St Francis lived 800 years ago and yet his life and teachings seem very contemporary in many ways. Like all saints his life is surrounded by some amazing stories, many in his case to do with animals and the natural world. Which is partly why St Francis has become associated with the blessing of our pets which is delightful but more importantly St Francis has become in many ways the saint for creation. (RCL Jonah 1:1-2:1 & 2:10; Psalm 130; Luke 10:25-37.)
Most of know something of the story of how Francis was born into a wealthy cloth merchants family and how he eventually gave it all away to follow the gospel and live as simply and as like Christ as he could. Two or my favourite stories are about Francis and the animals. One day Francis was travelling through the countryside with his companions when he saw and unusually large flock of birds gathered in a field. Francis excused himself and walked into the field, expecting the birds to disperse but they waited for him. So he asked if he might preach the word of God to them and they stayed. He said: “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator for he has given you feathers for clothes, wings on which to fly, voices with which to sing, and all that you need. Without sowing or reaping you receive God’s guidance and protection.” At this the birds all sang and flew around him. Francis blessed them and from then on often preached to the birds, saying they were often more attentive than some humans!
There is also the wonderful story about the wolf of Gubbio. The village of Gubbio was being menaced by a wolf which had taken to not only killing and eating the animals but humans also. Francis agreed to see if he could help. He went out to meet the wolf who raced toward him threateningly but Francis commanded him to stop in the name of Christ and he did so. And when Francis had finished telling the wolf the conditions of his being allowed to stay, it is said that the animal nodded his consent and then raised his paw and placed it in Francis’ hand to shake on the deal. Francis is also credited with holding the first nativity with real animals in a real stable. It was so that the poor farmers and their animals might better worship the Christ child and see the gospel in their own lives.
These are lovely stories. But Francis was more than just a sweet sentimental man. He recognised the animals and all creation as his brothers and sisters. Which only recently has science discovered to be quite true in an elemental sense – we are all made of the same building blocks of star dust – we are in a material sense brothers and sisters, family. And so like Francis we should remain aware that all we meet is family and filled with the image of God. And that realisation should lead us to treat the world accordingly.
To take the insights of Francis into our own time we need to do some translating. Firstly we might talk about recognising God in all things. If we recognise God in all we meet then we must treat life with reverence and gratitude. Which is a great deal easier to say than to do. Even to unpack what that means, or might mean, involves thinking differently to how we usually do.
Let’s start with the easy and the pleasurable. To sit with a cup of tea in one’s garden and watch the little birds dance and sing is to glimpse the extent to which we are related and that we all are engaged in worshiping God. But the wolf and those difficult to engage with are also our brothers and sisters according to St Francis. And as the story of the good Samaritan reminds us our neighbour is whoever is in need.
But unlike the birds of the air or the lilies of the field we need to wear clothes and eat more than what grows in our own field. Even here in a country town much of what makes our life comfortable was made or grown by others far away. Which is a little more complex. Francis believed that he was called to live simply. And in our times this might be interpreted by the principle of “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” This goes some of the way toward expressing a way forward that addresses our needs and the needs of others in some balance. As we seek to consider creation and resolve to live with greater respect and reverence we need to become more aware of how our domestic and communal decisions impact the world we live in. As interconnected neighbours mercy and justice mean living more lightly upon the planet so that our home can nourish and support not just us but all who live upon her.
But a simple life is not only desirable for the sake of social justice but also so that we might more completely place ourselves in God’s hands, to trust as Francis recognised in the lives of the birds. And his trust was absolute and practical – he and the little brothers ate or did not eat depending on whether or not anyone gave them food that day. For most of us this is intolerable and experienced as insecurity. It is part of what has been fearful in the last two years – having to rely on others as to whether we can work or eat or at least pay our bills. While most of us would subscribe to good stewardship and providing for ourselves as best we can, days like St Francis’ feast day can remind us that in the end everything is from God and gift rather than ours to own and anxiously to take care of.
So let us give thanks for the life of Francis and be encouraged to give thanks for the life of all creation.