St. Francis, Tree-Hugging, and the Blessing of the Animals

Oct 3rd, 2014 | By | Category: Blog Posts


I. Introduction

II. St. Francis and the Natural World

III. The Reformed and Nature

IV. Holy Scripture and Creation

V. Further Catholic and Reformed Shared Territory

VI. Accepting the “Blessing of the “Animals”

VII. More on St. Francis

I. Introduction

When I was a Reformed Protestant I remember that there was a certain time every year when some churches would advertise a special “animal blessing” event. I found the whole idea quite bizarre. There was of course my distinctly Reformed anti-clerical conception of a “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2) – why would I need a priest or pastor to bless my dog? There was also the anti-sacramental Reformed aversion to blessings at all – why would my dog even need such a blessing? And, mixed in for good measure, was a vision of a long line of stereotypical persons from whom I felt deeply removed, both philosophically and personally: the couple who had decided they weren’t ready or didn’t want children, and decided to go with the dog; the “cat lady” and her horde of best-friend felines; and maybe even the hapless child with his pet rock. I admit it was a fairly arrogant, unsympathetic, overly-critical perception of the whole practice, largely stemming from my ignorant yet self-assured Reformed convictions. It wasn’t until I became Catholic that I came to understand not only why churches, and specifically the Catholic Church, fostered this annual event, but also why it might be something that actually reflected goodness, truth, and beauty.

For those who would have been more ecumenically-minded or well-studied than I, the occasion behind this blessing of the animals is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, which we celebrate on October 4th.1 Even unstudied minds will probably have some popular perception of St. Francis as the animal-loving, tree-hugging medieval spiritualist who embraced a life of poverty, gained enough followers to found a new religious order, and is now most commonly memorialized through statues adorning the gardens of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet St. Francis’ contributions to Catholic life and practice run much deeper than this common characterization of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century figure. In this post I’ll address how St. Francis and his “creation-loving” image overlaps and differs from the Reformed perspective. I will also briefly discuss what St. Francis and his mendicant movement means in Catholic life and practice, through the eyes of writer and popular historian John M. Sweeney’s recent book When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages, and an older favorite by G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi.

II. St. Francis and the Natural World

In our increasingly environmentally-aware age, reference to St. Francis’s love of the natural world seems more quaint and agreeable than it would have been to thirteenth-century ears. Sweeney notes that “no one in the thirteenth century paid any regard or showed concern to animals, other than a source of labor, transportation, clothing, or food.”2 This is almost certainly an exaggeration, though it is certainly possible that those in the Medieval world with a low view of the physical world would have found St. Francis’s unique attention to animals and creation a bit strange. He released doves that had been offered for sale; he sent recently-caught fish back into the water, and probably most enduringly crafted “Canticle of the Creatures,” that thanked God for the sun, moon, wind, water, fire, earth, as well as all of the created order.3 As Sweeney notes, “he seemed to look into the eyes of creatures and see himself in them,” and even walked reverently over rocks in order to show honor to the One who is the Rock.4

Protestants may also be familiar with St. Francis’s high view of nature through the English hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” written by William Henry Draper which was based on St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun,” the first five stanzas of which reads,

All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voices, let us sing: Alleluia, alleluia!

Thou burning sun with golden beams, thou silver moon that gently gleams,

O praise him, O praise him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! (Refrain)

Thou rushing wind that art so strong, ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise him, Alleluia! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, ye lights of evening, find a voice, (R)

O praise him, O praise him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Thou flowing water, pure and clear, make music for thy Lord to hear, Alleluia, alleluia! Thou fire so masterful and bright, that givest man both warmth and light, (R)

Dear mother earth, who day by day unfoldest blessings on our way, O praise him, Alleluia! The flowers and fruits that in thee grow, let them his glory also show: (R)

