October 4 is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Francis is well-known for preaching to birds and other creatures. He famously ‘converted’ a wolf that was terrorizing a community. There are stories of his tender regard for lambs, rabbits, and even carp. According to the stories, that tenderness and respect was returned. At the time of his death, larks flew into his room to sing their praises and laments.
St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) proclaimed,
The meekness which is necessary, we should learn from St. Francis. For his was an extraordinary meekness, not only toward other people, but also toward animals. He called all animals ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and we read in the story of his life how even wild animals came running to him as their friend and companion.
And Francis’ attention went beyond animals. According to another legend:
One day Francis was filled with joy because he was beginning to enjoy God in all creatures. He went through the streets singing and inviting everyone to sing along with him. Then he came upon an almond tree, and he said, ‘Brother Almond, speak to me of God,’ And the almond tree blossomed.
These are wonderful stories. But we need to be careful not to romanticize or sentimentalize Francis. His message and his life were shaped by a joyous devotion to Jesus Christ, but it was also an austere devotion based on the way of the cross. His regard for all God’s creation was rooted in the hope found in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Further, the stories of Francis’ appreciation for creation are not just quaint embroidery. They are theologically significant. Nor are they unique in the Christian tradition. There are similar stories through the Church’s history.
Here are some examples from the Desert Fathers:
Abba Theon ate vegetables, but only those that did not need to be cooked. They say that he used to go out of his cell at night and stay in the company of the wild animals, giving them drink from the water he had. Certainly one could see the tracks of antelopes and wild asses and gazelles and other animals near his hermitage. These creatures always gave him pleasure.
Another account from the desert:
We came near to a tree, led by our kindly host, and there we stumbled upon a lion. At the sight of him my guide and I quaked, but the saintly old man went unfaltering on and we followed him. The wild beast – you would say it was at the command of God – modestly withdrew a little way and sat down, while the old man plucked the fruit from the lower branches. He held out his hand, full of dates; and up the creature ran and took them as frankly as any tame animal about the house; and when it had finished eating, it went away. We stood watching and trembling; reflecting as well we might what valor of faith was in him and what poverty of spirit in us.
While Abba Macarius (295-392) was praying in his cave in the desert, a hyena suddenly appeared and began to lick his feet and taking him gently by the hem of his tunic, she drew him towards her own cave. He followed her, saying, "I wonder what this animal wants me to do?" When she had led him to her cave, she went in and brought her cubs which had been born blind. He prayed over them and returned them to the hyena with their sight healed. She in turn, by way of thank offering, brought the man the huge skin of a ram and laid it at his feet. He smiled at her as if at a kind person and taking the skin spread it under him.
There are similar stories from some of the Celtic saints.
Kevin of Glendulough (d. 618):
St. Kevin had a vision in which an angel appeared to him, telling him to build a large monastery. The angel said that, to prepare the way, he was going to level a nearby small mountain. Kevin thought about it and told the angel, "No, thank you. There are creatures who live on that mountain. That is the habitat and the home of many of God’s creatures and to destroy it – even for something as good and noble as a monastery – would be to make them homeless."
St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, was said to have gone out at night to pray on the shore of the ocean. As you can imagine, it is cold on the shore at night in north-eastern England. The story goes that as Cuthbert prayed otters would come out of the water and wrap themselves around his naked feet to keep them warm.
And of a Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833):
St. Seraphim has sometimes been referred to as the Russian St. Francis, given his humble way of life and unusual relationship with wild animals. For years, he lived in an isolated hermitage where only the birds and the wild beasts visited him, and he dwelt with them as Adam did in Paradise. They came at midnight and waited for him to complete his Rule of prayer. Then he would feed bears, lynxes, foxes, rabbits, and even wolves with bread from his hand. There was also a bear which would obey Seraphim and run errands for the saint.
Fanciful as these stories sound, they have important theological meaning:
1. They remind us that the idea that humans are somehow fundamentally separate from the rest of creation is not a Christian idea. Classically, Christians have understood themselves to be part of a co-inherent web of relations with the rest of creation.
It is really only in the modern era that Christians, shaped by secular ways of thinking, have accepted the reduction of creation to mere objects more or less useful for our own selfish ends. Along with this we have allowed our imaginations to be diminished such that we have come to see creation as mere background, more or less unimportant to God’s ultimate plan.
2. These stories about Francis and others point to a hope and a desire that was deep in the Church and is deep in the gospel. That desire, that hope, is for a creation healed and restored in harmony. Certainly, we desire harmony among people. God’s vision is for each of us to be reconciled to him. His vision is for humans to be reconciled to one another. But God’s vision is bigger than that. God’s vision and God’s intention is for all creation to be caught up in the divine love and peace. Our hope is not to escape this world, bur that this world, and we in, it will be healed and transformed. Thus, the Church has imagined that holiness should mirror the harmony of Eden and anticipate the harmony of its restoration in the kingdom of God.
A classic mark of sanctity is the holy person’s harmony – friendship – with creation. Francis and these these saints believed that Jesus Christ was the first fruits of the new creation, the first fruits of that peace and harmony that is God’s desire. Their stories point to the hope that one can begin now to live a holy life of anticipation of the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah envisioned – the promise of creation in total harmony:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea”
Apparently, Francis and others took that seriously, or at least the stories about them take it seriously. And perhaps we should as well. They wanted to begin living into it now. Christians need to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our imaginations to see again that we are part of an enchanted web of relation and that God’s splendor is present in it all. Thus all creation is worthy of reverence. And we need to reclaim the comprehensive hope that all creation will be healed, restored, and transformed by God’s resurrection power. And as those who live that hope, Christians might just reclaim the holy task of beginning now to participate in the healing of all that harms or destroys God’s holy creation and the creatures in whom God delights. There is nothing sentimental about that. But, there is much joy.
Collect for the Feast of St. Francis:
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.