“Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun … Sister Moon … Brother Wind … sister Water … Brother Fire … Sister Mother Earth … Sister Bodily Death” 

Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, 1224

 

The Medievals persist in their relevance for the present day. Several Italians, living and writing mostly within the thirteenth, each spoke strongly to issues which face us today. Francis of Assisi (1181/82 – 1226), a Patron Saint of Italy and founder of the Franciscan order of monks, practiced a joyful asceticism which elevated the sick, the poor and the natural world (including the smallest of its animals). Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) integrated the wisdom and logic of Greek philosophy with the truth and beauty of Scripture. Finally, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), a city official and politician from a noble family of Florence, became arguably the finest poet of the Medieval era, as he dissected the nature of sin Inferno (Hell), showed how to purify the soul  Purgatory, described fully redeemed virtues and the journey of the soul to God in Paradise (Heaven). In this first of three articles on Italian contributions to the Medieval cosmos, we will look at the life of Francis of Assisi, considered a hero of humanism before the Renaissance, and thus a morning star of the Renaissance, as described by G.K. Chesterton in his biography Francis of Assisi.

Chesterton declares that Francis was “the first Italian poet” as “before Dante was, he had given poetry to Italy.”[1]  Francis was not a poet like Dante who could relate his world to the classical world and pagan mythology, such as Virgil, Homer and Plato. Instead, Francis “was a poet whose while life was a poem,” Chesterton declares, who “did in a definite sense make the very act of living an art.”[2]  Thus, Francis could “call a nightingale a nightingale, and not have its song spoiled or saddened by the terrible tales of Itylus or Procne.”[3] Francis is also known for his hymn Canticle of the Sun with invocations to praise such as:

 

“Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun … Sister Moon, ”[4]

 

which was reworded in 1919 by Theodore Draper into the familiar hymn, All Creatures of our God and King:

 

“All Creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia, Alleluia; Thou burning sun with golden beam, though silver moon with softer gleam …” [5]

 

Yet, Chesterton declares that “Saint Francis was not a lover of nature” as were so many modern Romantics as well as ancient Pagans.[6] Instead, like a proper hermit, Francis loved nature only as a background, seeing “everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting … in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose.”[7] Francis found life and purpose in all of nature, unlike Romantic figures like Byron, Scott or Wordsworth for whom nature provided merely a backdrop of solitude for their contemplations.

But it was the ancient world from which Francis provided a final penance, or purgation, “the moment when … certain spiritual diseases had finally been expelled from the system.”[8] Pagan civilization was advanced, Chesterton argued, with poetic, political, and logical discoveries that remain with us today; yet it had also discovered its own mistake, described in shorthand as nature worship The Greeks strove to follow what was natural, but then promptly committed the most unnatural of acts, the worship of nature, as if (by parallel argument) worshipping health would make one healthy. Instead, Chesterton continued, nature worshippers could never understand the deeper discovery that man’s nature is fallen; no “real moral history of the Greeks” has thus been written.[9] Rome had better decency than to follow Greek practices, yet they still relied on nature worship to provide some mystical sense of purpose and meaning, which they ascribed to “nameless forces of nature, such as sex and growth and death;” Rome nevertheless produced the most un-natural Nero.[10] However, “pagans were wiser than paganism” Chesterton observed, as pagan religion did not satisfy: “that is why the pagans became Christians.”[11] Francis’s natural religion (but not a religion of nature) played a significant role in advancing Europe from both its pagan and Feudal past into the “vast and almost universal, mighty civilization of the Middle Ages.”[12] He accomplished this largely by his respect for and service to all life, but all practiced as in his proclamation “hitherto I have called Pietro Bernadone father; but now I am the servant of God.”[13]

