Today is the day that the world celebrates the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Although credited with significant contributions to the reform of the Medieval Christian Church, his influence goes far beyond Medieval times and the tenets of Christianity. On this Sunday we will explore the relevance of Franciscan ideology in our contemporary world.
In honour of St. Francis' love of all creatures, we will incorporate into our service a blessing of animals. So bring your pets, one and all, to this special service!
Rev. Lori Kyle joined the UUCD family as our congregation's spiritual leader in October 2014. Lori is a native of Kansas City, Missouri and moved to Canada in 2009 with her family. She resides in eastern Toronto with her partner Margaret, her children Maddie and Nathan, and their yellow lab Sally.
The complete sermon can be read below:
If you were to go to the town of Assisi, you would probably go to the basilica of St. Francis, since this massive monument is the main attraction in this small Italian town. And if you went to the basilica and strolled around its grounds, you might see what I refer to as the ‘cricket statue’. It’s my favourite statue of the numerous ones there because it best captures what I love most about this rich boy-turned beggar-turned holy man.
The statue is a life size dark bronze depiction of Francis standing, holding in front of him on his finger a cricket, with his other hand stroking the insect’s wings as he gazes at it intently and gently.
A big part of Francis’ appeal to millions of people in these eight centuries since he lived was his love of all creation, and specifically his love of all creatures. Francis came to mind when I recently read Mechtild of Magdeburg‘s quote that “The truly wise person kneels at the feet of all creatures.”
Francis would have loved that because he recognized as holy all parts of creation, including what Mary Oliver would call “The Other Kingdoms.”
Consider the other kingdoms.
The creatures, for example,
with their thick fur (or paper thin wings),
their shy and wordless gaze
Their infallible sense of what their lives
are meant to be.
The world can grow rich and wild,
and you too,
can grow rich, and sweetly wild, as you
were born to be.
This poem underscores the spirit of Francis….he lived who he was born to be.
In actuality he was born materially rich, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. But he gave up those riches to become who he was born to be, and thus became richer still. And part of who he was born to be, his truest self, was to adore creatures, especially birds (which is why many images of him include feathered friends).
I find it quite ironic that just this past week, as I was beginning preparations for today’s service, we had a friend over for dinner. Being a big Alfred Hitchcock fan, he brought his DVD of the film “The Birds”. In this classic ‘horror’ film birds turn, for no apparent reason, on humans, attacking randomly, to the point of death in some cases.
What’s ironic is that in this story winged creatures are villianized…quite the opposite of how Francis experienced them. Francis understood what poet Coleman Barks noted, that “Nearly all mystical traditions love birds and their singing because birds represent for us our longings for purity and freedom and they carry messages of ineffable joy.”
I think that one of the reasons that Francis was drawn to birds is not only that, like many creatures of nature they are wholly reliant on nature for their sustenance, but also their symbolism of freedom, and also because of the lessons they offer.
For instance, Rumi made this observation:
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and in falling,
They’re given wings.
Francis figured out this piece to the puzzle of life that Rumi speaks to, and he figured it out two-fold. In fact, his life epitomized this wisdom that, in falling, we are given wings. He came to know that, in allowing ourselves to fall from the pursuit of gain, of excess, of notoriety, we gain wings of freedom. He allowed himself to fall…not only from being THE party guy in town, a rich merchant’s playboy son, but from basic material security, as well as from being regarded as a ‘normal’ person in society.
He allowed himself to become small and insignificant in the eyes of the world, to become a beggar, to give away all that he had to those who had even less. And in return for choosing the fall, he gained his wings of immeasurable freedom of spirit.
For Francis, his birthright was a monopoly “Go To Jail” card through his early life of whimsy and opulence and societal stature. And his choosing a “fall from the world’s grace” – his turning away from that life of captivity and limitation, was his “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
How many of us are held captive in some way?
In what ways do we allow this captivity?
In what ways do we actually contribute to its strength or extent?
Perhaps it’s concern about the perception others have of us – how attractive we are, what we wear, what we drive, where we live, how we live. Perhaps it’s pursuit of more – more influence, more money, more recognition, more power.
Francis certainly had opportunities to be affected by the alluring invitation of more, of the ego. For instance, one day, after Francis was becoming well known, people had gathered and were excited to hear him speak after of learning of his ‘celebrity’ as a holy man.
