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Reflection: The Appeal of St. Francis

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As people around the world delight in seeing animals be blessed for the October 4 feast, a friar stationed at a Franciscan university describes what he has learned about why so many are drawn to the ‘folksy animal whisperer.”

I, like friars and Franciscans of all ilks around the world, look forward to celebrating the feast of Francis each year. It is a chance to remind myself of what lies at the heart of our tradition, why I was attracted to this way of life and why I continue to commit myself to attempting to live the Gospel. It is a time to reflect upon the Word of God, to renew fraternal bonds and to be reenergized by the affirmation we so often receive.

Yet, to be honest, there is one element of the celebration I am generally not eager to repeat. Odds are, I’ll have to endure at least one more experience of someone coming up to me effusive about his or her love of Francis — a pleasant enough experience — and then quickly explaining that the reason for this is how much Francis loved animals and nature. I know it’s probably not long before I hear about the person’s favorite image of Francis, talking to the birds or gently petting the wolf. When younger and more argumentative or naïve, I tried to steer the conversation toward elements of Francis’s life and preaching that I thought were closer to the core, such as challenging injustice in the social order. However, I’ve learned that this is generally an act of futility.

Mind you, it’s not that I dislike animals or nature, though I’m a city boy by temperament. And I admit I feel my blood pressure rising when the dogs in the neighborhood engage in one of their barkfests or a Canada goose inches along in front of my car as I’m trying to get off campus or a pigeon befouls said vehicle. It’s just that I wonder why has this particular aspect of Francis become such a dominant image in the popular consciousness? Why are people so attracted to what I refer to in my ornerier moods as “Francis the wood nymph”? For some reason (perhaps the dogs and the geese), I’ve found myself thinking more about this recently.

Appeal of ‘Folksy Animal Whisperer’
In my more sanguine or philosophical moments, it occurs to me that there must be something in the tradition that makes this image of Francis not just popular but important. Perhaps there is something more to it than a warm, fuzzy guy who likes critters. Maybe people are drawn to something more profound than a folksy animal whisperer.

I offer Admonition 5: “Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.” Now, there’s an ennobling thought about the human condition. Yet, Francis goes on to say, “And all creatures under heaven, serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you.” Huh? What happened to our great excellence? As far as I know, not one of these creatures ever performed a single corporal or spiritual work of mercy. And yet, all of them serve, know and obey God better than I do? How can this be?

Note the phrase “each according to its own nature.” What Francis saw was a bird, a wolf, a rabbit being as true as possible to what it meant to be a bird, a wolf, a rabbit. They were wholly what they were. When I get annoyed by the dogs/geese/pigeons, I can sometimes calm myself down by saying, “well, they’re just being dogs/geese/pigeons.” At the same time, Francis saw people being less than wholly human, less than what they were at their core—the very likeness of God. And I can often see myself being less than this. However, this is not a reason to condemn myself; it is the motivation to begin again, to recommit myself to live in a way that testifies to the excellence that Francis saw in humans. This is possible — and desirable — because I cannot erase my likeness to God.

Lessons on Living Authentically
When Thomas of Celano tells us the story of Francis preaching to the birds, he doesn’t offer this as a quaint anecdote of medieval piety but as an example of a lesson Francis had to learn. He tells us that Francis accused himself of negligence because he hadn’t preached to birds before. Again, huh? Thomas goes on to explain, “From that day on, he carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles and also all insensitive creatures, to praise and love the Creator, because daily, invoking the name of the Savior, he observed their obedience in his own experience.”

Francis loved animals because they taught him how deep and thorough his commitment to following the Lord’s path needed to be. He preached to them not because they could somehow grasp the subtleties of theological concepts but because it was a way of articulating the lessons they had taught him about living authentically. Maybe this is what people are intuiting in the images of Francis and all those animals.

I promise you, if you come to Felician University, you won’t find me preaching to the wildlife. (If you do, call the counseling center.) But, if you bothered to come watch me work, I hope you’d find someone who is attempting to be wholly who he is, someone who attempts to preach through his work, someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy nature walks but who doesn’t mind learning something from a waddling goose, someone who believes that the way I conduct a meeting, talk to a student, write an email, lead a discussion, compose a report is the way I can manifest and honor the likeness of God that I am. I know you’d find others doing this and doing it well. Isn’t this what Francis called us to do — not to mimic him but to learn what is ours to do in our particular contexts? Birds do it. Bees do it. Why don’t we do it?

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— Br. Gary, a native of Garfield, N.J., is special assistant to the president at Felician University, Lodi, N.J., and executive director of the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or another seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org. The newsletter’s previous reflection, about Mother Teresa, was written by Kevin Mackin, OFM.

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