Chesterton offers an interesting thesis on explaining how St. Francis’s appreciation for nature came at a singularly unique time in Christian history. The world into which Christianity emerged was a world immersed in nature worship, “colored by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions” that seemed to view all of nature through a hyper-sexualized lens. “It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers,” says Chesterton. “There was not a flower or even a star that had not been stained.”5 Christianity then by necessity served as a counter-agent to a world warped by its degrading of creation, in turn purging Roman culture of its wickedness by orienting men’s hearts to heaven and “the desert,” as so many early Christians embraced lives of poverty and penance.6 By the time of Francis, the “purge of paganism” had been accomplished across Christendom, as man had “stripped from his soul the last rag of nature worship,” and was thus prepared to “return to nature,” in the sense of finding God’s beauty, truth, and goodness in the created order.7 In a sense, St. Francis was able to look at nature with an almost youthful innocence that could see God’s work and person everywhere. As Sweeney notes, “this is not an evil world,” but a “divine contribution to the authentic human experience.”8

III. The Reformed and Nature

An examination of the natural world to further contemplation and worship of God is not inherently unique to Catholicism, but finds a happy home in Reformed thought as well. Although there has been much debate in Reformed scholarship over Calvin’s natural theology, some Calvin scholars have argued that the French Reformed theologian was himself an appreciator of God’s glory visible in nature. In The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin, Susan Schreiner argues that Calvin’s theology was deeply shaped by an appreciation of nature, observing that, “in all of [his] writings… Calvin taught that God’s glory extended beyond the fate of the individual soul and encompassed the whole of creation.”9 Peter Huff likewise claims that, “raging winds and churning seas shape the landscape of [Calvin’s] thought, while growling beasts and twittering birds render his work a veritable bestiary of Christian doctrine.”10 Huff quotes Calvin’s belief that creation was a “most glorious theater,” acting as a “channel of revelation”11 Calvin also argued that, “[in] God’s individual works, but especially in them as a whole… God’s powers are actually represented as in a painting.”12

Elsewhere Calvin writes that all creatures, “from those in the firmament to those which are in the center of the earth, are able to act as witnesses and messengers of his glory,” and that “little birds that . . . sing of God” and the beasts that “clamor for him” guide our meditation of sacred things.13 We might be even surprised to find that Calvin believed that when God ordained that animals would serve humanity, “He did it with the condition that we should handle them gently,” and that Holy Scripture require humans “to practice justice even in dealing with animals.”14

American Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards likewise observed in his essay “Of Insects,” that “of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider, especially with respect to their sagacity admirable way of working.” Following a long discussion that flowed out of his close examination of the spider, Edwards was able to declare, “we hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable.”15 Even Orthodox Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen’s humorous and inspiring essay “Mountains and Why We Love Them,” explains Machen’s “thrill” in climbing mountains, and quotes him as saying at the summit of the Matterhorn, “[I] was afraid I was going to break down and weep for joy.” From the mountains, Machen was able to contemplate Europe:

There it has struggled; there it has fallen; there it has looked upward to God. The history of the race seems to pass before you in an instant of time, concentrated in that fairest of all the lands of the earth. You think of the great men whose memories you love, the men who have struggled there in those countries below you, who have struggled for light and freedom, struggled for beauty, struggled above all for God’s Word.16

Indeed, in his reflection on the tumultuous time of the 1930s and its embrace of fascism and dictatorship, Machen found in nature great comfort, noting that “in hours of darkness and discouragement I love to think of that sharp summit ridge of the Matterhorn piercing the blue or the majesty and the beauty of that world spread out at my feet when I stood on the summit of the Dent Blanche.”17 Nature had been for Machen, as it is for many of us, a window into the eternal truths and beauty of the living God.

IV. Holy Scripture and Creation

We should not be surprised to find a shared theological heritage of praising God for his goodness and creativity in the created order, given the significance of nature in the Bible and even the life of Christ. The Old Testament is filled with references to nature as a testament to eternal truth. For example, Psalm 19 begins,

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat (ESV).

