From The Way of the Mystics
Late one moonlit night, the citizens of Assisi, Italy, were awakened from their slumber by a frightful commotion. The cause of the disturbance was a local youth named Francis, but none of the townspeople realized that yet. All they knew was that the bells of their town church were clanging chaotically in the middle of the night.
These were the same bells that sounded throughout the daylight hours, chiming out familiar tones at morning, noon, and dusk. But this wasn’t daylight, and this noise was no pretty melody. It sounded like a pack of hyenas had been let loose in the bell tower.
When a few droopy-eyed town fathers made their way to the central square in their nightshirts and slippers, they were greeted with a surreal sight. Francis was yanking on the bells’ thick ropes with all his might and shouting out through the tower’s windows: “Lift up your eyes, my friends! Lift up your eyes! Look at the moon!”
This wasn’t the first time Francis had disturbed the sleep of his fellow townspeople. He had been a medieval party animal whose carousing, drinking, and loud singing were regular features of Assisi nightlife. But it wasn’t drunken debauchery that inspired this outburst. On this moonlit night, Francis was fueled by a passionate love for God – a love so surpassing, so consuming, so glorious, and so transforming that he felt it was his duty to share it with his entire town.
A Joyful Saint
Some of the saints and mystics we see pictured in stained-glass windows or described in devotional books appear somber and lifeless. Such otherworldly portrayals can make holy men and women look more like angels than full-blooded figures who laughed, cried, had bad breath, or experienced mood swings. These two-dimensional holy men and women seem so completely absorbed in Heavenly bliss that their feet barely touch the Earth.
Not so with Saint Francis of Assisi (who was born in either 1181 or 1182 and died in 1226), whose infectious, passionate, no-holds-barred love for God ignited a small band of followers that grew into a fellowship of thousands by the time of his death. Today, more than a million people around the globe follow Francis, the world’s most beloved saint.
Although some saints are enshrined in stained glass and others look down at us from imposing statues or paintings, Francis is most frequently memorialized in bird feeders that show him caring for God’s feathered creatures.
Francis is also remembered for a brief sermon he gave, but unlike some of history’s most renowned speeches, Francis’s sermon wasn’t even intended for a human audience, the way, for example, Winston Churchill’s rousing World War II speeches, John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, or the famous “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., were. Francis had other listeners in mind.
He delivered his most famous sermon on a crisp spring day when he and a few of his brothers were traveling through the beautiful Spoleto valley near the town of Bevagna. According to a brother who recorded what happened, Francis looked up and saw the trees full of doves, crows, and daws. Francis “left his companions in the road and ran eagerly toward the birds” and “humbly begged them to listen to the word of God.” His sermon petitions his winged friends to acknowledge their Maker:
My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.
Later, Thomas of Celano would write that the birds stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them, touching and blessing them. Francis was so pleased with the birds’ response that he resolved to preach more sermons on this type. “He began to blame himself for negligence in not having preached to the birds before,” writes Thomas, and “from that day on, he solicitously admonished all birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator.”
Francis loved God so completely that he wanted all of creation to join him in his celebration. That’s why he once spoke to a brightly colored field of flowers: “He preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as if they were endowed with reason,” wrote a biographer.
Francis wasn’t indulging in some kind of quaint, primitive anthropomorphism. Rather, this simple man who would later be named the patron saint of the environmental movement was merely urging each and every created thing to experience the joy of its Creator and express this joy in its own unique say:
In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly.
A Life Lived for God
Like many of the most celebrated mystics, Francis lived at a time when great social and spiritual upheaval forced people to cast themselves on the mercies of God. In Italian towns like Assisi, merchants like Francis’s father were being linked to other businesses around the world in a network of trade and commerce that created unimagined wealth and unprecedented disparities between rich and poor.
At the same time, the church of Francis’s day was a big, wealthy, bureaucratically entrenched and politically powerful institution whose leaders often seemed more like grasping, self-centered potentates than selfless servants of God and humanity.
