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Perspectives: Biblical Themes in St. Francis' Song of Brother Sun
Among the prayers and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi which have survived, the "Song of Brother Sun° or the "Canticle of the Creatures" is among those which show both his genius and his simplicity.
Song of Brother Sun 1
Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, and first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and light you give us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he hears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright, precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and fair and stormy, all the weather's moods, by which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, lowly, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful is he, how gay! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace.
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
from whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your will! The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks and serve him with great humility.
The general principles of prayer from which the Christian expression develops derive from the Jewish liturgy and its response to divine revelation. In contrast to the Babylonian myth of creation as a conflict between good and evil, the hymn of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:4) proclaims that God saw that the result of his creative work was good. Then, within the context of history, God intervenes on behalf of the poor and oppressed who recognize their dilemma and call for help (Exod. 2:23-25). The exodus and Sinai Covenant provide the paradigm for understanding all subsequent experiences of redemption (rescue from evil) and salvation (the gifts which lead to communion with God and therefore to peace, shalom conveying the idea of "wholeness").
Blessings Descend — Praises Ascend
Basic to the religious experience of the Hebrews is the acknowledgment of God's active and morally demanding presence at the core of human existence. The Hebrew terms kabod (glory), hesed (loving kindness), and berakah (blessing) have first a "descending" aspect. Glory is the illuminating manifestation of God, loving kindness (steadfast love) is an attribute that expresses his transforming power and all his gifts are a blessing for humankind.
Our response (the "ascending" aspect) is an act of thanks for the gifts and praise to the giver (berakab), a commitment of loyalty and devotion (hesed) to God, not only as Creator of all good things, but precisely as Covenant-partner with his people, and an act of joyful acknowledgment of his presence in our midst (kabod)
These three elements are central to both Jewish and Christian prayer; in the liturgy or corporate worship of each community, and in the personal prayer of the individual they constitute the foundation for the many forms of communion with the living God. Both forms of prayer, liturgical and individual, are both the fundamental duty and the highest privilege of the human being — fulfilled adequately only within the context of divine election, covenant and grace.
Of course, the emphasis that "grace builds on nature", and that the divine plan moves in a continuity from creation to the fulness of redemption-salvation implies that relationships among creature are subordinate to the divine order. Everything is of value inasmuch as it brings us closer to God.
Comparison rather than Contrast
But was there not a strong tradition of flight from the world in early monasticism and down through the Middle Ages? °Contempt for the world" (contemptus mundi) was an expression of the monastic attitude, the foil for extolling the angelic life (bias angelikos) of the vows. However, "the world" refers not to nature as such, but to the human pride and self-centeredness that twists the relationship with creatures from its orientation toward God. The term "the world" (ho kosmos) is one of John's phrases for opposition to the divine plan.' The contrasting of extremes in the Latin liturgy ("amore caelestia . . . despicere terrestria")3 follows a Hebrew turn of phrase and should be rendered "love heavenly realities more than those of earth". The Hebrew language has no easy way of forming the comparative. To say "this more than that", the prophet contrasted two ideas. "I desire steadfast love (hesed) and not sacrifice..." (Hosea 6:6). Unfortunately, many good Christians were placed in a false dilemma because they were ignorant of this fact. The positing of extremes in Jesus' teaching led some to reject or neglect aspects of filial devotion, as well as giving an unbalanced attitude toward creatures in general. "If anyone come to me and does not hate his own father and mother ... he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). The juxtaposition of "love ... hate" is a stark contrast meaning "love more than".
St. Francis very dramatically chose to reject an undue parental influence on his life and commitment to God.' However, he recognized a deep union with all creatures in the service of his God and Father.
Biblical Source for the Song of Brother Sun
In his first Life (1228), Thomas of Celano stated that St. Francis used the model of the three youths in the furnace (Daniel 3:52-90) when he composed the Song of Brother Sun, inviting all the elements to praise and glorify the Creator of all (no. 81). St. Bonaventure spoke of David the prophet when he told of Francis exhorting creation to praise God sweetly (Legenda Major IX.1).
This inspiration would derive very naturally from the Psalter and its use in the Breviary, Even for those whose Latin was limited, the rhythms of Psalm 148 and the Benedicite (Canticle of the three young men in the furnace)" would echo their inner gratitude to the Creator and Redeemer at the beginning of every week.
