Franciscan Avian Homiletics  

Posted by Joe Rawls

It has been the fate of Francis of Assisi, whom we commemorate today, to end up as the ornament in innumerable bird-baths.  There is of course much more substance to him than that, but even this banality is a sign of the near-universal love he inspires, a love transcending time, culture, and even religious bickering.  As the church makes a genuine if belated effort to address our ongoing ecological crisis, Francis stands out as a primary stimulus to a theology of the environment, both by his words and his deeds. 

An iconic moment of Francis' life--made literally so by Giotto--was the time he preached to a flock of birds.  Close interaction between contemplative humans and animals is by no means rare in Christian spirituality--the example of Seraphim of Sarov feeding the bears near his forest hermitage leaps to mind--but Francis talking to birds is probably what many people think of when his name is mentioned.  I think it would be helpful to look at the origins of this legend.  It is found in the writings of Thomas of Celano, one of Francis' brother friars.  An English version is in Regis J Armstrong, OFM Cap, et al, The Francis Trilogy of Thomas of Celano (Hyde Park, New City Press, 2004).  It and other animal stories can be found here, quite appropriately on the site of the American Humane Society. 

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One time as [Francis] was passing through the Spoleto valley, he came upon a place near Bevagna, in which a great multitude of birds of various kinds has assembled.  When the holy one of God saw them, because of the outstanding love of the Creator with which he loved all creatures, he ran swiftly to the place.  He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason.  As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic. 

Meanwhile his joy and wonder increased as he carefully admonished them to listen to the Word of God.  "My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love him always.  He clothed you with feathers and gave you wings for flying.  Among all His creatures He made you free and gave you the purity of the air.  You neither sow nor reap; He nevertheless governs you without your least care."

At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way.  They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him.  They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.  On returning to the brothers he began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.  From that day on, he carefully exhorted birds and beasts and even insensible creatures to praise and love the Creator.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 4, 2012 at Thursday, October 04, 2012 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

9 comments

Joe

I love this. Thanks for sharing. St. Francis is the one saint even protestants can usually identify with. He is one who can help unite all christians. Although he has always been one of my favorites, now I understand St. Francis better. I also now understand why his statute usually has birds around it.

Jon Mark

October 4, 2012 at 5:50 AM

Glad you liked it, Jon Mark.

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