Before his dramatic change of life, Francis had enjoyed a life of ease and luxury. One biographer described him as “vain and proud” and a “master of revels” who “squandered and wasted his time miserably.” When he volunteered to fight in one of the frequent wars between Italian towns, he was captured before he fired his first shot and was put in prison, where he was held for a year until his father paid a hefty ransom. After his release, Francis made one more effort to fight in battle, but his plans were interrupted by the first in a series of supernatural visions. He returned home confused and disoriented. He thought God might be trying to tell him something, and he visited a small, run-down chapel located outside Assisi. While praying there, Francis heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him from a crucifix: “Francis, go, repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.”
He didn’t stop to question the words, and he didn’t calculate what it might cost him to obey them. Instead he turned away form his comfortable life and threw himself into renovating the chapel. When conflicts with his father escalated, the man disowned Francis. “Until now I called you my father,” said Francis. “But from now on I can say without reserve, ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.'”
Francis was particularly sensitive to Jesus’s words about the temptations of wealth and the need for compassionate service to the weak and the needy. He gave away everything he owned and adopted a lifestyle of poverty, simplicity, and service.
His parents and the other residents of Assisi were aghast at his radical faith. Why had this merchant’s son traded his fashionable clothes for the rags of a beggar man? What was this former playboy doing hanging out with those lepers? Had he lost his mind? Had he suffered brain damage in the war?
Perhaps we would have thought Francis mad, too, but looking back on it all now, it seems God may have reached out to Francis at a time when the church was becoming cold and dead. Francis embraced the divine summons, and he responded by lighting a bonfire of burning love for God that still warms us today across these many centuries.
Seeing the Creator in All Creation
God is the biggest mystery in this whole perplexing world of ours. As a result, some people only grasp bits and pieces of God’s character, while others misunderstand him altogether.
In the 1950s, Anglican writer J. B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God Is Too Small that described some of the most common false impressions. Phillips said many adults cling to “the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age.” Some picture a “resident policeman” who punishes them with guilt and unhappiness. Others imagine a “parental hangover” who is little more than a warmed-over image of their mothers or fathers. Still others see God as a Grand Old Man in the sky who feels much more comfortable with chariots and togas than he does automobiles and slacks.
Phillips was right. Our image of God plays a powerful role in our relationship with God. And if there’s one thing that’s clear about Francis’s theology, it’s that he had a very big view of a very big God. Francis’s theology shaped the way he saw the world, and the way he saw the world shaped his concept of the Creator.
It was Saint Bonaventure – one of the most important early Franciscan leaders – who best described this important aspect of Francis’s faith:
In beautiful things Saint Francis saw Beauty itself, and through his vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace him who is utterly desirable.
Bonaventure explored the key concepts of Franciscan spirituality in his classic book, The Journey of the Mind of God. “The created world is itself a ladder leading us to God,” he wrote. Bonaventure said people could find traces of God by looking “outside” to creation and “inside” our own souls. This leads us to look “up” to find God in himself.
As Bonaventure saw it, creation was the bottom rung of a ladder that can lead us to God. “Whoever is not enlightened by such brilliance of things created must be blind,” he wrote. “Whoever is not awakened by their mighty voice must be deaf. Whoever fails to praise God for all his works must be dumb. Whoever fails to discover the First Principle through all these signs must be a fool.”
So we can see that Francis was more than a simple nature lover or a tree-hugger. He was a man who allowed God to touch his heart through the beauty of the created world.
Centuries after the saint’s death, his hometown of Assisi still honors his affection for winged creatures. There, as in other towns, church bells ring three times a day to announce the Angelus – an ancient Christian prayer that honors the incarnation of Jesus. In Assisi, the reciting of this prayer is accompanied by the feeding of Francis’s beloved birds.
And it’s not just Assisi that honors Francis’s deep love for creation. Every year on the Sunday nearest his October 4th feast day, thousands of Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Protestant churches around the world host services in which animals are blessed. Some believers within those traditions still can’t get over the sight of people bringing their dogs, cats, and parrots to church, but these services are a wonderful way to celebrate both Francis’s and God’s compassionate concern for all creatures.
Different people have different means they use to bring God to mind so they can focus on him as they pray and meditate. For example, Eastern Orthodox churches are adorned with icons of saints that serve as windows to God for worshipers. For Francis, all of creation was one gigantic icon that revealed the love, mercy, power, and majesty of his Heavenly Father. Through these works of the Creator, Francis’s love for God grew deeper.