In a collection of 14th c. legends about Francis, I Fioretti, each vignette is a clear echo of Francis’ spirit and personality, but these “little flowers” are hardly the stuff of cold hard fact. And that’s just right. For there’s nothing like a story to tell us the truth.
Several of the fioretti involve animals. And miracles. Although not miracles so much as signs, like Jesus’ miracles were. Signs of the intentions of God to work life in the midst of death, draw joy from the wells of pain, make rich the poor, and refresh all creatures with freedom. Signs of a new heaven and a new earth, the Garden that was, and is, and is coming.
In these stories when Francis speaks and acts, it is as if we are deposited in that Garden: humans and beasts are at ease with one another, the cosmos is attentive to God, and all created things are responsive to their charge to be creatures, and simply by being creatures to glorify God.
When Francis and natural things are engaged in creature-to-creature delight, we who hear of it through stories like these are ushered into the time beyond time, as a newer hymn says, in which “praise is the healing, praise the glory, praise the final mystery.”
And in this praising lies the simplicity and freedom of what some have called original blessing. The simplicity and freedom, the lightness that lifts the wings of birds and the hearts even of the poor.
When Francis strides into a field—ragged, penniless, a man transported with joy that he is in infinite debt—and preaches that blessing to the birds, morning breaks like the first morning, blackbird speaks like the first bird.
Here’s the story:
Francis Preaches to the Birds
A short time after his conversion, Francis was uncertain about what he should do—whether to go apart from the world and devote himself only to prayer, or go into the world and preach the Gospel. And so he called Brother Masseo and said to him: “Go to Sister Clare, and ask her to pray that I may see clearly whether it is God’s will that I should preach. Then go to Brother Silvester, and ask him the same favor.” Brother Masseo did as St Francis said.
After a while, Brother Masseo returned to Francis. Francis received him with love, washed his feet, and served him at dinner. Then he called Brother Masseo into the forest. He knelt down before him, and said: “What answer do you bring me? What does my Lord want me to do?”
Brother Masseo answered: “The Lord has revealed to Brother Silvester and Sister Clare that you should preach; for you have not been called to help yourself alone, but also to help others.”
Then, filled with joy, Francis got up, and said, “Let us go in the name of God!” He took Brother Masseo and Brother Agnolo and set out, but he did not choose the road: he let himself be guided by God’s Spirit.
Along their way, Francis saw a great multitude of birds on some trees, and he was very taken with them. He said to his companions, “Wait for me here. I am going to preach to my little sisters the birds.” He set off into the field. There he began to preach to the birds on the ground, and all those on the trees also flocked to him. They listened attentively to Francis, and did not fly away until he had given them his blessing.
Here is what Francis said to the birds:
“My little sisters the birds, you owe everything to your Creator. Therefore you should sing God’s praise always and everywhere, because God has given you freedom to fly; and although you neither spin nor sew, you have been given beautiful clothing. God sent two of your species into the Ark with Noah so that you might not be lost to the world; and God feeds you, though you neither sow nor reap. God has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests. Your Creator loves you very much. So, my little sisters, do not ever be ungrateful, but praise. Praise God.”
[“God’s Fool,” by Frank C Gaylord, of Barrem VT. Found in SS Peter and Paul Cemetery in Naperville, Illinois.]
Then the birds began to open their beaks, stretch their necks, spread their wings, and bow their heads, showing their joy by their movements and their songs. Francis rejoiced with them, giving thanks to the Creator. Then he made the sign of the cross, and let them fly away.
All the birds rose into the air, singing. They divided themselves into four companies. One flew towards the east, another towards the west, one towards the south, and one towards the north; each company singing most wonderfully as it flew, encumbered by nothing; signifying that Francis and his brothers, and Clare and her sisters, like little birds, should possess nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on the goodness and providence of God.