In an interesting fulfillment of the psalmists’ observation that the “heavens declare the glory of God,” Jesus’ birth was foretold by a star, while his entrance into the world via a stable, surrounded by animals, has sparked much reflection in Christian song on even the natural world welcoming the Incarnation.18 As Sweeney observes, St. Francis, who is responsible for the first Nativity scene, seemed to make this connection in his reflection on the Incarnation, seeing the “humility of God’s being born in a stable and the animals that were likely present when it occurred.”19 In his earthly ministry, Jesus relied heavily on the natural world in his teachings and parables. Probably most famously, Christ in His Sermon on the Mount proclaimed in Matthew 6:26-30 (RSV),

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

In observing God’s tender care for the birds, and in claiming that the lilies of the field were more glorious than Solomon in all his splendor, Jesus demonstrated his notably high view of nature, and how the natural order could actually serve as a spiritual teaching mechanism to elicit reflection, thanksgiving, and praise. Even his entrance into Jerusalem upon a donkey declared not only a specific spiritual lesson on Christ’s humility, but also God’s unexpected means of fulfilling ancient Jewish prophecy (Matthew 21:7; Zechariah 9:9).

V. Further Catholic and Reformed Shared Territory

I would also offer that Catholicism shares a further corollary with Reformed Protestants in its conception of the natural world, and specifically animals. Just as many Reformed persons cringe at our culture’s increasing perception of nature, and specifically animals, as holding equal value with humankind, Catholicism likewise teaches that there is an ontological difference between humans, created in the image of God, and the creatures of this world. Although “each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection,” Jesus has declared that we are of more value than birds, that “man is the summit of the Creator’s work.”20 Furthermore, the Catechism, drawing on the writings of St. Catherine of Siena and St. John Chrysostom, teaches that,

…Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator” He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,” and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:

“What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good.”

Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. and he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead. God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him:

“What is it that is about to be created, that enjoys such honor? It is man that great and wonderful living creature, more precious in the eyes of God than all other creatures! For him the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rest of creation exist…”21

With this being the case, the Church, in accord with those strands of Reformed thought that draw sharp distinctions between man and creation, can express wary concern with those who would seek to reduce or eliminate those distinctions. To give a common contemporary example, for a couple to claim that getting a pet will in some way prepare them for parenthood is a bit like someone determining that in order to learn tennis, he will take up volleyball. There may be a lot of commonality: a ball, a serve, and a net, for example; there may even be some things about volleyball that will make an individual, all things being equal, a better tennis player: athletic conditioning, the development of quick reflexes, and teamwork. But such an individual will find that the divide between the two remains so great as to make the commonalities seem almost irrelevant. The competitive volleyball player will not learn how to hold the racquet, nor how to hit forehands, backhands, or volleys, nor the differently-dimensioned court, nor the divergent rules and strategies. That player will find himself in the “beginner” tennis class, just like everybody else. Volleyball does not a tennis player make.

And so it goes with pets and children. There may be some commonality: learning to be responsible for another by providing meals, cleaning up excrement, offering exercise, and the like. But babies, toddlers, and little children are not dogs. The latter require a small fraction of the attention children require; they do not require progressively more complex toys and ideas to feed their growing minds; they will, to put it quite bluntly, greatly complicate and alter one’s life and goals in a way a dog or cat is incapable of accomplishing. I know this from personal experience. My parents lovingly gave me a springer spaniel puppy for my tenth birthday. I loved that dog, and although I lacked the responsibility to care for it without the patient supervision of my parents, I grew up with it. She lasted through my college years and beyond, by which time I had learned to responsibly care for and appreciate a pet. When she died, I wept… a lot. It was like a part of my childhood died with her. But she was still just a dog. Annemarie, our 16-month old, on the other hand, is not a dog (trust me, I’ve tried to play fetch with her, and her independent streak leads her to tire of the game after the second throw). From the day of her birth, she required immediate supervision and a deep level of responsibility on the part of her parents. She needs her parents’ attention and love all the time, and that they continue to learn and grow as well so that they can patiently and lovingly care for her and help her develop from a baby to a toddler, to a child, to God-willing, an adult (notice I skipped teenager… please God!) To think that my experience with my dog could in any serious way adequately prepare me for my daughter would be simple nonsense, and quite insulting to her (my daughter, not the dog).

