Dear Friends of St. Francis:
Peace be with you.
While it is a common practice in North America to mark Mothers’ Day on the second Sunday of the month, May is also dedicated to our Blessed Mother. The occasion presents us with a unique insight into the spirituality of St. Francis. After all, he did name his very first chapel near Assisi…the one he cared about most dearly and to which he was transported before his death… St. Mary of the Angels.
St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church, sometimes called the second founder of the Franciscan order, bore witness to the fact that St. Francis honored Mary with particular fervor when he wrote in Legenda Maior: “He loved with an unspeakable affection the Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, for as much as that she had made the Lord of glory our brother, and that through her we have obtained mercy.”
The Lord spoke to St. Francis from the Cross of San Damiano, sometime in January of 1206. Shortly after, he continually visited churches, and was particularly attentive to the Gospel readings at Mass. As he strove to put into practice those words, he would often recall what Mary said at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” He took her not only as Queen and Mother of our divine brother but also as Advocate from whom he would seek evangelical counsel. St. Bonaventure wrote: “In her, after Christ, he put his chief trust, making her his own patron and that of his brethren.”
This devotion of the Poverello bore fruit. St. Bonaventure wrote: “By the merits of the Mother of Mercy, he did himself conceive and give birth unto the spirit of Gospel truth,” recounting that he took up of the Apostolic life in 1208. He became Seraphic Father to the largest religious family in the church… by courageously saying yes to a call, as Mary had. To many more, he became living evidence of what it means to espouse the Gospel life.
To embrace the life of St. Francis is to meditate on the nature of motherhood and to follow most closely the ways of Mary as well as to the ways of Christ her son, to unite oneself most immediately to the mediation of Christ and our Holy Mother, in order to participate most intimately and intensely in the mission of the Redeemer.
May both Mother and Son obtain for us the true grace of faith, humility and devotion, that we may attain to that Kingdom where Her Son lives and reigns and is glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.
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May is also the month in which we become particularly aware of the natural world that surrounds us, so it is fitting for us to focus on the degree to which spirituality for St. Francis was contained in his reverence for all of God’s Creation. If there is anything that stands out in the popular conceptualization of Francis of Assisi, it is that he was a nature mystic. Why else would he show up in all of those bird baths? There is indeed something very real about his love of nature, which we soon discover when we start to read Francis’ writings or any of the numerous biographies written about him.
St. Francis has been called the patron of environmentalists. So profound was his reverence for creation that it was near the end of his life, despite the agony he suffered from divisions among his brethren, from excruciating headaches and near blindness, that he penned these words of praise and thanksgiving, known variously as The Canticle to Brother Sun or The Canticle of the Creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air,
cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather
through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon
for Your love and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.
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The Franciscan Office of Development offers this helpful insight into the creation-centred spirituality of St. Francis:
“St. Francis was led by his original and radically new way of living the body-spirit relation to set up a fraternal dialogue with all creatures in the universe, both living and nonliving. The Canticle, which sums up the Franciscan vision in poetic and minstrel-like fashion, testifies most beautifully and eloquently to this fact.
“This understanding of the universe led Francis as a “new Adam” to exult ecstatically before the spectacle of nature and to develop a profound love for the inanimate universe. Of course he was aware of the moral ambiguity inherent in earthly realities, including the human body, where Francis calls the body “enemy”.
“However, Francis recovered for Christian spirituality those wonderful pages of Genesis which depict the creation of the world as good and which had been thrust aside by some earlier spiritual movements. Since God, “the Good,” “all Good,” “the highest Good,” was the very centre of his spirit, he in turn lived always in love’s orbit. Thanks to the liberating effect of poverty, he was reminded unceasingly of the fundamental Gospel principle of salvation: “Live in the world, but do not be of the world!”
“Without underestimating the positive influence of several factors then at work in various parts of Europe (such as Gothic culture with its increased emphasis on realism) we must insist that this renewed awareness of the value of earthly realities is due in large part to the Franciscan vision. That vision has solid biblical and theological sources. Creatures are “brothers” and “sisters” for three fundamental reasons: (1) they share with us a common origin and therefore the same Father; (2) they share with us the gift of existence and the same destiny; and (3) all things are symbols and bearers of Christ, the firstborn brother of every creature. Even the humblest creatures bespoke to Francis the presence of Christ, and the whole physical world was to him a sort of gigantic natural monstrance of the incarnate Word of God. In Sun, Flower, Vine, Light, Lamb, Stone— in all creatures, Francis saw a Christian testimony to the presence of the Most High. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the harmony Francis enjoyed with all earthly realities was his submissiveness to them. Knowing that God can express his will through any of his works, the Little Poor Man scanned creation attentively, listened to its mysterious voices, and listened to the mute language of things, growing all the while in vital spiritual enthusiasm. This, surely, is the highest level of liberation that creatures ever enjoyed at the hands of a Christian mystic. Francis treated objects “as beings endowed with reason” and spoke to them “as if he were speaking to human beings”.
“Francis’s outlook is diametrically opposed to the idea of humanity’s absolute dominion over the physical world and to the thoughtless exploitation of creatures. For the Franciscan no creature can be reduced to the status of a mere object to be used and consumed by human beings. Confirmation of this is easily found in Franciscan art, such as the icon depicting the Poverello’s “sermon to the birds,” that striking fraternal communion of the Saint of Assisi with the world of animate and inanimate creatures.”
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May this be for you a month of great rejoicing. May each bird and blossom, each drop of rain and ray of sun, each simple stone and humble insect lead you to God in gratitude bursting forth as generosity. May the rebirth that surrounds you be a mirror of the new life that springs forth from humble hearts longing to draw ever-closer to our loving Creator.