Fall 1982, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 222-232.

Thomas B. Stratman:
      St. Francis of Assisi: Brother to All Creatures

Francis's love for animals, flowers, and all nature was not sentimentality but a profound appreciation for reality as it comes from the hands of the Creator and leads back to him.

Mr. Stratman has served as cantor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. This article grew out of research for a program of words and music for Tyche, an early music ensemble, with which he sings.

ZEFFIRELLI'S Brother Sun, Sister Moon gave us a St. Francis of Assisi pleasantly sweet to some, naively so to others. That picture is part of our culture. Those who know no other saint may have a shrine to Francis in the backyard, near a bird bath. Francis, they have heard, preached to the birds, and that thought brings warm feelings to their hearts.

The love St. Francis had for animals has much to do with his eight centuries of popularity and contributes to making him one of our mythical figures. It also subjects him to the distortions that myths beget. Francis's love for animals, flowers, and all nature has become romanticized. But if he is allowed to speak for himself, a different picture emerges, one more deeply moving, strong as well as gentle.

The common view of the poor man of Assisi's love for nature suffers most from sentimentality. The point is not that sentiments or feelings are bad. Rather, it is that sentimentality, as opposed to deep feeling, involves distortion and is apt to be superficial.

It is all well and good to feel tender emotions for small and beautiful things of nature. But the world, as it is, also holds grand things, fearsome things, things that overwhelm us and leave us mystified, tumultuous forces that swell the seas and well up in mighty storms. Some animals seem brutal and savage in their ways. Death and destruction counterbalance the productive and creative forces of nature. Our feelings have to be adequate to the former if we are to love the world as it is. Awe and reverence must have their place alongside sweet, nurturing feelings. The sentimental tendencies of our culture leave such awe dormant or repressed, because it stirs the hidden darks of our psychic depths. Such an attitude makes us and our world too small, so that we and it are safe but not great or exciting.

St. Francis did not preserve his gentle love of people by closing his eyes to the realities of human life. He did not walk, in Zeffirellian fashion, in the fields of Perugia, indifferent to work, politics, and economics. His views about them come in his sometimes harsh words. He describes, for example, the death of a rich man complete with relatives feigning sorrow only in order to get a more ample mention in the will (Letter to the Faithful, Om 97-98, SP 185-86).(1) He insists that his friars are to have or learn an honest trade with which to support themselves (Testament, Om 68, SP 201; Rule 1221, ch. 7). He tells the friars in hermitages to live in pairs of Marthas, laborers, and Marys, contemplatives and teachers of the Marthas (Life in Hermitages, Om 72, SP 199). Francis saw the world with eyes open to human weakness and practical need.

Similarly, his love for animals was real and an integral part of his vision of all things. The stance he took had a profound ontological basis, was singularly free of chauvinism, and was scripturally based. Furthermore, he wholeheartedly lived its moral consequences.


Francis loved things as they are; his stance was ontologically sound. His poetry vividly proclaims that fact. Take his praise per frate focu, "through (or for) brother fire,"(2) in the Canticle of Brother Sun, where he sings: "Be praised, my Sir, through Brother Fire, because of whom the night is lit up, and he is bello (comely, handsome, beautiful, good to look at), and iocundo (jolly, pleasant, outgoing), and robusto (hardy, lusty), and forte (powerful, forthright, not at all shy)."

Note that Francis does not shy away from fire's power and strength. He does not try to make fire something petite. He likes it as it is.

Note, too, how the saint describes the pleasure fire gives rather than its usefulness. He does not say, "Be praised, Lord, for fire that fuels our forges and warms our houses." Francis's fire blazes away in high contrast to the surrounding dark. The saint delights in this jolly, lusty show-off of a fellow, who, overjoyed to be fire, spills out into the night his sheer abundance of being. Francis delights in fire's flamboyant delight to be fire.

Here is a lover's ecstatic response to the real. Francis is carried away like a person watching the deceptively easy and graceful motions of a skilled dancer or athlete. He feels the delight a lover has in the beloved's delight.

This attitude keeps the good of being primary over the good of use, but it does not therefore condemn use. Fire lights the night, a useful and beautiful trait. And the canticle praises God for Sister Water who is very useful, it says, and lowly or submissive. But she is also pretiosa (sparkling like a jewel) and casta (pure, clear, chaste). Francis appreciates both kinds of goodness but keeps the good of being as primary. Water, after all, becomes less useful when she loses her appealing clarity. Fire serves best when he is free to be a fiery fellow. Usefulness is the fruit of being, even of well-being, not vice versa.