VI. Accepting the “Blessing of the “Animals”

We have seen that St. Francis’s deep spiritual appreciation of nature is not something novel, but ingrained within the very heart of Scripture and the teaching of Christ. Reformed thinkers, themselves steeped in both the Bible and various Christian traditions, have maintained this love of the created order. So what of the Catholic Church’s annual blessing of the animals? There can be nothing wrong with loving the animals God has entrusted us, be they pet or beast of burden. Indeed, it seems proper not only to thank the Lord for the good things they provide us, but even, like Jesus, to seek to learn important lessons from them and the greater natural world. To the Reformed, I would think then the greatest obstacle to appreciate and accept such a practice as that developed by the Catholic Church on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi would be Reformed suspicions of the sacerdotal and sacramental system.22 This, of course, would be a much larger and harder pill to swallow, and this short reflection is hardly the appropriate place to provide the necessary arguments for the Catholic sacramental system. I would only briefly note that if we are willing, as now seems appropriate, to ask God to bless our animals and the natural world, it is not necessarily an illogical or distant step to think a representative of God might mediate that blessing for us.23 It is enough for now to recognize the shared theological heritage of Catholic and Reformed, and how St. Francis’s vision of God mediated through creation can be a guide and inspiration to us all in our worship of the Triune God.

VII. More on St. Francis

For those interested in knowing more about St. Francis beyond his particular relationship to the natural world, there is a vast host of literature on the saint that discusses, from a variety of angles, the life of this controversial figure. John M. Sweeney’s recently-published When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages is one such study, seeking to move beyond those stereotypical impressions of Francis by re-telling his story as a model or inspiration for our own spirituality, and arguing that Francis “saved” Medieval Catholic Christianity. Unfortunately, the former goal is much easier to accomplish in a 175-page book, while the latter may not be possible regardless of how many pages were available to the author.

As for the former, Sweeney succeeds in demonstrating how the life and teachings of St. Francis, should, like the Jesus of the Gospels, unnerve, unsettle, and provoke us into a deeper self-examination and active search for God. Indeed, like many of our own conversion stories, St. Francis’s spiritual re-direction came after reflecting on Holy Scripture, particularly Jesus’s interaction with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 and Christ’s direction in Luke 9 to his disciples to take “nothing for the journey” in their evangelizing efforts.24

To give but one example from St. Francis’s life, Sweeney highlights his embrace of “our Sister Death,” a startling phrase, but significant in demonstrating the saint’s understanding that “death was essential to life and essential to knowing the God whom he wanted to love in every possible way.”25 Indeed, the full verse from the “Canticle of Creatures” is moving in its reflection on death:

Praise to you, O Lord, for our Sister Death and the death of the body from whom no one may escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin: but blessed are they who are found walking by your most holy will, for the second death shall have no power to do them harm. Praise to you, O my Lord, and all blessing. We give you thanks and serve you with great humility.26

In the eyes of St. Francis, we can actually be grateful for death, as it takes on new meaning and significance through the resurrection, as St. Paul declares, “Where O death is thy sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). This is certainly an important and Scripturally-centered message for our contemporary culture, where we seek to lengthen youth, prolong life, and avoid the great unknown.

Sadly, much of the powerful message St. Francis has for our present day is obscured in most of Sweeney’s book, which suffers from a host of historical over-simplifications, straw-men, and false dichotomies. Among these many problems is the frequent pitting of a supposedly “revolutionary” St. Francis against the often overly-dogmatic Catholic Church, an apparent aversion to theology that expresses itself through some unfortunate back-handed criticisms of the Dominicans, or Order of Preachers, and a failure to view historical events like the Crusades with a sympathetic eye.27

Sweeney makes the audacious claim that St. Francis is “perhaps a man for our time” because he was “relatively uninterested in theological debates and creedal statements.”28 This theme continues throughout the book, seen for example in the author’s assessment that the “Canticle of the Creatures,” in the authors’ words, “avoids theological nuance.”29 Apart from the immediate fact that the section of the Canticle quoted above makes strong theological statements in its praise of God for death, its allusions to Scripture, and its reference to the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin, Sweeney’s analysis fails to recognize the theological impetus behind many aspects of St. Francis’s life and teaching. To take but one example, Sweeney’s re-telling of St. Francis’s invention of the Christmas crèche in 1223 fails to recognize that the action was more than an embrace of the “earthiness” of the Incarnation, but also a theological statement against the anti-incarnational beliefs of the Cathars and Albigensians, popular medieval heretical movements which had many followers in France and Italy.30