Instead of preaching verbally, he sat down on the ground in the middle of the crowd, cross-legged, and wordlessly put ashes on his bowed head. No words were spoken that day by the ‘celebrity’.
His point was that celebrity and notoriety was not his aim, that nothing comes from such pursuits except ashes, and that he was not interested in being lauded for the sake of lauding. I mentioned that Francis’ understanding of this piece of life’s puzzle was two-fold. And we’ve just considered the first part – an understanding of choosing to fall away from pursuits that cost us ultimate freedom. Then there are the situations when people are falling all right, but not by choice. These are the disenfranchised, the marginalized. In a word – these are the poor.
You might recall the song done by the Carpenters called “Bless the Beasts and the Children”. For Francis it would’ve been “Bless the Beasts and the Poor”.
Along with his love of creatures he had a very tender place in his heart for the poor, and instead of getting married in the conventional sense, he frequently stated that he was wed to Lady Poverty. Sometimes he would exasperate some of his brothers when these fellow monks would witness him giving away what little food they had to those who had even less.
Francis’ love and empathy of the poor was alive and well in medieval Assisi, and continues this day. In fact, it calls to mind a young girl that I used to see when I would volunteer at my kids’ elementary school cafeteria.
Once a week I would volunteer in the cafeteria. And every week I would notice this little girl who we will call Lizzie, who always wore her jet-black shoulder length hair in neat braids. But it wasn’t Lizzie’s hair that was striking. Instead it was the food she brought.
At first I only noticed how stuffed Lizzie’s lunch bag would be, and I marveled at how this slight child who looked to be no more than nine years old could possibly consume all the food that appeared to be in those bulging brown bags.
Then one winter day when a snowfall kept many students at home and the cafeteria was consequently not so bustling, I had the chance to pay closer attention to Lizzie and her lunch. And on that day I saw something that I would see for weeks to come. Lizzie got up from the table of kids who looked similar to her in their tidy outfits and groomed hair. She moved over to another table, the table where the other kids sat.
These other kids didn’t have such a tidy appearance. Their clothes did not fit as well, were often not as clean, and their hair invariably looked like it hadn’t been washed for several days.
There she would sit, and out of those brown paper lunch bags she would pull multiple sandwiches and fruits – sometimes apples, sometimes bananas. And she would cut the sandwiches and fruit and share them with the other kids at the table, kids whose lunch bags were not nearly so robust when they entered the cafeteria.
I’d bet my own lunch that Lizzie has never heard of Francis of Assisi. And it doesn’t matter. She is nonetheless living out the same ideals that many would associate with Francis. She too has figured out that important piece of life’s puzzle, as she is the giver of wings to those who struggle and are falling.
Here too, you and I can examine this puzzle piece and then ask ourselves – how deep is our understanding of this puzzle piece? Does it fit snugly, like it just belongs, in the broader puzzle of your life? Are we good sharers? To what extent do we choose to share with the less fortunate if it will actually pinch us a bit? The irony is, when we give in that way, it’s not only the recipient of our giving who gets wings. We do as well.
Francis did some preaching, and undoubtedly preached about such things. But his preaching occurred far more in his way of life than in his extorting others in words (as I’m doing with you right now).
He would’ve loved this quotation from Meister Eckhard:
“If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature–
even a caterpillar–
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.”
And three of his quotes underscore his focus being on a way of life instead of words:
“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
“The deeds you do may be the only sermon some people will hear today.
‘Preaching’. ‘Gospel’. ‘Sermon’. All very Christian terms. Francis was a very Christian man. He loved the church, and he adored Jesus.
And perhaps some of us might be tempted to tune out just a bit, because it’s a little to churchy or Christian for our taste. But I encourage us to look beyond the vernacular to see the bigger picture, to see the bigger puzzle. Thousands upon thousands of people of all faiths, and no religious faith, honour this man because we recognize his goodness. We recognize the best parts of ourselves when we see him.
I believe that many of us are able to more easily recognize the holiness of creatures and of the poor because of his prophetic life. I believe that the world is as beautiful a place as it is because Francis was in it for 44 years.
As he was dying Francis said that his work was done and that now the work was left to those remaining to continue. May we take up that torch…a torch of peace, a torch that illuminates the truth of the interconnected web of all of creation.
So may it be.
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