artist: Cimabue (1278-80)

artist: Cimabue (1278-80)

A couple of days ago it was St Francis’ day. To put it mildly, he was a bit of a rebel and got up people’s noses. He fell out with his family and the church did not quite know what to do with him. On the other hand, some stories about him are legendary – such as preaching to the birds who stopped singing and squawking in order to listen to him. For me two things stand out for me. One is his utter determination to follow Jesus without reservation, but wholeheartedly – obsessively even. While this might make him an awkward so-and-so he was not one for “Bible-bashing” or “ramming religion down your throat”. In fact, he said that you should preach the gospel all the time but only use words when absolutely necessary – i.e. actions speak louder than words. In order to communicate the wonder of the birth of Jesus to people who could not read the Bible, and for whom the word “incarnation” was incomprehensible, Francis set up the first nativity scene, or crib. He used live actors and animals in a stable. (Rather confusingly the Bible does not actually say that Jesus was born in a stable but ever since Francis’ crib that is what everyone has assumed!)

The other idea of his that stands out for me is to do with his awe and wonder of the created natural world. Since God created everything and we call God “Father” then it makes a kind of sense to regard the world around us as our brothers and sisters. This is not a sentimental notion, and it does not automatically follow that we should give up meat. However, it does mean having a high degree of respect for the world around us – and that includes the sun, moon, stars, rocks and water as well as living creatures. It has been said that Francis is our first environmentalist. I don’t know about ‘first’ but his example is a timely reminder that human beings were given a garden to look after – not to exploit it ruthlessly.

Below is a paraphrase of one of St Francis’ poems which illustrates the last point.

All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
Make music for thy Lord to hear,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
That givest man both warmth and light.

Dear mother earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.

And all ye men of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care!

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

Original by St Francis (1181 -1226), this paraphrase by William Draper (1855 – 1933)