Saint Francis set us straight about the democracy of all God’s creatures, but he still enjoyed a pig’s foot stew and never thought of becoming a vegetarian….
In October, 1224, Saint Francis of Assisi descended from Mount La Verna, where he had miraculously received the stigmata, and on to the hermitage of the Portiuncula. He rested only briefly. During the following winter and spring, despite his pains, he undertook donkey-borne tours of Umbria, stopping sometimes to preach in three or four villages in a single day. He would not heed the adjurations of his companions to consult a doctor-probably a good thing.
In the summer of 1225 he paid a visit to his friend Chiara, the founder of an order of nuns called the Poor Clares, in her cloister at San Damiano. While there he was attacked by an acute eye trouble, so severe that he could hardly be moved. A cell of reed mats was constructed for him against, or more likely within, the little house accommodating the chaplain and two lay workers, questing brothers, who did the outdoor work and collected alms and groceries for the sisters.
We are sometimes told by modern writers that Francis was tenderly nursed by Chiara. But there is something peculiar about this. San Damiano had been put under a strict papal enclosure by Honorius III in 1218, and the two saints could properly have communicated only through a grilled window. This Pyramus-and-Thisbe situation was a torturing one for both; but maybe Francis in his weakness, and Chiara in her resolve, defied the pope.
To add to Francis’s sufferings, his cell was ridden with field mice. These would run over his body and filch the food from under his groping fingers. He took the mice to be the devil’s minions; he never uttered any praise of mice or claimed any brotherhood with them. He prayed to be delivered from the creatures, and received from Heaven the answer that he should cease complaining, that the greatest of treasures was reserved for him, the treasure of salvation in eternal life.
And now, stricken as he was, he revealed a new Francis, the poet. As a youth, he had, of course, composed minstrel songs and “vers d”occasion,” light verse for light moments. Now he attempted a serious poem expressing his love for the beautiful world and its inhabitants, his praise for all the loveliness fading before his stricken eyes, and in doing so he initiated the great course of Italian poetic literature. Before him Italy could show a vernacular poetic school only in half-foreign Sicily. He was the forerunner of Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi, and Montale.
His poem is the “Cantico di Frate Sole” , also known in English as the Song of the Creatures:
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
praises, the glory, and the honour, and all blessing,
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no human is worthy to mention Your name.
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 splendour;
and bears a likeness to 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 whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who 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 fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.
The “Song of the Creatures” has been called a nature poem animated by a pantheistic spirit. It is that indeed, but Francis would have protested that he was no pantheist. He would have called himself a humble celebrant of God’s bounty in providing man with beauty and wonder; his poem was a religious poem. The world was not God though it was godlike, a manifestation of god, responding gratefully to his creator.
Tommaso da Celano was in the right of it; he wrote: “In every work, Saint Francis admired the Workman; he credited the Creator with all the qualities he discovered in every creature. He rejoiced in all the works emerging from the hand of god; and, taking his start from this joyous spectacle, he found his way to Him who is the cause, principle, and life of the universe. In contemplating a beautiful object, he could contemplate the perfect beauty.” This Francis, though unlearned, had his own coherent aesthetic theory.”