The hymns of the Divine Office at Lauds and the choice of texts for Sunday Lauds were a constant reminder to the clergy of the divine work of creation. Just as the hymns of Matins and Lauds expressed the sensitivity of earlier generations to the way each day reminded them of the Creator's gifts, so the frequent use of these prayers permeated the attitude of Francis. This crystallized in the simple words of a hymn.
According to biographers, Francis was almost blind and suffered intensely in his final years. On one occasion he prayed: "Lord, come to my help, and look upon my infirmities so that I may bear them patiently". In reply he heard a reassuring voice: "Rejoice, brother and rather be glad in your infirmities and tribulations, since henceforth you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom".° The next morning Francis composed the "Song of Brother Sun".
A Study of the Song
As in the biblical tradition, it begins with a blessing-doxology (Apoc. 4:9,11) which acknowledges human unworthiness. The creature stands in awe of the Creator, and simultaneously realizes that creation constitutes a great family; to each member Francis expressed his sense of fraternity. According to the Italian grammar, he recognized that the sun is masculine, the moon feminine, etc. Following the Greek theory of the four elements that form the fabric of all creation, he speaks of air, water, fire and earth. The feminine moon, stars and water are designated "precious".
Just as the human being is created in the divine image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27), the sun and all creatures bear an imprint of God, and reflect it for the human person to see and give praise (see Rom. 1:20). Francis stresses the sun's capacity to bear the likeness of the Most High, perhaps hinting at the Messianic title "Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2).
Through the changes in the weather, God gives sustenance to creatures. Here Francis echoes Psalm 136:25 "He gives food to all flesh, for everlasting is his love" (see Ps. 103:13-14). Responding to rain and sunshine, the earth sustains and governs (perhaps through the seasons). It produces things which nourish the body and delight the senses: "Various fruits with colored flowers and herbs"?
Growth of the Song
The section on forgiveness was composed later, in the context of a quarrel to which the friars were witnesses. The imitation of God's mercy and forgiveness is a central — and perhaps the most difficult — challenge of the Gospel. Although there is no explicit reference to Christ in the Song the themes here flow from a contemplation of the Gospel. The relation between all other creatures to God is expressed as a whole-hearted, joyful service. Only human beings can mar the beauty of creation by sin, and it is through Christ that they learn to forgive for God's sake. Bearing infirmity and tribulation would find fullest meaning as an integration of ones life into the Passion of Christ (see Colossians 1:24). The beatitude pronounced on those who endure in peace seems to echo "Blessed are the peacemakers..." (Matt. 5:9). The divine reward is a crown of victory, sharing in the triumph of Christ.
The verse concerning death was added shortly before Francis died. Physical death is part of the created order, considered as an embrace. Perhaps here Francis hints at a tradition about the Angel of Death. The only real tragedy is mortal sin, which brings a curse on those who died unreconciled to their Creator. The only concern one should have in the light of eternity is to do God's will, so that Sister Death will never surprise one. "He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death" (Apoc. 2:11). "Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ" (Apoc. 20:6). Francis makes a clear allusion to these passages, again pointing to an underlying Christian dimension to the Song.
The final sentence is a recurrence of the blessing (thanks for the gifts and praise to the giver), with an added clause which teaches the unity of life ("service" in biblical tradition means both work and worship). After drawing attention to the human need to forgive and to bear suffering patiently in order to find peace, Francis concludes with the fundamental virtue of humility. This is the self-knowledge and awe of God that develops an attitude of openess to the divine will.
Francis' World Vision
Francis saw everything as a transparent vehicle of the divine presence, bearing the imprint that would lead him to his Beloved. A few decades later this attitude was expressed theologically by the great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure.8
What is the precise role of nature in praising God? Does Francis see a response to the Creator that he personifies or does he see the human being as the priest who takes up these realities into the higher order of a spiritual relationship with God? 9
The answer depends largely on the translation of the preposition per, which may be rendered for, by or through. In the "descendnig relationship", the sun is the instrument "through whom you give us light"; the heavenly Father uses the vagaries of the weather to give sustenance to his creatures, and fire to light the night. In seven other occurrences, per may be understood in several ways. Does Francis express thanks for the gift, or is praise offered by the creatures themselves? The early biographers offer a basis for both interpretations.10
When the song is read in light of the two additions concerning forgiveness and death, it is clear that a specifically Christian dimension permeates the theme. The allusion to the vision of the heavenly worship of God at the beginning of the song borrows the phrase "gloria, honor et benedictio" from the Vulgate (Apoc. 4:9), immediately after the praise of God's holiness by the four living creatures (4:8), which is followed by the vision of the victorious Lamb still bearing the marks of the Passion (Apoc. 5:6-10). Knowing his great devotion to the Eucharist, and seeing the eschatological thrust of the last part of the Song (referring to Apoc. 2:11 and 20:5-6), it is not difficult to suppose that ultimately the response of all creatures to the Creator is integrated into the eternal thanks-and-praise offered by Christ and the Church.
