There is an old saying that goes something like this: “To live with the saints above is heavenly, blessed, and glory…but to live with the saints on earth is a very different story.” One saint about whom this could never be said was Saint Francis of Assisi because he was exactly what we think a saint ought to be: a completely loving spirit. In his Canticle of the Creatures, he called upon ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’ to praise God; he truly felt that everything that existed…from angels to rocks…was indeed a part of his dear “family” here on earth. Speaking of which…what can we learn about Saint Francis…before he was a ‘saint’?
He lived in Italy, being born one of seven children in the year 1182. We are told that his father was a rich cloth merchant from Italy and that his mother was from France. In fact, his father was in France on business when the baby was born…giving his mother the opportunity to go ahead and have the baby baptized as Giovanni de Bernardone (in honor of Saint John the Baptist). When his father returned home, however, he was furious about this as he did not want his son to be a man of the Church. Instead, he declared that the child would be named Francesco in honor of his commercial success and love of all things French.
As a youth, Francesco (Francis in English) became a troubadour and yearned to become a writer of French poetry. He is said to have been known for his ‘bright clothing, rich friends, street brawls, and seeking after earthly pleasures’…yet, it didn’t take long for Francis to become disillusioned with the world, as illustrated in this popular tale, simply referred to as “the story of the beggar”:
In the story of the beggar, young Francis was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him…asking for alms. After taking care of his business, Francis abandoned his goods and ran after the beggar. When he found him, Francis gave him everything he had in his pockets. His friends were quick to chide him and mock him for his act of charity. When he returned home, his father was relentless in his scolding.
Is it any wonder that young Francis soon left to join the military, only to be captured and thrown into captivity for over a year. Once released, Francis became seriously ill and it is during this period of his life that a spiritual conversion seemed to take place. Instead of carousing with his old friends, he took to spending much time in lonely places…asking God for enlightenment. By degrees, he took to nursing the lepers who were left to die along the streets. Even going to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor.
When he sold his horse and some cloth from his father’s store, to assist a local priest, his father once again was outraged and attempted to change Francis’ mind…first with threats…then with beatings. It was then, in front of the Bishop, that Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the clothes that he had received from him. From then on, he lived as a beggar for the poor in the region of Assisi…continuing to restore a number of ruined churches.
On February 24, 1209, Francis heard a sermon that changed his life. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Jesus tells his followers that they should go out into the surrounding towns and villages proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them. His followers were to take no money with them, not even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis, taking it all in, was inspired then and there to devote himself to a life of poverty. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance to all as he wandered through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful…and always full of songs.
Many stories arose about Francis during this period…including the now famous story about the Wolf of Gubbio. A story in which Francis finds himself confronting a horrid and hungry wolf who had inflicted terror on the local townspeople in order to satisfy his need for food. As the story goes, when called out by Francis…the wolf does repent…and begins to change his ways. Out of gratitude, the townspeople then begin to take care of the wolf. Why? Because in doing so, they are reminded of their love for Francis…and his plea to remember the poor. Even those with four paws.
Francis’ love for animals was well known…and probably served as the inspiration to his using real animals to create the first ever living nativity so that worshippers could contemplate the birth of Jesus in a very direct way, making use of their senses, especially their sight. According to firsthand accounts, he used a straw-filled manger (feeding trough) set between a real ox and donkey. It was beautiful in its simplicity…with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass.
Toward the end of his life, Francis is said to have had a vision on or about September 14, 1224, as a result of which he received the stigmata. It apparently took place while he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty day fast. Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, left a clear and simple account of the event, the first definite account of what took place:
“Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.”
Suffering from these Stigmata and from an eye disease, he received care in several cities to no avail. He died on the evening of October 3, 1226, singing Psalm 141. To no ones surprise, on July 16, 1228 he was pronounced a saint by the next pope Gregory IX. What Francis has to say to us today, I believe, has more to do with how he led his life…as opposed to anything that he said. His mantra in life was a simple one: preach the Gospel at all times; and if necessary…use words. To which all of God’s creatures surely respond: Amen!
Oct. 4, 2009 / Saint Francis / Blessing of the Animals / Resurrection Lutheran Church
Over time, many stories have surfaced about the life of Saint Francis…especially where it concerned the blessing of animals. Francis believed that all of creation was a part of his beloved “family”…calling each his brother or sister by name. One of the best known stories is that of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, as retold by Cynthia Zarin in her book, Saints Among the Animals. It goes something like this.
There was a time, long ago, when the small town of Gubbio was gripped with fear. When the butcher and the baker went to bed at night, they never knew which of their animals would be missing by morning. Chickens, pigs, and cattle shuddered in their barns, and mothers, waking at night trembling checked their sleeping children two or even three times before the cock crowed. By day people went about their usual business, but a cloud of fear hung over them even when the sun shone bright.
