ST FRANCIS AND HIS CANTICLE
St Francis made his life into a song. His song is the Canticle of the Creatures, that he himself called a new Praise of the Lord, and, The Canticle of Brother Sun (Cf. The Assisi Compilation, 83).
The popular hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King”, is described as an English version of St Francis’s Canticle. Like the Canticle of the Three Young Men, in the Book of Daniel (Chapter 3), it addresses the creatures, inviting them to praise God. .
In his original canticle, St Francis doesn’t address the creatures. He addresses God directly, God as “Signore”, “Lord”. In those feudal days, “Lord” meant, “the one who owns me.” He pours out a torrent of praise to God by means of the creatures, through the creatures.
The qualities that St Francis attributes to the creatures are the qualities that he recognizes and praises in their Creator. God is: “beautiful and radiant, with great splendour”, “clear and precious”, “useful, humble, and chaste”, “playful and robust and strong”. God “produces various fruits”, and “gives sustenance” (Cf. FA:ED I, 113).
St Francis began the canticle in the summer of 1225. He was deeply into suffering, after receiving, in the previous year, the wounds of the Crucified Christ in his own frail body.
The joy he experienced in that unheard-of privilege was tempered by his awareness that people misuse the creature world and ignore their Creator, the one who owns them. He was so moved by people’s misuse of the creature world and their ignoring the Creator that he felt the need to compose his canticle.
“For his praise, then”, St Francis explained to the friars, “I want to compose a new hymn about the Lord’s creatures. We make daily use of them. We cannot live without them. But the human race greatly offends its Creator through them. And we go on being ungrateful for so great a grace and benefit. We don’t praise the Lord, Creator and Giver of all good things, as we ought” (Cf. loc. cit.).
He expresses this concern in the first stanza of his canticle: God and God alone deserves praise, and he deserves it from everything that he has created.
He told his friars to go out and sing his canticle to the people. He said to them: “What else are the servants of God but his minstrels? Our job is to lift up people’s hearts and move them to spiritual gladness” (Cf. loc. cit.).
The major part of the canticle, praising God for day and night, and for the four elements, air, water, fire and earth, was composed, say some historians, in the garden of the Poor Clares’ convent at San Damiano, in Assisi. Others say he was more likely staying at San Fabiano. He lay there, in a makeshift shelter, sick and in intense pain, for six weeks.
A year later, only a few months before his death, a feud broke out in Assisi between the bishop and the mayor. St Francis felt ashamed that nobody was intervening for peace between them. He added to his canticle the stanza on peace and pardon. Then he sent some friars to get the mayor and the bishop together. “Off you go”, he said to them, “and sing the canticle of Brother Sun in the presence of the bishop and the mayor, and the rest of their company. I trust to the Lord that he will soon humble their hearts, and they will go back to their former love and friendship” (Cf. The Assisi Compilation, 84). And so it turned out.
The last stanza, on Sister Death (Brother Death in some languages), was added when he was told that he would die quite soon. He asked two friars who were his closest friends to sing the canticle, and he added the final stanza while he was experiencing death.
St Francis gave us a song that captures his own experience of living and dying. He sang it only after he had lived it. We can read it quietly as a poem; we can pray it as a prayer; or we can experience it as a way of life. Reading the poem takes only a few minutes. Its use as a prayer fills an hour easily. To experience it may take us a week or a month, but it needs a lifetime. St Francis lived his life into this song. We can live his song into our lives.
Over eight hundred years have passed since St Francis was born. We have still to learn from life’s experience that the earth deserves much more respect than we are giving it. I believe that the nine hundredth anniversary of the birth of St Francis will be a worldwide celebration, more so than was his eighth centenary. St Francis’s way of life and his canticle may well become the lifestyle of the Twenty-first Century.