Each One's Contribution to the Final Vision
However, in an orientation toward the eschaton and vision of our integration into heavenly worship, Francis would not have us ignore the value that each creature brings of itself to the rest of the world. His sensitivity to the sanctity of all relationships would lead him to condemnation of the exploitation of nature for shortsighted human goals.11
It was appropriate for Pope John Paul II to proclaim St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology (April 6, 1980). The Song of Brother Sun and other prayers of St. Francis will continue to nourish the Christian communities and draw others into a respectful appreciation of the unity to which creation is striving in the service of God.12
* Father Lawrence Frizzell, one of the Consultants of the SIDIC Review, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada. He is Associate Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies and Chairman of the Department at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, U.S.A.
1. Auspicius van Corstanje (ed.), Saint Francis Prayer Book (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1978), p. 94-95.
2. J. Guhrt "Kosmos" in The new International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. Colin Brown) (Grand Rapids, Zondervan 1975), volume I, page 521-526 (with bibliography).
3. For example, the Communion prayer for Tuesday of the first week of Advent.
4. See Arnaldo Fortini, Francis of Assisi (New York: Seabury, 1981), p. 222-230.
5. See my study on the Jewish text of the Hymn of the Three Youths and early Christian use, "A hymn of creation in Daniel", Standing be/ore God: Studies... in honor of John M. Oesterreicher edited by A. Finkel and L. Frizzell (New York: Ktav, 1981), p. 41-52.
6. This dialogue is extracted from a longer text in Scripta Leonis,Inn et Angell Sociorum S. Francisci, edited and translated by Rosalind B. Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), P. 162-167.
7. Fortini, p. 562-569, gives texts from early biographers which relate the themes to Francis' general attitude. Esser, p. 129-131, suggests allusions to the Psalter and Daniel 3 at a number of other points.
8. See Ewert Cousins, "Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure: mysticism and theological interpretations, The Other Side of God: A Polarity in World Religions" (ed. Peter L. Berger) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. 74-103. See Cousins, "Fullness and Emptiness in Bonaventure and Eckhart", Journal of Dharma 6 (1981), p. 59-68.
9. In Jewish texts, creatures are called to bless God directly, and everything is integrated into Israel's service of God. Just as the creation hymn reaches a climax in the human vocation to participate in the divine work, so Psalm 148 and Daniel 3:52-90 reach their crescendo with the people of Israel in worship. Later, Perek Shirah presents a litany wherein biblical texts are placed on the mouths of all categories of creatures. See the translation in Richard Siegel and Carl Rheins (ed.), The Jewish Almanac (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 323-327.
10. See the discussion of Cousins, "Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure..." o. 85-88. Later Franciscan interpretation of the Apocalypse develops this vision in several ways.
11. The Franciscan contribution to modern questions of ecology is discussed in Eric Doyle's St Francis and the Song of Brotherhood (New York: Seabury, 1981), in Ecology and Religion in History, edited by David and Eileen Spring (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) and briefly in Loren Wilkenson (ed.) Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) P. 121-123. For the insight that the commandments of the Torah govern all four human relationships (with God, neighbor, self and nature), see Asher Finkel, "Aging: the Jewish perspective" in Aging: Spiritual Perspectives edited by Francis V. Tiso (Lake Worth, Florida: Sunday Publications, 1982) p. 117-119.
12. A psychological approach to this Song is offered by Eloi Leclerc, Le Cantique des Creatures ou les symboles de ?union (Paris: Fayard, 1970), translated as The Canticle of Creatures (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977). A critique of this book is offered by Gagnan Dominique, "Lllime de Francois d'Assise sous le prisme de /a psychanalyse d'apres Eloi Leclerc", Collectanea Franciscans 47 (1977), p. 317-347.
In a different form, this paper was delivered at the Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference at Villa-nova University in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 1982.