St. Francis, the Birds and the Beasts

Filled with awe, he asked [the birds] if they would stay awhile and listen to the Word of God. He said to them: “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him…It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”

The one thing the man on the street knows about St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrate on October 4, is that he loved God’s little critters.  The stories are familiar and endearing: Francis preaching to the birds, taming the wolf, throwing fish back into the sea with a warning not to get caught again.  Of course, there is much more to St. Francis than his affection for animals; he was, for example, something of a Crusader as well as a zealous protector of the sanctity of the Eucharist.  Yet in some ways animals are an excellent starting point to understanding this great saint.  Francis’ love of creation, including the animal kingdom, was one phase of his unique mysticism.  He understood that animals teach us about God and our place in the universe.

Firstly animals are simple, dependent creatures, fulfilling their God-given purpose without qualm or complaint.  Domestic animals mirror us: they are dependent upon our care, just as we are dependent upon God’s.  They connect us in a chain of being to God, for we extend God’s protection to them.  We are stewards and mediators.

Consider Jesus’ animal parables.  The image of the Good Shepherd, repeated in countless guises in the Gospels, and the parable of God’s regard for the sparrows and for mankind (“You are of more value than many sparrows,” Mt. 10:31) illustrate that God cares for all creation, with no detail escaping his attention.  Jesus himself is described in the Book of Revelation as the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God who was sacrificed in expiation of our sins; these two widely divergent animal images describe different aspects of our Savior.

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Lambert de Hondt, “St. Francis with the Animals”

Secondly, animals show forth the beauty of creation.  The majestic bird, the tiger, the butterfly are masterpieces of the Divine Artisan, mirroring the complexity of God in their diverse characters, contributing to the rich pageant of creation. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1) — and so are the beasts of the field.

In his brilliant book about St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton depicts him as a sort of romantic artist and poet — someone who reawakened mankind to the beauty of creation after centuries of (necessary) self-denial.  After the pagan era, in which nature was worshipped, man needed to purge himself of all attachment to the sensible things of this world.  Thus purged, man was, by St. Francis’ time, in a position to appreciate nature again — including the animals, for whom Francis had a special affection.

Thirdly, animals “put us in our place.” Morally speaking, they are simply us minus reason and will.  As such, they remind us that these faculties are not our inherent property; they are divine gifts.  Lest we forget, we humans descend from primates and have canine teeth.  While we may be a “little less than the angels,” we also have the tendency to go to the dogs.

Indeed, animals can function as a reminderst_francis_meets_the_wolf@2x-640x300 of the power of evil.  The animal kingdom, after all, thrives on violence and prey.  And so, in the Psalms, David enlists the darker side of animal nature to express his dire situation: “Deliver my soul from the sword,” he prays in Psalm 22, “my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!” Although not guilty of sin themselves, animals remind us of our own capacity for sin.

The animal legends of St. Francis (recounted in the Fioretti di San Francesco) illustrate both the light and dark side of the animal kingdom.  The birds are utterly innocent; their only transgression is interrupting Francis’ sermon with their song, for which Francis gently rebukes them.  The wolf of Gubbio, on the other hand, is a figure of menace: having consumed all the livestock of the citizens of Gubbio, it lies in wait for the humans.  St. Francis fearlessly goes out to meet the wolf, saluting him with the sign of the cross.  The wolf immediately becomes docile and places his paw in Francis’ hand for a pact.  Francis proceeds to lead “Brother Wolf” like a pet to the marketplace and there, to the amazement of the townsfolk, delivers an impromptu sermon drawing a moral lesson from what just occurred.  The wolf in this tale is almost a stand-in for a penitent sinner.

Since they live much shorter lives than we do, animals remind us of our mortality.  Many Christians believe that animals will be included in some way in the plan of salvation, taking a cue from St. Paul: “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).  Nonetheless, no official Church teaching exists on the afterlife of pets.

catAnimals, whether domestic or barnyard or wild, are a source of great pleasure and consolation to man.  They are given to us for our use, friendship, and care; they are also potent symbols, visual parables that remind us who we are and what we must aspire to be. In my own case, it is a love for cats—to me the most aesthetically beautiful of creatures—which has enriched my life.

In their simplicity and tranquility animals inspire us to be simple before God; their dependency reminds us of our own need for the love of God; and their beauty invites contemplation of the beauty of the Creator.  Yet they pale before the glory of man and woman, created in God’s image and redeemed by Christ.

It’s a longstanding tradition to bring pets to be blessed on St. Francis’ Day, as a reminder that all things are of God and are to be returned to him.  Here is a traditional prayer for this purpose:

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

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