We often associate Saint Francis of Assisi with birds. There are 13th-century stories of Francis preaching to birds in trees. A famous painting by Giotto portrays Francis humbly admiring birds on the ground, his hand raised in blessing. In popular images of Francis today, we see birds circling his head or perched on his shoulders. And let’s not forget the countless admirers of Saint Francis who are happy to place him on their birdbaths!
In reading Saint Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis recently, I was surprised by where Bonaventure positioned what was Francis’ most famous story of preaching to birds. He has the story occurring right at the point in Francis’ life where Francis is struggling with a deep personal dilemma: Should he retire from the world and devote himself entirely to prayer or should he continue traveling about as a preacher of the gospel?
To answer this question, Saint Francis sends brothers to seek the advice of two of his most trusted colleagues: Brother Sylvester and the holy virgin Clare and her sisters.
The word comes back very quickly from both Sylvester and Clare that it is their clear judgment that God wants Francis to keep proclaiming the good news of God’s saving love.
No sooner does Francis hear their response than he immediately stands up, and in the words of Saint Bonaventure, “without the slightest delay he takes to the roads, to carry out the divine command with great fervor.”
Francis’ Sermon to the Birds
The typical reader at this juncture, I believe, would expect Saint Bonaventure to portray Francis as rushing off to the nearest village or marketplace to begin preaching the gospel to the people gathered there. But where does Francis actually go? Francis’ very next stop, according to Bonaventure, is this: “He came to a spot where a large flock of birds of various kinds had come together. When God’s saint saw them, he quickly ran to the spot and greeted them as if they were endowed with reason….
“He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.
“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”
Thomas of Celano, who wrote an earlier biography of Saint Francis, told this same story of Francis’ sermon to the birds, including Francis’ admission of “negligence,” but Celano adds this sentence: “From that day on, [Francis] carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the creator…” (see I Celano XXI)
All Creatures Form One Family
Bonaventure’s story of Francis preaching to birds was a minor shock to me and perhaps to you also. Had Francis not just learned from his special advisors Brother Sylvester and Lady Clare that God wanted him to continue his preaching ministry? And should we not assume that the primary audience of his preaching should be other human beings—and not bunches of birds? I believe that Bonaventure is trying to shock us into widening our horizons, and into learning with Saint Francis that the whole family of creation deserves more respect and ought to be invited to praise God along with us human beings. Maybe just as Francis accused himself of negligence for not inviting the birds—and other animals, reptiles, and so forth—to praise God with him, so we need to admit the same kind of negligence, too.
The more Saint Francis grew in wisdom and in his understanding that God’s love goes out to all creatures, the more he began to see that all creatures make up one family. The most important key to Francis’ understanding that all creatures form one family is the Incarnation. Francis had a great fascination for the feast of Christmas. He was deeply aware of that one moment in history in which God entered creation and the Word became flesh. In his mind, this awesome event sent shockwaves through the whole fabric of creation. The Divine Word not only became human. The Word of God became flesh, entering not only the family of humanity but the whole family of creation, becoming one in a sense with the very dust out of which all things were made.
Francis had a keen sense that all creatures—not just humans—must be included in the celebration of Christmas. Francis’ biographers tell us that he wanted the emperor to ask all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. Walls, too, should be rubbed with food, Francis said, and the beasts in the stable should receive a bounteous meal on Christmas Day. He believed that all creatures had a right to participate in the celebration of Christmas.
More and more, Francis harbored within himself a profound instinct that the saving plan of God, as revealed by the child-Savior born in Bethlehem, was to touch every part of the created world. Given this vision, it was natural for Francis to take literally Jesus’ command in Mark’s Gospel to “proclaim the gospel to every creature”—to birds and fish, rabbits and wolves, as well as to humans. Saint Francis refused to be a human chauvinist—presuming that he was to be saved apart from the rest of creation.
Will Other Creatures Join Us in Heaven?
Will we see our pets and other creatures in the next life? Only God can answer a question like this. But because of his preaching to the birds and his growing respect for other creatures, Saint Francis seemed to be developing the insight that God’s plan of salvation is perhaps larger than most of us have imagined. Near the end of his life, Francis composed his Canticle of the Creatures in which he invites all creatures to praise God—Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, and our Sister Mother Earth and so forth. He seems to see more clearly than ever that all creatures make up one family of creation. And this leads to the question: If we, like Francis, are expected to invite all creatures to praise God with us during our life here on earth, shouldn’t they also be invited to praise God in heaven, as well?