A wolf was the cause of all their trouble. Terrible creature, he lived in a cave above the town where brambles grew wild and the grass was sharp as thorns. It was a cold and lonely place, where stones and boulders lost their footing, and treacherous to walk near, lest a hail of rocks come falling down. The wolf, loathsome in his habits, was bothered by none of this. Gray, foul-smelling, he slept by day in his littered den and lived only to creep out at night when, unmindful of all but his own appetite, he slunk through the streets and stairwells, lying in wait for a nice fat goat…or goose…to pass him by. And in that moment, he would spring on them and sink his teeth.
Now it so happened that the monk later called Saint Francis, who traveled often in his region of soft hills near Assisi, came at this time of terror to preach the word of God and remind the townspeople of their duty to the poor and hungry, as he had done many times before. By nature, the good people of Gubbio are very kind and generous. But, as Francis, on foot, approached the town’s main gate, he met only gaunt and saddened faces. They barely offered a greeting and their eyes darted in fear as they were constantly looking to the left…and then to the right.
“What is the trouble, my good friend?” Francis asked a shepherd who was urging his sheep through the gate with a nervous nod. “Why do you look so afraid?” And he gestured to the flute in the shepherd’s belt, for the knew the old man well and how he loved to play. “Oh, no,” said the shepherd, following his gaze, “I dare not make music now, for the wolf might hear me and find me.” By then, a small crowd had gathered around the monk and the shepherd, eager to hear what their beloved Francis might say. There was Antonio the farmer, with sheaves strapped to his back, and old Lucia, with her apron full of flowers. Even the baker and the butcher shifted from foot to foot…all waiting for Francis to speak.
“Take me to him, this wolf,” he said, his voice strong and clear. “I will speak to him where he lives.” There was much objection from the crowd, who cried out as one saying, “No, do not go there.” Lucia, who had known Francis since he was a child, pleaded with him in particular. But once he set his mind to do something, Francis could not be swayed, and the little group, which grew larger as the news of his intent spread like a flame in a haystack, was resigned to follow him, for they knew not what else to do.
“Play your flute,” said Francis to the shepherd, “and show the wolf we’re not afraid of him.” And so, the little procession made its way up the hill. Up, up, they climbed, barking dogs running circles around them. The shepherd played his flute. Francis remained quiet…and as they climbed…the little parade quieted too, until even the dogs were silent. The air chilled and clouds gathered.
“There it is,” said the shepherd in a hushed frightened voice. He pointed to a dark place in the hillside where the rocky ground was littered with trash and bones. “Do not be afraid,” said Francis. But as he moved toward the cave no one came with him. “Oh, do not go!” cried Lucia, trying one last time to dissuade him. Francis did not turn, but walked steadily forward, and when he came to the place where rubbish covered the earth, he picked his way through it. He stood a moment. Then he began to speak, and although he was some way off from the huddled townspeople, the wind had mysteriously picked up and carried his words back to them.
“Oh, Brother Wolf,” he said, “come out! I am hear to speak with you as a servant of God who rules the heavens and the earth.” The wind rushed up for a moment, churning the dry leaves about, and the little group of onlookers huddled closer together. Then it was quiet, as if the hills themselves were listening. “I know you are hungry, Brother Wolf,” said Francis in his now low voice. “It has been a hungry season for you, for the sun shone hard and parched the fields. Now winter is coming and your appetite is great. I know what that is like. But the Lord tells us that when our appetites are quelled, we will receive what we need many times from Him. Come with me, and I promise you will not go hungry any more.”
Francis paused in his speech and then said, almost beseechingly, his words like an echo of the flute’s melody in the still air, “Come out, Brother Wolf, come out!” Lo and behold, to the amazement of the people gathered, the wolf…dirty and covered with soars, his bones like knives under his fur…crept out of his cave. And if that weren’t enough, he stood up on his hind legs and rested on Francis, who did not shrink from him. Then, as if to further confound all reason, the wolf lay down at the monk’s feet, and Francis gently said to him, “Now you must repent, for you are a thief and a murderer, and have brought terror to the hearts of these good people who have done no harm to you.”
To the crowds astonishment, the wolf bowed his head, and with the ragged procession trailing behind (for they were still a little afraid), he followed Francis down the hill through the gate of the town and told the people there of the pact he had made. And from that day forward the wolf never hurt a flea, but was obedient to Francis’ order, and like any penitent beggar...begged for food…and was given it. So pleased were the people, who talked ceaselessly of what they had seen, that they grew to love the wolf, for he was a reminder in their midst of their beloved Francis. And when the wolf eventually died, he was mourned as one of them.