Sweeney likewise portrays St. Francis as a foil against St. Dominic’s contemporaneous religious order, the Order of Preachers. While St. Francis is portrayed as a man who lived out a radical call to friendship with all peoples, Sweeney describes the Dominicans as offering “doctrinaire preaching” far removed from the poor masses.31 He later depicts St. Dominic as pandering to the papacy, claiming that he “must have known every lemonade vendor on the Via Flaminia,” the ancient road that leads to Rome. St. Francis meanwhile, is praised as being an outsider to the papal hierarchy, a sort of renegade who “has never been Rome’s favorite religious leader.”32

This is an entirely unnecessary contrast to make. For one, the Dominicans did tremendous good in informing poorly catechized Catholics across Medieval Europe of Church doctrine, saving many from heresy and deepening love of God and contemplation of Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas, probably the most famous and influential member of the Order of Preachers (and a Doctor of the Church), has had an incalculable effect on Church teaching and the lives of individual Catholics. For those who have interacted with Dominicans, one quickly discovers that the more we know of God, the more profound our love of Him will become. In truth, I myself was converted to the Catholic faith in part through the guidance and help of a Dominican theologian. In creating this unnecessary chasm between the two orders, Sweeney fails to recognize that the diverse members of the Church have many charisms, and that individuals inclined to a Franciscan or Dominican spirituality (or the many other forms of Catholic spirituality) can work and worship cooperatively rather than combatively.

Finally, Sweeney’s historical analysis suffers from a constant over-simplification of events and trends in Medieval Europe. For example, he rightly praises St. Francis for his love of Muslims and his evangelizing spirit towards them, specifically those with whom crusading armies were fighting in Egypt. Sweeney argues that for St. Francis there was “no ‘other,’” which allowed St. Francis to see the Egyptian sultan Malik al-Kamil as another human being. “Probably for the first time,” the sultan, in turn, “experienced a Christian faithful to the original teachings of Jesus.” Sweeney praises Francis for his “deeply respectful” attitude towards all human beings, even Muslims, and contrasts it with his “average contemporary who preached and believed that Muslims and Jews should simply confess Jesus Christ or die.” St. Francis is further lauded for penning his “Praises to God” in 1224 as likely modeled after The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah, demonstrating his ability to see the good in Muslim dogma and practice.33

In seeking to rightly praise St. Francis’s remarkable charity towards Muslims and appreciation of the good in Islam, Sweeney presents a “straw man” conception of the Crusades that fails to recognize its original intent, which as Chesterton described it, was to prevent a tangible “military danger to Christendom.”34 Indeed, many crusaders viewed their vows as acts of charity, seeking to assist their eastern Christian brothers, the Byzantines, in their attempts to stem the tide of Muslim invasions and provocations. Nor do we hear of the pious St. Louis IX, king of France, who launched two crusades in hopes of reclaiming lands for Christianity to grow and flourish, all the while maintaining a flawless record of integrity and holiness. Unless we want to question the Church’s decision to canonize Louis IX and other crusaders, it seems a bit uncharitable and unfair to claim that only St. Francis’s approach to Muslims was “faithful to the original teachings of Jesus.” In Sweeney’s account, we are exposed to typical popular conceptions of the Crusades: an anecdote of crusaders massacring a town of Jews in France and the opportunistic Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who made a pledge to defeat the Muslims on crusade. In truth, Muslim atrocities towards Christians easily compete with those of Crusaders, while Frederick II avoided crusading for years after his pledge, was excommunicated by a pope for his reneging on his promise, and, when he finally reached the Holy Land, cut a tenuous deal with Muslim leaders rather than fight.35

