into song to express their delight in the sermon. Francis blesses them with the sign of the cross and dismisses them, and following the pattern of the cross, the birds split up into four parts and scatter to the winds. The author sees this as symbolic of the brothers’ mission to spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth.
Another story from the Fioretti shows us a darker side of animal nature, one that also reflects our own nature. In the legend of the wolf of Gubbio (Chapter 21), a “very large, terrible and fierce wolf” has been terrifying a village, to the extent that the inhabitants can’t go out of their homes without being armed to the teeth. Francis confronts the wolf and makes the sign of the cross over him, commanding him in the name of Christ not to do harm:
Brother Wolf, you do great damage in these parts, and you have caused great evil, laying to waste and killing creatures of God without his license; and not only have you killed and devoured beasts, but you have dared to kill human beings made in the image of God; for which reason you are worthy of the gallows as the worst thief and murderer, and all the people cry and murmur against you, and this whole land is an enemy to you. But I want, Brother Wolf, to make peace between you and them, so that you will no longer offend them, and they will forgive you every past offense.
In these stories, animals are momentarily gifted with the power of understanding. And so the wolf bows its head in obedience.
Brother Wolf, since you are pleased to keep this peace, I promise that I will have the people of this land furnish you with things to eat, so that you will no longer suffer hunger; for I know well that it was for hunger that you did all of your misdeeds. But since I am doing you this favor, I want you, Brother Wolf, to promise me that you will not harm any human being nor animal.
Francis extends his hand to the wolf, who places his paw on Francis’ hand as a pledge. The wolf follows Francis to the town square with all the meekness of a lamb. The story ends with Francis in the town square preaching a sermon to the people interpreting the meaning of their suffering at the hands of the wolf. God permits such evils as expiation for sin, and the fires of hell are much more to be feared than the wolf who only can kill the body:
Return, then, dear ones, to God and do worthy penance for your sins, and God will free you from the wolf in the present and from hellfire in the future.
If the birds symbolized innocence and conformity with God’s will, the wolf symbolizes of the power of evil. He must be tamed, but Francis does so with gentleness and—what G.K. Chesterton identified as the key element of his personality—courtesy. Just as Christ vanquishes evil with goodness, so Francis, channeling divine grace, invites the wolf to repentance. The wolf responds with meekness in the face of this divine love. Despite the ravages he created, he is offered forgiveness and a chance to reform.
But after all, the wolf represents earthly evil, which is finite; he is contrasted with the eternal damnation of the soul, following Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
When it comes to domestic animals, we are their custodians, mediating between them and God. We share in the animal nature, even though we transcend it through our reason. Anyone who owns a beloved pet knows what it means to care for it in a godlike manner. In Chapter 22, we find Francis acting protectively toward a flock of turtle doves, saving them from being sold and slaughtered—for they are likened in the Gospel to “pure, humble and faithful souls” and they must not be cruelly killed. Francis takes them in his lap, addresses a tender speech to them, and builds them nests so that they flourish and multiply.
This story too has an important human consequence. The young man from whom Francis bought the birds becomes a monk and serves Jesus Christ graciously (graziosamente). The centrality of Christ for Francis, so often obscured in popular portrayals, is there for everyone to see in these originals.
In his brilliant study of St. Francis, Chesterton describe the character and importance of il poverello in relation to his times and later Western culture. He notes that Francis’ exaltation of nature was a rebuke to the Albigensian heresy, which despised the material world. With his love of poetry and music, Francis influenced artists like Giotto and paved the way for the cultural renewal of the Renaissance, a movement that reflected an appreciation of nature and the world, not just as a generality but in all its particular detail. In his avian sermon, Francis notices and takes delight in the number, varied colors, and friendliness of the birds. He takes no created thing for granted, finds them all a reflection of God and a reason to praise Him. The birds themselves praise God by their singing—an action we perform consciously with the assent of our reason and will. Francis’ personality, his innocent gioia di vivere based in the love of God and creation, became deeply rooted in the Italian people, to the extent that Pope Pius XII declared him the patron saint of Italy.
When it comes to the animal legends, they have surely had an effect on our stories and culture. Tales from Thomasina to Lassie have continued the tradition of using animals to hold up a mirror to human nature, presenting us with moral archetypes that remind us of our role in the created order. Perhaps the unmistakable Franciscan mark in such stories is the gentleness and innocence which connect all animal life with the divine life.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Sermon to the Birds” by Giotto di Bondone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.