Furthermore, it is the real good that proclaims God. Francis does not turn from this world to find the divine, nor does he piously interject God into it. The poor man of Assisi finds his Lord in the sensual, pleasurable, material world. As things are, they proclaim God. Whoever enjoys them well feels God near.

Thus Francis sings, "Be praised . . . for Mister Brother Sun." The saint enjoys the sun's light and adds, "From you, Most High, he brings a message." The passage can also be rendered, "Of you, Most High, he imparts a meaning." The real sensual sun makes us aware of how God is.

It is noteworthy that the canticle states this particular relationship explicitly only of the sun. The full weight of such an expression is revealed in these words of Carl Jung:

The sun . . . is the only truly rational image of God, . . . the father -- god from whom all riving things draw life; he is the fructifier and creator, the source of energy for our world . . . . The sun is not only beneficial, but also destructive . . . . Yet it is in the nature of the sun to scorch, and its scorching power seems natural to man. It shines equally on the just and unjust, and allows useful creatures to flourish as well as the harmful. Thus the sun is perfectly suited to represent the visible God of this world, i.e., the creative power of our own soul, which we call libido, and whose nature it is to bring forth . . . the good and the bad. That this comparison is not just a matter of words can be seen from the teachings of the mystics: when they descend to the depths of their own being they find "in their heart" the image of the sun.(3)
Francis's idea, then, is no mere metaphor. The sun, on whom we are dependent for everything, much as we are on God, is, like God, from our point of view, both a source of peace, pleasure, and enjoyment, and a cause of pain. The sun gives us both tan and sunburn, rains and deserts. Its work is mighty and beyond our comprehension. Thus we have an awe of the sun, for without it we could not live.

This awe we feel is a sort of intersection of positive and negative feelings. Our libido resonates in tune with the sun. It is our inner sun, the source of both our joy and trouble.

Thus before God, and before our deep self, and before nature we are forced to come to a deeper understanding of reality than that of surface good and evil. God, as all the world proclaims, is a coniunctio oppositorum. St. Francis, the great mystic, no doubt found the image of the sun at the heart of himself, the image of that love that burnt fiery and deep, yet sweetly, the image of the God both of tender compassion and awesome grandeur.

Francis rejoiced in the fullness of reality. He kept the good of being primary over usefulness and praised God for the awareness of himself that flowed from all things.

Secondly, Francis's attitude was singularly free of chauvinism. In this age when we are trying to live the baptismal equality of all Christians, it is startling to find this thirteenth-century man living the equality which all things possess simply because they exist. For we know how medieval philosophy emphasized the hierarchy of being and human superiority over the rest of the material world.


The repeated sister and brother of the canticle are so familiar that we think of them as a poetic way of talking and nothing more. But Francis meant them in earnest. Thomas of Celano tells us that Francis always called animals brother and sister.(4) He was tender even toward plants and nonliving things, so that he treated them with respect and care. He would remove worms from the road rather than trample on them unnecessarily. Wounded animals came to him for protection and solace. He spoke to them as he would to other persons. Needless disturbing of anything upset him, and he adamantly opposed any such interference except when life or well-being required it. All things were his kin.

This feeling for the dignity and kinship of things had theological foundations for Francis. He loved the word of God, and that word affirmed his love for all things.

On what basis could Francis consider all things equal? Surely, human beings in virtue of reason are superior to other things. Surely, Genesis commands us to conquer and master the earth. Now Francis understood that mastery and submission are part of the dynamics of nature and institutions, as we shall see below. But such relationships must function in keeping with the fundamentally equal dignity of all things.

Francis gives no systematically theological explanation for his view. But he says enough to indicate that it results from creation and providence. And I think it is fair to him to explain his position as follows.

A worm's nature, for example, does not descend to it hierarchically from God, through angels, then humans, then the higher primates, etc. Every being has its existence as its own inner principle. It is thus directly related to God in a way we do not fully grasp. Thus, all things without exception reveal a wise and masterful Creator, and in that are equally dignified.

Moreover, Francis was fond of saying that Jesus was pleased to liken himself to a worm, for the Lord quoted Psalm 22:6: "1 am a worm and no man." And Jesus clothes his teachings in the images of lowly things.(5)

Finally, this respect and love of the poor man of Assisi extended to all things without exception, even to the darker aspects of life. The canticle praises God for skies cloudy and fair and for Sister Bodily Death, "whom none living can escape." What we find evil is worthy to exist and be rejoiced in because in God's plan it functions for sustaining life and proclaims a majesty and wisdom beyond our understanding.


