Why St. Francis thought animals were better listeners
St. Francis Day
I’m not sure what was done here previously with St. Francis Day. I know you have had the blessing of the animals at the 10:30 service in honor of St. Francis but I am pretty sure the 8am service just moved on as it always does. That’s one of the things I love about the 8’ oclockers….you are incredibly consistent. But it seems that even at the 10:30 service, there is not very much said about the life and teachings of St. Francis. This was true at my previous church as well. Churches put most of the emphasis on the animal portion and then make the connection that Francis of Assisi really loved animals. However, when you read about the life of St. Francis, you will find that his love of animals is one of the least interesting things about him and definitely not the most important.
Francis lived in the 12th century in Italy. He was the son of a wealthy merchant and was in want of nothing. In his early 20’s he had a number of experiences that altered his view of the world. He was taken as prisoner of war for a year, he suffered a long illness, and then fought in a war. This was all within a three year period. When he returned from the war, he found that he had lost the taste for the finer things in life. Fortune was no longer the goal. He found the things that he once took pleasure in were no longer appealing to him.
A vision drove him to Rome where he met beggars outside of St. Peter’s. He was moved to exchange his clothes for theirs and spend the day begging. When he returned to his home in Assisi he was a different man, living much more simply and devoting his life to repairing churches. He also decided that he needed to serve the sick, which meant he had to overcome his fear of leprosy. He did that by embracing a leper. After that he was free to help the lepers and even live among them. Four years after his experience in Rome, he had another vision where God instructed him to give up everything. In that very moment, he took off his shoes and gave away his staff. He replaced his clothing with a long robe.
From that point on he dedicated his life to the poor and the marginalized. He lived among the poor and formed a community of disciples who lived by a rule of poverty. He was known for a love of nature, which included animals. He did not write very much, but we have one hymn that is attributed to him. In his Canticle to Brother Sun, he writes: “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun…” He went on to mention the moon, wind, water, fire, and earth. He called on all of those things to praise the Lord through their very existence. He believed that the same was true of animals—that their existence proved the glory of God. There are many stories of him preaching to the animals and joking that perhaps they listened better than people.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” I have always struggled with that comment. I want to be a wise and intelligent person. That’s why I spent four years in seminary, so I could learn all these important things about God. But does that mean that God is going to hide things from me? It seems a little counterproductive. The Bible is full of affirming statements about the gift of wisdom. In general wisdom is considered a good thing. Why would Jesus want to hide things from the wise and intelligent?
Well it’s not that he deliberately hid things; it’s that the wise were not able to see certain truths that Jesus and the prophets before him proclaimed. People who were preoccupied with their own wisdom, who suffered from intellectual pride were not able to see God revealed in Jesus. They heard the parables, but they could not accept this kind of wisdom. I’ve definitely experienced this kind of blindness. Often times I will spend so much time trying to figure out the new and interesting twist that I can take in a sermon that I ignore the obvious and the simple truth of the text. I think, well that sermon has been preached 100 times. I can’t be trite! My pride can occasionally block the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Often the sermon should be about love or forgiveness. Sure, that’s been done, but if that is what the text is saying, that is what the sermon should be about.
Francis had the status and the money. He could have been educated in the finest schools. He could have preached to the powerful and the privileged. He didn’t. He gave it all up so he could preach to the people who no one else bothered to talk to. He preached to the birds and said they listened better. They listened better because they did not have that pride that kept them from hearing certain things. Perhaps that was true of some of the people who he preached to as well. Since they were so used to being ignored, treated as if they did not exist, they were hungry for words. They were open to things that other people had already closed their minds to.
I bet a lot of the learned and wise people ignored him because he seemed a little foolish and possibly too simple. Yet today, he is one of the most well known saints. There is still a group in the Roman Catholic Church called the Franciscans who live by his example. The current pope took his name. I read that St. Francis is one of the most popular and admired saints, but probably the least imitated. What they meant by that is while people love his simplicity very few people are willing to live the way he did.
Yet I am not sure that is completely true. I think what we admire is not just his simplicity or austerity but the authenticity with which he lived his life. He refused to conform to what other people expected of him. He was true to God’s call to him. Most of us will never live a life like Francis, but that does not mean that we cannot live a life that is true to God’s call for us. We can let go of our pride, intellectual or otherwise. We can forget other people’s expectations and focus on who God is calling us to be…who God wants us to be. That is something that each and every one of us can emulate. We can all be like St. Francis in that way. And if some of you would like to take it a step further and preach to animals, I say go for it!