The order of monks that Francis inspired in the thirteenth century followed monastic reforms from previous centuries, but Francis provided an awakening. By vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, monks had “long ago civilized a great part of the world” Chesterton admits, accomplishing such things as the advent of serfdom (a vast improvement on the ancient forms of slavery) as well as increasing freedom for both slaves and serfs.[14] But Francis provided a fresh wind to the sails rigged by history and a freedom born from disciplined denial of self, asceticism, and the joy of service. Chesterton relates how Francis’s name, short for Francesco and (according to one tale) ascribed to him at a young age due to his fondness for the love poetry of French Troubadour poets of his day, helps us best understand Francis’s life. But it was not romantic love that drove Francis, as he had declared Poverty to be his Lady. From his earliest days of running after beggars in the marketplace to donate his coins to the wintry day when he stripped himself of all but his shirt and would henceforth wear only beggars robes (bound not by a stylish money belt but a rope) to his begging for rocks to rebuild a church to his work with lepers, Francis sought to serve rather than to sate the senses. His abused body, “Brother Ass”[15] as he called it, and resultant death at age forty-four attest to his asceticism.

But it was in such service, ultimately to God, that Francis found “a freedom almost amounting to frivolity.”[16]  Francis referred to his comrades as “Le Jongleur de Dieu,” or the “Jugglers of God;” such jesters often accompanied Troubadours for comic relief. One such legendary entertainer, “The Tumbler of Our Lady” once stood on his head before an image of Mary; Chesterton notes how that such an act, primarily out of obedience, allowed the juggler to see the grass and flowers more clearly. Such was the case with Francis: rather than as a “mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake,”  Francis’s obedience allowed the natural world to be bathed in a supernatural life: all life thus mattered.[17] Francis is said to have journeyed to visit the Holy Roman Emperor to intercede for the lives of certain small birds. And after gaining papal approval to found the Franciscan Order when likely there were just twelve Franciscans in the entire world, he helped a seventeen year old Clare, from a leading family of Assisi, escape to a convent, the start of his eventual founding of a Second Franciscan Order, for nuns. Francis would later found a Third Order, for lay people.

In his wide-ranging compassion, Francis anticipated many issues of the modern day, such as concern for nature, for the poor, for women, and the dangers of attachment to material wealth. Chesterton summarizes his serving in a regal manner:

“We may say if we like that Saint Francis, in the bare and barren simplicity of his life, had clung to one rag of luxury; the manners of a court. But whereas in a court there is one king and a hundred courtiers, in this story there was one courtier, moving among a hundred kings. For he treated the whole mob of men as a mob of kings.”[18]

Francis’s divine perspective afforded him such a vision:

“I have said that Saint Francis deliberately did not see the wood for the trees. It is even more true that he deliberately did not see the mob for the men. What distinguishes this very genuine democrat from any mere demagogue is that he never either deceived or was deceived by the illusion of mass suggestion. Whatever his taste in monsters, he never saw before him a many-headed beast. He only saw the image of God multiplied but never monotonous.”[19]

But the key to Francis’s vision was his “grammar of gratitude” as he “understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss.”[20] As such, he inspired so many that followed, and “was the soul of medieval civilization before it even found a body.”[21] Malcolm Guite thus praises Francis, in his poem Saint Francis Drops in on My Gig, with:

 

“You know the ins and outs of inns like this,

The people here have hidden wounds like you,

And you have bidden them to hidden bliss.

 

Francis, I’ve only straggled after you,

I’ve never really caught your melody,

The joy you bring when every note rings true.

But you just laugh and say ‘play one for me!’”[22]

 

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Citation Information

Seth Myers, “Francis of Assisi,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 273-282.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/francis-of-assisi/


Endnotes


[1] G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 124.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 125.

[4] Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, 1224.

[5] Theodore Draper, 1919 “All Creatures of our God and King.”

[6] Chesterton, Francis of Assisi, 67.

[7] Ibid., 68.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 20.

[13] Ibid., 61.

[14] Ibid., 20.

[15] The Cathloic Thing. August 18, 2015. “Brother Ass” https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2015/08/18/brother-ass/.

[16] Ibid., 54.

[17] Ibid., 55.

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 128.

[21] Ibid., 129.

[22] Malcolm Guite, “Saint Francis Drops in on My Gig” in After Prayer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2019), 74.

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