In keeping with this attitude, Francis celebrates not human domination but submission, as he sings in his Praise of the Virtues:

Obedience makes us submissive
to all persons on earth,
nor just to humankind
but to all animals
and wild beasts, too,
that they may do as they please with us
as far as God so permits them.
These are radical words with far reaching implications.

But how is this submission or surrender to things compatible with the saint's profession of detachment and radical poverty? For he does write of the need to despise material things.

Conflict between these two ideas is only apparent, though intensified by the hyperbolic ascetical language of Francis's day. Holy persons continue to need material goods. To seek to be otherwise would be an act of pride, a denial of who we truly are. Rather, one way of interpreting spiritual detachment is precisely to see it as keeping the value of things in themselves primary to their usefulness as extensions of ourselves. It is careless manipulation, cold unconcern for things, that takes the spirit out of us. To love, honor, and be one with things is to let them be what they are, to have no need to demand of them what they are not, to trust and enjoy them in spiritual freedom, confident of the providence of their Maker on both their and our behalf. That is how the gentle inherit the earth.

The sovereignty Genesis calls for is neither dictatorial mastery nor indifference. Francis understood it as stewardship, our human and Christian vocation. Obedience, submission, care, and authority were all of a piece for him.

That view formed the basis of Francis's political organization of his order. Friar superiors are to be called ministers and never priors. They are to wash the feet of the brethren as Jesus commanded (Rule 1221, ch. 6). The phrase "ministers, and therefore servants of the other friars" runs like a refrain through the rules, admonitions, and letters. The Letter to All the Faithful (Om 95-96, SP 183-84) reads: "The man who is in authority and is regarded as the superior should become the least of all and serve his brother and he should be as sympathetic with each one of them as he would wish others to be with him if he were in a similar position . . . We should not want to be in charge of others; we are to be servants, and we should be subject to every human creature for God's sake (1 Peter 2:13)."

It is clear from both rules and from Admonitions IV that, for St. Francis, authority is not power over another but the responsibility to care for another, to promote the other's good in the fullest sense of the word. Thus human authority over nature is no license to overhaul the world according to human ambition or design. Reason implies a vocation to understand nature. Our minds oblige us to work to fulfill the innate purposes and possibilities of things in our care. Our mastery should be that of artists who respect and work with their materials. For ultimately that is to bring forth the latent purpose of God. Francis practiced such a way with radical poverty, a determination never to treat anything as his posession. In doing so, he found that all things freely came to him. As he honored them, they submitted to him.

Thomas of Celano said it well: "Thus did the glorious Father Francis, walking in the way of obedience and embracing perfectly the yoke of obedience to God, acquire great dignity in the sight of God in that creatures obeyed him."(6)


Francis's poetic insight, the courage and fervor with which he lived his vision, enabled him to bring something radical into the world. His views are startlingly relevant here and now as we are experiencing the effects of a too heavy-handed authority over the earth while some are again quoting Genesis to justify such behavior. Furthermore, Francis offers concepts of the counsels of obedience and poverty that apply both to those under vow and in the world.

But the good saint was also human and a man of his times. His attitude toward his own body is more reflective of the religious asceticism of the thirteenth century than of his own deeper insights, or at least so it seems to our historical perspective. At this point we find an inconsistency in Francis's thought.

If creatures have a dignity in virtue of their being, then our bodies and our "lower natures" share that dignity. If all things reveal God's will and thus deserve a certain submission from us, then our appetites share that position. If the animal self is no more than the source of sin and evil, then the animal world deserves to be treated with suspicion. I refer the reader back to the quotation from Jung. Creativity comes from our libido, our appetitive or lower nature, as a share in the divine solar power. Our delight in the sun is a friendship based on kinship in being. What applies to nature applies to the natural self and vice versa.

Francis had a perhaps unarticulated awareness of this relationship, for he called his own creature self Brother Ass. Nevertheless, throughout his writings are statements like: "Everyone has his own enemy in his power, and this enemy is his lower nature which leads him into sin. Blessed is the religious who keeps this enemy a prisoner under his control and protects himself against it" (Admonitions X). "The body . . . is soon to die and is the enemy of the soul" (Rule 1221, ch. 10). "Our lower nature, the source of so much vice and sin, should be hateful to us" (Letter to the Faithful, Om 95, SP 183). By such statements, the person seems to be essentially a house divided, a schizoid being.

The problem is not that these statements are absolutely false. Almost every spiritual discipline, Christian or otherwise, has their like. But their very truth makes them dangerous.

