I was reminded of this great saint recently when my attention was drawn to a carving of the hands of St. Francis of Assisi held in prayer, that was gifted to me by one of my students a few years ago. Today I would like to share a little of the story of this great Soul who viewed all of nature an expression of God’s love.
The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he was born in Assisi in 1182. As a young man he was better known for his drinking and partying than for any saintly tendencies. The seeds of change in his life were planted in 1202 when he joined Assisi’s army in a battle against Perugia. He was captured and held prisoner for over a year, returning home a changed man. He began to spend a lot of time in prayer in his local church, the church of St. Damiano, where one day he heard a voice from the crucifix say to him: “Repair my Church, it is falling into ruin.” He took this literally and began to carry out repairs on the dilapidated church. By now his father was concerned that his son was going off the track he had planned for him to take over the family business. He dragged him before the local bishop who told him to obey his father. The story goes, Francis stripped off his clothes, forsook his inheritance and declared that from that moment he recognised only God as his father. This was the beginning of the Franciscan movement, and Francis’ understanding of the true meaning behind the command to “Repair my Church.”
The rest of his life was devoted to preaching a message of living with simplicity, compassion and hope, as well as helping the poor and tending the sick, particularly lepers. About working with lepers, who were outcasts in society, he said: “God allowed me to begin my repentance in this way: when I lived in sin, seeing lepers was a very bitter experience for me. God himself guided me into their midst and among them I performed acts of charity. What appeared bitter to me became sweetness of the soul and body.”
What St. Francis is remembered for, in particular, is his connection with nature, treating everything in nature with the same respect and love he extended to people. These words from a prayer known as The Canticle of the Creatures, which he wrote near the end of his life, show the depth of his connection to God through all His creation:
“Praised be you my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day through whom you bring us light. …….. Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars. ……… And praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, through air and cloud, through calm and every weather by which you sustain your creatures. …. Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water………. Praised be you, my Lord through Brother Fire, by whom you light up the night………. Praised be you my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains us and directs us.”
This reflects how he encountered God in all things. He understood that everything in the world, including man, is a combination of the five elements, and taught people to understand their interconnectedness with everything in the natural world. I have great admiration for his deep sense of God at work in everything, and through it the presence of Divinity.
In many ways he was an early eco warrior, encouraging his fellow brothers to cut only as much wood as they needed, to replant and look after all God’s creatures. In most images of St. Francis, he is depicted with birds or small animals around him. There are many famous stories of his miracles of nature, including preaching to a large flock of birds who sat listening patiently, and broke into song when he was finished. This story of how he tamed the Wolf of Gubbio is one of the most famous:
The people of the village of Gubbio were being terrorised by a fierce wolf who had been killing livestock and a number of local people. St. Francis went out to meet the wolf who came charging at him with his mouth open. Making the sign of the cross over him, St. Francis said loudly: “Brother Wolf, In the name of Jesus Christ, I command that you do no harm to me or anyone in this village.” Immediately, the wolf closed his mouth and sat at his feet. He spoke calmly to the wolf, telling him he understood he was doing the things he was doing because he was starving, but that he would up being killed himself. He promised him he would talk to the village people about providing him with food regularly, if the wolf promised never again to harm any person and animal. It is said the wolf bowed in agreement and laid his paw in St. Francis’ hand. For the rest of the wolf’s life he tamely went from home to home being fed by all.
In many Christian churches today, there are special blessings done for animals and pets on the 4th October, the Feast day of St. Francis, and in November 1979 he was declared the Patron Saint of Ecology by Pope John Paul II. At the time the Pope said: “Among the holy and admirable men who have revered nature as a wonderful gift of God to the human race, St. Francis deserves special consideration.” The current Pope Francis adopted the name of this great Soul because, as he said at the time: “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” I encourage you, as always to connect with nature — to observe, respect and care for every living thing. When we look at nature with reverence and respect, we can look at each other in the same way — “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”