Sunday, 4 October 2015

Harvest Festival on the Feast of St Francis: All creatures of our God and King

Today is a double celebration. It is our Harvest Festival, but it is also the Feast day of St Francis of Assisi, the great medieval saint who is so much associated with the natural world.

Francis hadn’t grown up saintly. Quite the opposite. He was the son of a rich cloth merchant  from Assisi, who really only lived for profit. It was a time of growing material wealth, a Medieval boom time. Wealthy people wanted fine clothes, which was good news for people like Francis’ father. Francis was a golden boy, handsome, a great musician, who enjoyed nothing more than a night out with his friends drinking and living the high life. But that all changed when he was taken prisoner during a war between Assisi and the neighbouring city of Perugia. He had plenty of time to think while he waited to be ransomed, and when he finally got back home he had started to change.. He’d come face to face with the suffering and poverty which his father’s wealth had protected him from till then. He began to sell his father’s cloth – he had nothing of his own – and give the money to the poor. But sooner or later his father was bound to find out, and when he did he was furious. He hauled his son before the Bishop of Assisi and demanded that he be punished. The cloth hadn’t been his to give away. Francis could see only one way to resolve this. Calmly he took off every stitch of clothing he had on and gave it back to his father. The Bishop hurried to find Francis something to cover himself with, just a rough tunic, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Francis went on to live a life of radical poverty, serving the ordinary people he’d once looked down on, and living simply with others who soon came to join him.  

Alongside that loving service towards other people, though, Francis became famous for his attitudes to the rest of creation. In the hilltop town of Gubbio he tamed a wolf that had been terrorising the population. While they cowered within their town walls he went out to speak to the wolf, and came to an agreement with him. If the people of Gubbio promised to feed him, he would promise not to eat them. The wolf, it is said lifted up his great, grey paw and shook on it, and much to the surprise of the townsfolk the wolf stuck to his side of the agreement. In turn they not only fed him, but took him into their homes, and when he died of old age they mourned his loss.

Then there was the fish he was given, still alive, by a fisherman. Instead of eating him, Francis put him back in the water, but as he prayed, the fish jumped back out of the water into his arms. Only when Francis insisted did it swim away to safety. Then there was the falcon who had a nest near his hut. Early every morning, at the time for morning prayer, the falcon would call out to Francis as if to wake him, but when Francis fell ill, the falcon kept silence, seeming to know that he needed to sleep.

One of the most famous stories about Francis is of the time when he was walking along the road with some of the other brothers in his order and came across a flock of birds. He told the others to walk on, while he turned aside to the birds. When they came back to see what was keeping him, they found Francis preaching to the birds, telling them about the Gospel passage we heard today.  “God has given you food to eat, my little sisters” he said to them. “You don’t have to do anything to earn it. He’s given you water to drink, mountains and valleys to take refuge in, trees to build your nests. You should never forget to thank him.” And the birds sat stock still, listening to his every word, not even moving as he walked among them, his cloak brushing their feathers.

That’s what the stories say, anyway! Did it really happen like that? Who knows? The point is, though, that those who told the stories, people who had known Francis, knew it was the kind of thing he would have done. It was all of a piece with his character. Francis had been brought up by his father to think that only the rich and the beautiful mattered, but he’d learned that this wasn’t so, that every creature – human or animal – was created by God and loved by God. Wolves, fish and birds, lepers and beggars – all were precious in their diversity.

We don’t just have to rely on second hand information from  those far-fetched legends  to know what Francis thought, though, because we have his own words in many letters and songs he left. His most famous song is one we’ll be singing later in the service.  All Creatures of our God and King is a version of Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun”. I’ve printed a translation of his original words on the back of the service sheets. Francis talks about all of creation praising God - the Sun, the Moon, wind, water, fire and earth. All of them were his brothers and sisters, made by God just as he was.

If that starts to sound a bit sentimental – a bit “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” – it helps to know the background to this song.  Francis didn’t write it as a piece of romantic escapism while sitting in some glorious flower-filled meadow. He wrote it in in the last year or so of his life, when he was almost blind, bed-ridden and in constant pain. He was worrying about the order he’d founded, too, the Friars Minor. Arguments had broken out among them and many had abandoned or watered down the rule of life he’d given them. But as he lay there, too ill to do anything practical to sort the problems out, this Canticle gradually took shape in his mind. He started with those verses about the natural world, but by the time he died he’d added extra verses. There was a verse about those who forgave, prompted by a reconciliation he’d brought about  between the mayor and the bishop of Assisi who were bitter enemies. There was a reference to those who were suffering, as he was. And finally just before he died he even added a verse which celebrated “Sister Death” , not the enemy, but the blessed gateway to eternal life with God. Darkness, suffering and conflict were real, very real, to Francis, but so was God’s presence in them, and that meant that however loud the cry of pain, the song of praise rang louder in his heart.

His inspiration in this came from Jesus himself, of course. He had told his followers to  “Consider the lilies” and not to “worry about tomorrow” . Maybe that sounds a bit unrealistic too – how does contemplating nature help us face that awful commute to a job we hate day after day, or the nagging symptoms that we know might be something serious, or the signs of trouble we try to ignore in a relationship that is special to us?  But we need to remember that the man who said knew he was likely to end up being tortured and crucified. He was all too aware of the reality of the world. His words weren’t soothing distractions from it, they were vital tools for dealing with it. He wanted his followers to learn what he’d learned, that nothing was beneath God’s notice, not the lilies, here today and gone tomorrow, not the birds who were two a penny. If God held these insignificant things in his hands, then surely he could hold a man on a cross in those hands too, and be with him as he suffered.

Mindfulness seems to be very much in vogue at the moment; meditative exercises designed to make us aware of ourselves and our world. Bookshops are full of books about it claiming it will bring health and happiness and personal fulfilment. Maybe it will – it does us all good to slow down and take notice.  I do have to take issue with one definition of it that I read online recently though, which said that  “Mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently.” Oh no it wasn’t. Francis, and numerous other saints and mystics, taught it centuries ago, and so did Jesus before him. “Consider the lilies. Look at the birds of the air ” What’s that if it isn’t mindfulness? And someone like Francis who could hear the cosmic songs of praise of the Sun and the moon, not to mentions those of the suffering and the dying, seems to me to have reached a level of mindful living way beyond that promised by the best-sellers.

Christian faith is meant to be an affirmation of the present moment, an affirmation of the things of this world, not a distraction from them. That’s why God’s most complete word about himself came in the form of a child in Bethlehem, a very real, earthy, messy baby. It’s why his message of salvation came not through hosts of angels swooping down from heaven to lift us out of our troubles, but through a man on a cross, who came to share the worst that human beings endure.

This harvest, then, let’s be mindful, notice what is real and true, here and now in our lives and our world. Let’s listen for God’s voice in all those things. Let’s ask him for his grace to see and celebrate him at work in the whole human family, in those like us and those different from us. Let’s ask to see him at work in our fellow creatures, so that we can learn to treat them with dignity. Let us ask to see him at work in all the times and seasons of our lives, the joyful and the sorrowful, so that we can find the gifts they have to give us . If we can learn to do that, then tomorrow won’t hold any terrors for us, because we’ll know that God will be with us then as surely as he is today.  

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