A mystery at the heart of St. Francis


Oct 03, 2017

By Catherine Sider Hamilton

"Praised be my Lord

by means of all Your creatures

and most especially by Sir Brother Sun…

For he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor

And is a symbol of You, God Most High." - Francis of Assisi 


Francis is the “God-intoxicated” saint, wholly caught up in the beauty of God. It is not only that Francis is the friend of all God’s creatures. It is that he is wholly given over to God. It is God’s grace he sees in all things—in the sun’s gift of light; in the clarity of moon; in sister earth who feeds us—and at the abundance of this grace he is overwhelmed with joy. All of life, all things and all creatures, are God’s own creation and so all of life is, for Francis, a song of praise.

There is, however, a mystery in this grace of God.

Familiar to many is Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun. What is not commonly known is that he wrote this song in the midst of great suffering. Indeed, Francis was dying when he wrote it. It ends with the song of sister death.

"Praised be my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,

From whom no living person can escape….

Praise and bless my Lord, and thank him."

That God may be praised even through death, that dying may be the occasion for this saint’s greatest song of praise: here is a mystery, a mystery at the heart of who St. Francis is.

It was not always this way. As a young man, Francis was the life of every party; he adored handsome clothes and good horses; he spent his parents’ money freely. He was charming. And he could not abide anything ugly or squalid or sick. He had a special abhorrence of the local lepers.

Then a series of “divine visitations.” First, a dream as he set out once again for battle. “Why do you leave the Lord for the servant?” a voice asked him in the night. “Go home and I will tell you what to do.” So, he went home, the day after he had left, his new armour still gleaming. Then, in the middle of yet another party (the Lord not yet having told him what to do), he suddenly stood stock-still. When his companions discovered him later, still immobile, he said, “I am in love with a bride nobler, richer and fairer than you have ever seen.”

He began to give things away—money; clothes. In Rome when he saw the pittance many of the pilgrims were giving at St. Peter’s he threw his entire purse through the grate, and then had to beg for his food. He met a leper on the road near home, stopped, got off his horse, and kissed the leper’s hand.

Francis had the gift of taking God’s word seriously. If Christ told him from the cross to rebuild his church, he did it, stone by stone. If Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor—and poor in spirit” Francis gave away his clothes and money and begged for food. To the end of his life, he wore only sackcloth. Lady Poverty and the humility that is her inner counterpart became Francis’ highest ideal.

Francis went from fearing and abhorring lepers to living among them. He and his brothers had a constant ministry to lepers, bathing them and providing them with food and friendship. Praised be my Lord, through those who…suffer sickness and tribulation—for in them Christ's cross may be seen. Francis saw in the crucified Christ the great heart of God, the love that sees the world’s suffering, its wandering, its wrong, and does not turn away but walks with us, even and especially in our dying, and lifts us up. Praised be my Lord, finally, through our sister Bodily Death: because it is in dying that we are brought into our true life.

Francis saw in the crucified Christ the great heart of God, and he knew that in Christ--by the nail-marks in the hands of Jesus--even death may be a gift.

So the earth for Francis was lit in every moment with the glory of God, and at his dying he sang with all creatures God’s praise.