“Be Praised by all Your Creatures”: A Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis

On St. Francis Day (October 4), CRE Director Andrew Thompson preached this sermon in the Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee.

When I was a kid, my grandfather –
we called him Poppop –
Poppop had this pink shirt,
a light pink pocket tee,
and this shirt had a back story.
“I won this shirt in a bet,”
Poppop would tell us.
And when we asked how,
he’d demonstrate:
(and in my memory this happened on more than one occasion)
“I bet I can get you to say pink,”
he’d say.
No way.
He’d ask,
What color is this cup?
Yellow, we’d say.
He’d go on:
What color is the table? My hat?
Brown, red.
What color is that chair?
Aha! He’d say.
I told you I could get you to say blue!
And, on cue, we would of course say,
No, you said you could get us to say pink!
This, supposedly, was how he acquired his pink pocket tee.

As I got older,
when I recalled this story,
it came to seem less plausible.
I had some questions.
Had Poppop had his eye on this shirt?
And devised an elaborate plan to secure it?
Or was this a spur of the moment inspiration?
Did he send the other guy – and who was this other guy?
Did he send the other guy home shirtless?
Or did he give him his shirt?
And, if so, how bad was Poppop’s original shirt,
that he, with his new, used pink pocket tee, was considered the winner in this deal?

I never had a chance to ask him my questions.
But it didn’t matter.
Because what was wonderful about the story wasn’t that it was true;
it was that Poppop was the type of person who could tell a story like this;
that he was the type of person about whom a story like this could be told;
and the type of person about whom it could be believed.

St. Francis of Assisi is undoubtedly
one of the best-known saints in Christianity.
In fact, if you don’t count the Party City versions
of Saints Valentine, Patrick, and Nicholas
he’s probably the most famous post-apostolic Christian saint.
But Francis does not totally escape the fate
of these Party City slickers –
he of the garden statues
and blessed hamsters.
The most beloved stories about Francis,
especially the ones that inspire his reputation
as the patron saint of animals and the environment,
are those that,
like the story of the pink pocket tee,
stand right on the edge of plausibility.
The collection of stories known as “The Little Flowers of St. Francis”
which emerged after Francis’s death in 1226,
recounts how he preached to a huge flock of birds
not one of whom flew away;
and how he negotiated a truce
with a ferocious wolf
that had been terrorizing the city of Gubbio.

The important question about these stories
is not, I think,
whether they did or could have actually happened,
but rather:
what made Francis the type of person
about whom these stories could be told;
about whom they would be believed?
That he had personal charisma is obvious
from the more well-documented parts of his biography,
such as founding multiple religious orders
and being received by the sultan of Egypt.
But the most important evidence we have of Francis’s
deep connection to the more-than-human world
is something very real,
something completely human,
but no less miraculous for that.

Francis composed his famous
“Canticle of the Sun”
while staying at San Damiano
with Clare of Assisi.
While suffering a painful eye disease
that left him essentially blind
and mentally distraught,
Francis had a consoling mystical experience.
He immediately composed most of the verses of the canticle,
which is beautifully paraphrased in our offertory hymn today.
What is so striking and still so powerful about the canticle,
and captured in the hymn,
is the agency and value he ascribes to the more-than-human world,
value that has nothing to do with human beings.
After conceding that humans are unworthy to speak God’s name,
he instead places praises on the lips of the other creatures,
all embraced as our kin,
our siblings and parents –
Sir Brother Sun,
Sister Moon and the Stars,
Brother Wind and Sister Water.
Each has a proper name
and their own characteristics,
which include what they do for humans –
Brother Wind gives nourishment and Sister Water is useful –
but also their own innate traits that have nothing to do with us –
Sister Moon is clear and precious and beautiful;
Brother Fire is merry and vigorous and strong.
And they have their own agency:
it is they who are doing the praising.
“Laudato si,” exhorts Francis:
“Be Praised, my Lord, by” our Brother Sun and our Sister Mother Earth.