Francis seems to be counseling repression. His statements can be interpreted otherwise, but their wording looks entirely negative.(7) If bodily appetites are to be feared and imprisoned, then logically the place for animals is in zoos or on leash. But Francis would hardly agree to that. One can say that Francis did not intend that we should hate our bodies. But he said he was a simple man whose words were to be taken simply and forbade others to interpret his words "in virtue of obedience," strong language for a religious (Testament, Om 69, SP 203).

So let me cite examples. His friars themselves, prone to severe penances, seemed to interpret his words literally. It is recorded in the anonymous Legend of the Three Companions (no. 59) that Francis had to scold his friars at general chapters for their harsh disciplines. "Some of them mortified their bodies so severely in order to repress [italics mine] all the natural impulses that they appeared to be hating themselves." Francis would dress their wounds, as if to say by deed, "That is not what I meant."

But even the holiest persons tend to correct others for the faults they themselves have trouble with. Celano's Second Life (ch. 160) tells how Francis, near death, suffered scruples about relieving his physical pain even a little, though he was exhausted. He then asked one of the brothers what to do. The friar admonished Father Francis that such behavior was unworthy of him. To fail to reward the body that had so served him was an unkindness, injustice, and a sin. Francis blessed his son and praised him for his inspired words, and then spoke to his own flesh, "Rejoice, brother body, and forgive me."

To Francis's credit, his writings do show a more gentle attitude as well. Friars should not hesitate to tell each other of their bodily needs (Rule 1221, ch. 6). Dispensation from the rule is to be granted liberally. In accordance with the gospel, friars may eat any food set before them, except on fast days (ibid., ch. 3). The Rule of 1221, ch. 3, required an Advent fast. The 1223 rule, ch. 3, restated that fast but added that those who did not wish to keep it should not be forced to.

Francis tells us in Testament (Om 67, SP 200) that he felt compassion with lepers and this was a joy for both his body and his spirit. And he wrote to Brother Leo (Om 118, SP 197) "as a mother to her child." So he experienced body-spirit harmony and was able to trust his own feminine side.

Finally, he hated dismal, somber piety. He urged his friars to be and act joyfully. He was quick to remedy his own fatigue and depression with rest and quiet prayer.(8) He counseled his friars to feed their bodies and respond to bodily needs, for brother body is the giver of spiritual strength, and he therefore deserves to be kept healthy and happy.9 Francis was not for muzzling the ox that mills the grain (1 Cor. 9:9).

Saint Francis of Assisi's attitude toward animals and nature was no mere side issue in his life nor a sentimental metaphor. It was not one-sided or chauvinistic, but profoundly real, full of respect and reverence, and deeply religious. It was central to his spirituality and is as salutary today as it was 800 years ago, if not more so. It provides roots for Christian humanism in areas of personal morality, ecology, and politics. Francis, no philosopher himself, did not develop its implications systematically and was perhaps even unaware of some of them. But his vision is so basic, pervasive, and straightforward that it must challenge us to a deeper, more creative friendship with all things and with their Maker.

  1. References to Francis's works are given in parentheses within the text as follows: shortened title, locus in the work's own numbered section if it has numbered sections or, if not, by its page number in two editions: Om refers to Saint Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of Saint Francis, ed. Marion A. Habig, 3rd rev, edition (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973); and since the following is still the most generally accessible English edition, it, too, is cited as SP: Saint Francis of Assisi: His Life and Writings as Recorded by His Contemporaries, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Mowbray, 1959). Translations quoted in the text are from Om unless otherwise stated.
  2. Lawrence S. Cunningham, Saint Francis of Assisi (Boston: Twayne, 1976), pp. 52-53, explains the difficulties of translating Francis's thirteenth century Umbrian. The little word per has no exact English equivalent. Cunningham gives the full text of the canticle in Italian and English on pp. 57-59. Translations of it and Praise of the Virtues are my own with much help from this book.
  3. Symbols of Transformation, in Collected Works, vol. 5 (Princeton: University Press, 1956), para. 176.
  4. See his First Life of Saint Francis, nos. 58-60, 80-81.
  5. Ibid. and throughout the vitae.
  6. Ibid., no. 61.
  7. That such asceticism is neither evangelical nor spiritual has been pointed out by many others. See, e.g., Donald Goergen, The Sexual Celibate (Garden City, N.Y.: Image, 1979), p. 119. See also Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), pp. 37-38, 80, 95-96, 271, 283, where various faculties, bodily and spiritual, are identified as sources of both good and evil.
  8. See, Celano, Second Life, no. 129.
  9. Ibid.