One day I was visiting with a friend who is terrified of spiders when she noticed a huntsman spider and was about to flatten it when I screamed ‘don’t kill it! I’ll take it outside’…and Di is not au fait really with saints of the church but she groaned ‘ok, ok, St Francis of Assisi!...’ It is not by coincidence that World Animal Day is Oct 4th – the feast day of St Francis of Assisi.
The blessing of the animals is associated with St Francis’ day because of Francis’ great love and friendship, respect and honour for all life. Br Francis came from a wealthy, educated family but turned his back on wealth and power to live in poverty in imitation of Christ. He is the patron saint of animals and ecology because he lived in the forests and mountains around Assisi and built a special, God anointed relationship with the animals and birds. For Br Francis, the Kingdom of God was not just living in harmony with one another but living in a relationship with all creation – human and animal – that saw them all as family. To Francis they were all his brothers and sisters; Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother dog and Sister cat, Brother horse and Sister Bird..
Some of the most famous stories about St Francis are of his relationship with the animals. His brothers recorded that one day they were passing a flock of birds noisily singing and chatting away when Francis stopped to preach to them saying; ‘Sister birds, you must always give thanks to God for all that He has given you – your food and water and also that you are free and able to fly about everywhere…’ They stopped chattering to listen to him and then began singing again when he had finished!
One of the most famous stories is of the Wolf of Gubbio. The village of Gubbio was being terrorised by a wolf who was attacking livestock and villagers for food. Francis set out to confront the wolf followed by amazed and terrified villagers who witnessed what happened. Francis chastised the wolf for taking the lives of both fellow animals and humans and said; ‘ I promise you that you shall be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as you live among them; you will not suffer from hunger any more as I know it is hunger that has made you do this evil; but you must promise, on your part, never again to attack any animal or any human being; do you make this promise?" In agreement, the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis' outstretched hand, and the oath was made… from that day the wolf lived among the people of Gubbio and was fed by them from their doors… whatever are the details of what actually did happen, Francis identified that the wolf was doing what wolves do when hungry and by caring for the wolf he solved the problem for the humans as well.
Francis told us: ‘Animals have the same source as human beings. Like us, they derive the life of thought, will and love from the Creator. Not to hurt our humble animal brothers and sisters is our first duty to them; but to stop short there is a complete misapprehension of the intentions of the Creator. We have a higher mission. God wishes us to help them whenever they require it.’
In caring for the whole environment he was way ahead of his time..
..but Br Francis was radical in many ways and in this imitated Jesus whom he sought to follow literally by living in simplicity, poverty, love and gentleness of heart:
As the band of Franciscan brothers grew, some of them would get very irritated with Francis because it seemed he would accept anybody in to the group – he accepted people who they felt weren’t suitable because they were uneducated or physically or mentally challenged in some way but Francis saw all people as important, beloved of God and welcomed in to the Kingdom of Love. He imitated our Master Jesus in this way, who reached out to, and defended constantly, all who were considered in his society to be on the ‘outside’ – politically, ethnically or morally… including women. Jesus had many women friends and disciples and was radical in the social and religious culture of his time in the way he treated women…
Brother Francis also broke all cultural convention by welcoming the very young woman Clare into his community of poor brothers. Clare wanted to live and preach the gospel of love in poverty like Francis. Of course the Church of the time wouldn’t allow her to wander the roads preaching the gospel as Francis and his brothers were doing and locked her in a convent (!) but the love they shared for God and for all creation bonded Francis and Clare together in a unique friendship of mutual love and respect that lasted until Francis died.
Francis was also way ahead of his time when, after accompanying one of the Crusader armies by boat from Italy to Egypt and being appalled by their behaviour, took one of his brothers and innocently walked from the camp of the Crusaders to the camp of the Sultan Malik al-Kamil of the Muslim army. The Sultan was amazed that his guards hadn’t beheaded them on the way but he was impressed by the gentleness and humility of these two barefoot men in rags who said they just wanted to tell him about the love of God in Jesus… it must have seemed rather ironic to the Sultan at the time considering the Crusader army was camped just over the way! They talked for hours and discussed their faith in God together. Sultan Malik declared that he would give the care of all the Christian sites in the Holy Land into the care of Francis and his brothers and 800 years later you will still see Franciscan friars as custodians in many of the Christian holy sites in Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, (said Jesus) because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children…”
Brother Francis loved Christ passionately, and treated all people, all life and even the smallest animal or bird with respect, love and honour. A poor man in rags but filled with love and joy, Francis showed us what following Christ means and what God’s Kingdom of Love is really about…