Preaching to the Birds
first posted on September 30, 2010
A few days from now, October 4, the feast day for St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated (unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year). Perhaps the most beloved of all saints, he was an inspiration to countless painters, composers, authors, not to mention men and women around the world who devote their lives to God today.
For Brother Sun, whose brightness makes the light by which we see.
For Sister Moon, whose beams were formed to shine so clear and bright.
For Brother Wind, whose clouds and breezes blow across the land.
For Sister Water, so precious, humble, lowly, chaste and pure.
For Brother Fire, whose flames and light illuminate the night.
For Sister Earth, for grass and plants and flowers and all our food.
The Canticle of Brother Sun is an almost child-like praise of God’s creation by St. Francis. Perhaps his words will lead you in your own exuberant appreciation of God’s handiwork.
Sometime I find myself talking to the apparently unlistening. That probably never happens to you. To be honest, sometimes they truly aren’t listening, but there are times when I’m happily surprised to find that my words were in fact heard. There is a charming legend in which St. Francis famously preached to the birds. Were they listening? While I’m no St. Francis, I have often felt myself in conversation with nearby birds whenever I’m practicing at home with the windows open. I don’t have proof of this, but it really does seem that they sing more loudly during the pauses.
The 19th century composer Franz Liszt, who was dissuaded by his father from becoming a priest early in his life, and who took minor holy orders late in his life, wrote a piece about St. Francis preaching to the birds. It obviously captures birdsong for a pianist’s figures and, I think, also captures the conversation between a gentle monk and his flock…of birds.
A lesson in love for the natural world is certainly one of Francis’s gifts to us, but his visit to Egypt in 1219, during one of the Crusades, may have even more to say to us today. Francis went to Egypt with intentions to convert the Sultan, and found himself instead indialogue with the Sultan. It would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and who are still recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as “custodians of the holy land.”
A lesson in listening might then be Francis’s greatest gift of all. Whether in conversation with birds or with those following other paths to God.