Thinking Anew – St Francis of Assisi and respect for the natural world
Photograph: Augusta Vop/iStock
Yesterday was the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, one of the most admired saints of the church. He is particularly associated with his respect for the natural world, a live issue in our own times. The tradition that he preached to birds prompted the author Rebecca West to ask: “Did St Francis preach to the birds? Whatever for? If he really liked birds he would have done better to preach to the cats.” Bird-lovers might agree.
Francis was born in 1182, the son of a rich cloth-merchant in Assisi who was expected to join the family business in time. However, after several years of high living, he became dissatisfied with his life and turned to religion, where he was drawn to the service to the poor. It is said that while on a pilgrimage to Rome, he was so challenged by the plight of beggars that he exchanged his clothes with one of them and spent a day as a beggar asking for help.
He was particularly challenged by these words from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions . . . As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.”
As Francis responded to this call, the foundations of what would become the worldwide Franciscan movement were laid, and to this day is valued in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions.
His wider ecumenical appeal, however, is further reflected in the work of a French Calvinist pastor who devoted years to the study of this remarkable saint.
Paul Sabatier (1858-1928) was a Calvinist pastor in Strasbourg who retired from pastoral ministry on grounds of ill health. He then opted for a life in academia and in time became professor of Protestant theology in Strasbourg. However, he is chiefly remembered for his biography of St Francis of Assisi. His interest in the saint was prompted by his belief that Francis had sought the renewal of the church based on what Sabatier described as the “pure gospel.” He published a great deal of material based on his researches, and in 1908 founded the British society of Franciscan studies in London. Scholars question the accuracy of some of his work, but it is surely significant that at a time when ecumenism wasn’t on many people’s minds this early-20th-century Calvinist minister saw in Francis a man whose understanding of the Christian faith was relevant to Christians of all traditions. Sabatier reminds us that great women and men of faith like Francis have a truly ecumenical significance beyond the tradition of their nurture – people, for example, like Archbishop Romero Roman (Catholic), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Anglican), Dr Martin Luther King jnr (Baptist), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran).
These and others challenge us to step outside our religious comfort zones and recognise the gifts God gives us in others.
Francis’s simple faith, his devotion to God, his compassion for his fellow human beings, his love and respect for the natural world and his deep humility mark him out to be one of the great saints of the universal church. He is admired and respected by many outside the church because he gave meaning to faith in everyday life, a lesson for the churches today. He was only 45 years old when he died.
WE Sangster, a prominent Methodist minister of the last century, said that the saint is God’s greatest work: “All the world’s great men seem small beside the saint. The great statesman, the great writer, the great soldier may be far above us, but he remains altogether of our world. The great saint fills us with awe and seems at times almost a visitor from another sphere.”