This creates an interesting parallel
between the praises of the long succession of creatures invoked in the song
and the song itself, Francis’s praise.
Our sibling Water praises God by being useful and humble and pure;
our siblings Air and Cloud by giving nourishment to all creatures.
Francis, the human being,
praises God with his skillfulness,
adding his exquisitely crafted lines
to the songs of his more-than-human siblings.
This is the miracle –
no less miraculous for the fact that it happens every day:
the miracle of the Sun’s splendor,
of the nourishment of the Wind,
of the diverse bounty of Sister Mother Earth,
and the miracle of human artifice
that weaves its song with theirs.

Charles Foster, a lawyer, philosopher, and nature writer at Oxford,
worries about the limits of words to describe the world.
Our language, he thinks,
attempts to represent the glorious wildness of the world,
but it is a wildness that refuses to be contained in our narrow linguistic categories like cages.
And so,
he says,
“we give up the impossible job
of trying to keep the real live wild inside our linguistic zoo,
and instead exhibit pictures of the wild
that we have painted ourselves,
pictures that,
like most human pictures,
are really of ourselves.”
As a nature writer, he thinks that maybe –
just maybe –
we can acknowledge that we are inescapably linguistic creatures –
“that language is part of the web and weave of human perception and understanding” –
and can find ways to retrieve it in spite of its inescapable limitations.
But he’s not optimistic.
He says that about 49 percent of the time
he believes nature writing is a worthy endeavor –
the rest of the time, he feels like a fraud.
“On balance,”
Foster concludes,
“I’m against nature writing.”

I share Foster’s worry.
This summer,
I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica
to meet some kin –
principally a 400 year old kapok tree
named Arbol de la Paz –
the tree of peace.
Kapoks are the stereotypical rainforest tree:
Great, wide trunks
with massive buttress roots reaching out nearly as far as the tree is tall;
limbs the size of trees themselves
reaching out and up toward heaven,
bearing essentially a small forest of epiphytes,
plants that spend their whole lives rooted
in the limbs and crevices of larger trees.
It’s no wonder the ancient tribes of Central America
considered the kapok the axis mundi, the world tree
with heaven in its branches,
the underworld in its roots,
and earth in its trunk and limbs.
I visited the kapok as part of a book project.
But each time I think about putting into words
the epic bulk of the trunk,
the ponderous mass of the aerial forest in its branches –
that day and now,
I’m struck by the feebleness of our words.
I feel,
as Foster says,
like “I can’t see the wood for the words.”

And if our words fall so far short of the reality of creatures,
how much more threadbare do they seem in the face of the creator?
At the beginning of the speech out of the whirlwind,
of which today’s reading is a part,
in what itself has to be
one of the greatest turns of phrase in the whole Bible.
God demands,
“Who is it that darkens counsel
by words without knowledge?”
Throughout the discourse,
God proceeds to remind Job –
and us –
of the staggering immensity of creation,
from the foundations of the earth
to the sea bursting from its womb;
the fierce strength of the horse
and the soaring flight of the hawk.
“Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.”
Who do we think we are,
that we would presume to capture even the most meager of God’s creatures
in our linguistic cages?
No human, answers Francis,
is worthy to mention God.

Yet Francis sees a possibility that Foster misses.
We, too, are part of God’s creation,
siblings of the wind and the fire,
kin with the earth and the water.
We can use our words, our skill,
not to cage them,
but to join them.
Just as the kapok reaches toward heaven with its limbs,
so do we reach with our words.
And not only our words,
but our music, our art, our craft, our bodies, all our human skill.
This is the miracle of Francis’s canticle:
he joins our human praises
with the voices of all our kin,
serene Brother Wind
and precious Sister Moon.
With all of his human artistry,
he weaves together the breadth of our human condition,
our frailty and our patience,
our ability to pardon and endure,
even our mortality,
together with the beauty of creation,
the playful light of Brother Fire in the night
and the fruits and flowers and herbs of Sister Mother Earth.
From the depths of his grief and consolation,
Francis joins his “Laudato Si”
with the songs of our siblings the Sun, the Moon,
Wind and Cloud,
Fruit and Flower.
And we,
in our words and melodies and movements and crafts,
with all the human skill we can muster,
add our own voice to the song:
“Be Praised, My Lord, with all Thy Creatures”

Published by Andrew Thompson

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