It is certainly true, and gravely misfortunate, that the era of the Crusades was marked by its fair share of greed, opportunism, and violence. But as Chesterton perceptively notes in his own St. Francis of Assisi,, “the Crusaders doubtless abused their victory, but there was a victory to abuse.”36 As he explains later in his own book on St. Francis, “it is true that there is not, as pacifists and prigs imagine, the least inconsistency between loving men and fighting them, if we fight them fairly and for good cause.”37 It is not necessary to entirely malign the Crusades in order to see the beauty and “revolutionary” nature of St. Francis’s overtures to Muslims. Indeed, as with most everything with the Medieval saint, his “revolutionary” actions, be they loving Muslims, appreciating nature, or embracing poverty, were not actually new, but demonstrative of a return to the heart of the Gospel.38

It is for these reasons that I cannot recommend Sweeney’s book as a particularly helpful guide in discerning the impact and meaning of St. Francis’s life and teaching. One interested in developing a more balanced, historical, and theologically-faithful account of the mendicant friar would do well to read Chesterton’s classic biography, or Augustine Thompsons’s (O.P.) recent study, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. Although I have not personally read Fr. Thompson’s text, it has received widespread academic praise from trustworthy sources, such as the religious journal First Things.39 Also, while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (and prior to my conversion), I had the pleasure of taking a survey course on the history of Christianity taught by Fr. Thompson. The course featured the classic original biography of St. Francis, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, and spent considerable time discussing the historical St. Francis and his impact on Christianity. If his writing is anything like his lecturing, I’m sure many will find his book of great value.

In honor of my father, Daniel Francis Chalk, of whose love of nature and often eccentric spirit St. Francis would be proud. Happy Birthday Dad! May your soul rest in peace. St. Francis of Assisi, who, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “did not want to see the wood for the trees,” but “wanted to see each tree as a separate and sacred thing,” pray for us!

  1. This became more personal when I realized my father, Daniel Francis Chalk, though a lapsed Catholic, had a unique connection to St. Francis having been born on his feast day. His parents, themselves Catholics, aptly named my father after the saint, and the choice couldn’t have been more appropriate: my father throughout his life held a deep love and appreciation for nature, particularly birds, just as St. Francis. Many might also note that my father, like St. Francis, was often accused of being wild and impetuous! []
  2. John M. Sweeney, When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages, (Notre Dame, Ave Maria Press, 2014), 63. []
  3. Sweeney, pp. 62-68. []
  4. Sweeney, pp. 107, 113. []
  5. G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2013), pp. 28, 30. []
  6. Chesterton, p. 30. []
  7. Chesterton, p. 36. []
  8. Sweeney, pp. 69-70. []
  9. Susan E. Schreiner, The Theater of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1991) p. 5. []
  10. Peter A. Huff, “Calvin and the Beasts: Animals in John Calvin’s Theological Discourse,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 42/1 (March 1999) pp. 67–75. []
  11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1960) 1.6.2. []
  12. Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.10. []
  13. John Calvin, Calvin: Commentaries, Library of Christian Classics, Joseph Haroutunian, trans. and ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958) pp. 59–60. []
  14. Quoted in Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500–1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983) p. 329. More humorously, Calvin late in life recalled that Genevan residents had set their dogs upon him, while some of his critics had taken to naming their pets after him (Huff, p. 71.) []
  15. Jonathan Edwards, “Of Insects,” []
  16. J. Gresham Machen, “Mountains and Why We Love Them.” This paper was read before a group of ministers in Philadelphia on November 27, 1933 and subsequently published in Christianity Today (August 1934) and in the author’s collection of essays, What Is Christianity? (edited by Ned B. Stonehouse; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951). []
  17. J. Gresham Machen, “Mountains and Why We Love Them.” []
  18. I am thinking specifically of the 12th-century traditional French Christmas carol “The Friendly Beasts,” in which various animals sing of the role they played in helping Mary and Joseph, and welcoming Christ into the world. []
  19. Sweeney, p. 114. []
  20. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339, 343-343. []
  21. CCC 356-358. []
  22. Anecdotally, Calvin used the language of animals to mock the Catholic sacramental system, saying that men ordained to the level of the priesthood “are turned from horses into asses.” He further called Bishops “apes,” who “imitate everything wantonly and without any discrimination.” (Calvin, Institutes, 4.19.29) []
  23. We at Called To Communion have elsewhere sought to provide the biblical, historical, and logical reasons for the Church’s sacerdotalism, which provides the basis for believing that a specific kind of individual, uniquely invested by God with sacramental powers, might offer a unique blessing to a person, animal, or object. See Holy Orders and the Sacramental Priesthood and St. Thomas on Sacramentalism. []
  24. One also thinks of St. Augustine’s conversion following his reading of Romans 13, or St. Anthony’s decision to head into the desert after hearing a reading from Matthew 19. I myself was deeply moved by a verse from Judges in my own conversion to Catholicism: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges, 21:25). []
  25. Sweeney, p. 128. []
  26. Sweeney, p. 130. []
  27. Sweeney, p. 18. []
  28. Sweeney, p. 20. []
  29. Sweeney, p. 131. []
  30. Sweeney, pp. 114-116. As Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University Donald S. Prudlo notes, St. Francis’s entire life was an extended testament against the Cathar heresy, a fight necessitated all the more by the fact that the saint’s embrace of poverty seemed dangerously similar to the similarly mendicant Cathars. See Francis of Assisi Pattern For Lay Holiness. []
  31. Sweeney, pp. 45-46. []
  32. Sweeney, pp. 95-96. []
  33. Sweeney, pp. 57-61. []
  34. Chesterton, p. 35. []
  35. For a more balanced perspective on the crusades, Thomas F. Madden’s The New Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) is a great introductory text. []
  36. Chesterton, p. 20. []
  37. Chesterton, p. 51. []
  38. For more information on the Crusades, see Called To Communion‘s podcast interview of Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University, Thomas F. Madden. []
  39. See Carlos Eire’s First Things book review, Paradoxical Francis. []

