This is a sermon for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
What kind of man preaches to the birds? Was Francis a bit simple, or was he, perhaps, making a point about his frustration with human congregations?
I suspect something a bit more subtle was going on, but to understand what drove the man famous for his affinity with animals and nature, it might help to start with something he wrote.
Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a “Letter to the Faithful,” an attempt, perhaps, to make sure that the people aligned with the movement he had started, had some of his words to hold on to, when he was gone.
And in that letter he told a story. The story – I’ll paraphrase it for brevity – is about a very wealthy man, a man who has become wealthy through fraud and deception. This man falls sick, and knows that death is near. Friends and relatives come and advise the dying man, “Put your affairs in order.” His wife and children, friends and relatives, all pretend to mourn. Looking up from his deathbed, he sees them weeping, and decides to leave all his ill-gotten wealth to these family members.
There and then, they call a priest; he says to the sick man, “Do you want to be absolved from all your sins?” And the dying man replies, “I do”. “Are you ready then to make restitution as best you can out of your property for all that you have done, all the fraud and deceit you practiced towards your fellow men?” the priest asks him. “No”, he replies. And the priest asks, “Why not?” “Because I have left everything in the hands of my relatives and friends”, is the answer.
So the fraudulent rich man dies without making things right for the people he mistreated, and without being reconciled to God. And rather than being appreciative of what he left them, his family curse him for not making more for them! So, Francis concludes the story with the rich man suffering torments in hell, his body being food for worms, and his ungrateful relatives remembering him with bitterness and not love.
It’s not really a cheery story, and it’s a far cry from cuddly animals. But why did Francis tell it?
It helps us if we understand a little bit about the world he lived in. Francis lived in a time of great social upheaval; the system that had dominated in previous centuries – of nobles exercising feudal power over peasants who were mostly engaged in agriculture – was giving way to the new power of merchant families who ruled city-states; expanding international trade through Italy’s big port cities made those merchants unbelievably wealthy, and completely disconnected from the poor people outside the gates of those cities. (If we listen to rhetoric about coastal “elites” and impoverished, neglected rural folk in America today, the comparison in terms of mutual distrust and ideological disconnection is actually striking).
So the economic base was shifting, the old social norms were being brought into question, and more and more, the wealthy were getting wealthier by exploiting the poor. The story of a young Francis stripping naked in the town square to protest his merchant father’s ill-gotten wealth is famous; but perhaps we don’t always recognise how much that was one example of enormous social division of the time.
Many rural towns already had groups of poor people living communally, sharing everything they had in order that everyone might eat; and because this was, after all, medieval Italy, those communal groups thought of themselves as being a bit like a monastery, and called themselves “penitents.” But the main thing they were repenting was involvement in an economic system which had utterly failed them.
So when Francis started his order – and by the way, he was ordained a deacon but never a priest, so let that be a reminder not to underestimate deacons or the diaconate! – he naturally drew followers from these communities of penitents, and their movement can be seen as a powerful social protest against exploitative wealthy people feeding a lavish consumerist culture, which left the poorest and most vulnerable out in the cold.
Francis and his brothers – and later the women in their companion order, as well – lived in a way which turned those values on their heads. Choosing poverty – for they lived by begging – was a way of saying that people and things have a value which can’t be priced on the commercial market. Treating all of creation as sacred, down to the humblest animal, was a way of saying that God’s creation is good in and of itself; and that the worth of something isn’t measured by what someone will pay for it.
What price would you put on sunshine, anyway? Or the feel of the breeze on your face?
Francis wrote and talked a lot about penance, but what he seems to have meant by it is mostly a disengagement from attachment to stuff.
This was a more complicated social critique than just wanting to turn back the clock and make Umbria great again. By the time Francis gathered others around him, he had been observant enough to see that the old feudal system didn’t work all that well, either. He’d been among the lepers who were outcast even from the rural towns, and been horrified at their callous exclusion from human community.
Instead, for Francis, penance was about treating human beings as sacred, each and every one of us. It was about forming communities which treat each and every person with worth and dignity, and which treat the bonds of relationship between us and every other good thing which God created, as sacred. For Francis, it’s in rightly honouring every good thing which comes to us from the hand of God, that we know grace; and come to overflow with grace in how we relate to everyone else.
This sacredness inherent in every person and creature, is Francis’ vision of human life as it was meant to be, and as it will be when God’s reign is fulfilled. The community he formed around him was meant to be a sign pointing a corrupt and lost society towards that vision.
That’s the point of the story in Francis’ Letter to the Faithful. All the luxuries in the world can’t save you, can’t keep you alive, and can’t help you have relationships worth having. And I think it’s the point of preaching to the birds, too. The birds who are our fellow-creatures help us praise God, and point us towards more authentic humanity than anything you can buy. The letter and the honouring of nature are all parts of an alternative value system, and an alternative vision of human community; one in which people matter for who we are, and not what we have.
And that’s a timeless message which still very much resonates in our own day!
The text of the “Letter to the Faithful” can be read here: http://www.traditionalcatholicpriest.com/2014/10/05/letter-to-the-faithful-by-st-francis-of-assisi/