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  1. Ave Maria!
    Thanks for this article on our feast day!

    A few comments:
    1. You may be interested in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s interpretation of St. Francis’ vocation to “Build up the Church” and how not only is it not done yet, but it’s just getting started. The first part was working for the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, now the sons of St. Francis are being called to incorporate the dogma into the life of the Church.

    2. Many of the problems likely come from the influence of the Protestant writer Paul Sabatier. His biographies of St. Francis are the most significant source of “St. Francis the Hippie.” Read the letters of St. Francis.

    3. St. Francis was unambigiously Papal. He went directly to the Pope time and time again. For crying out loud, he had 12 men in the order, and before things went any further, he went the Pope for approval of their way of life. The image at the top of the article is from the dream that the pope had after being, for lack of a better word, accosted by St. Francis, and the dream was of the Little Poor Man holding up the Lateran Basilica.

    4. Our beloved brothers in white: we celebrate St. Dominic as a feast, and refer to him as Holy Father Dominic. We, while having disagreements, are hardly enemies.

    5. St. Francis sought out the Muslims to end to crusades, not by recognizing their common humanity, but by preaching the Gospel to them and making them Christians. Failing this, he hoped to feel the Muslim sword, as St. Berard and Companions already had in Morocco. That he neither converted them or was martyred was a heavy blow.

    Also, a holy religious is one who lives out the charism of the order, and we cannot forget that St. Lawrence of Brindisi, as the chaplain of the army, lead the European forces in their charge against the Turkish force (which was four times larger) in the battle of Belgrade.

    However, he was impressed by the Muslims’ public calls to prayer, and exhorted Christian rulers to do something similar.

    St. Francis was no sentimentalist, but was one completely overtaken by grace and burning with the love of God (this is why he is called “seraphic”). His internal conformity to Christ was manifested externally by the stigmata, a new mystical gift. I would recommend the book (full disclosure, it is from our publishing house) Virgo Facta Ecclesia, and for a deeper study, Virgo Ecclesia Facta (Facta Virgo Ecclesia, Facta Ecclesia Virgo, Ecclesia Virgo Facta, and Ecclesia Facta Virgo are all in the works ;) )

    Holy Father Francis, pray for us!

    Ave Maria!
    fra Charles, Franciscan of the Immaculate

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