Saint Francis of Assisi (cont.)
His church was out of doors in the beautiful world that he loved, in mountain, field, or forest, wherever he happened to be wandering. Sometimes he preached by the candle-light of stars. Often the cloistering trees along the roadside made his chapel, and the blue sky was the only roof between him and heaven. Often his choir was of the brother birds in the branches and his congregation a group of brother beasts. For he preached to them also who, though they spoke a different language, were yet children of his Father. And in his little talks to them he always showed the courtesy which one brother owes another.
Once, on returning from a journey beyond the sea, he was traveling through the Venetian country, when he heard a great congregation of birds singing among the bushes. And he said to his companion, "Our sisters, the birds, are praising their Maker. Let us then go into their midst and sing." So they did this, and the birds did not fly away but continued to sing so loudly that the brothers could not hear each other. Then Saint Francis turned to the birds and said politely, "Sisters, cease your song until we have rendered our bounden praise to God." So the birds were still until the brothers had finished their psalm. But after that when it was again their turn the birds went on with their song.
At another time when he was preaching in the town of Alvia among the hills, the swallows flew about and twittered so loudly that the people could not hear Saint Francis' voice. The birds did not mean to be rude, however. So he turned to the swallows and saluted them courteously. "My sisters," he said, "it is now time that I should speak. Since you have had your say, listen now in your turn to the word of God and be silent till the sermon is finished." And again the birds obeyed the smile and the voice of him who loved them. Though whether they understood the grown-up sermon that followed I cannot tell.
But this is the little sermon which he made one day for a congregation of birds who sat around him in the bushes listening.
"Brother Birds, greatly are ye bound to praise the Creator who clotheth you with feathers and giveth you wings to fly with and a purer air to breathe; and who careth for you who have so little care for yourselves."
It was not a long sermon, so the birds could not have grown tired or sleepy, and I am sure they understood every word. So after he had given them his blessing he let them go, and they went singing as he had bidden them.
Saint Francis preached the lessons of peace; he would not have cruelty or bloodshed among his human friends. And he also taught his beasts to be kind. He loved best the gentle lambs, one of which was almost always with him, and in his sermons he would point to them to show men what their lives should be. But there is a story told of the lesson he taught a wolf that shows what power the Saint had over the fiercer animals. There are many stories of wolves whom the saints made tame. But this wolf of Saint Francis was the most terrible of them all.
This huge and savage wolf had been causing great horror to the people of Gubbio. For in the night he not only stole sheep and cows from the farms, but he came and carried off men also for his dinner, so that people were afraid to go out of the town for fear of being gobbled up.
Now Saint Francis came. And he said, "I will go out and seek this wolf." But the townsfolk begged him not to go, for the good man was dear to them and they feared never to see him again. However, he was resolved and went forth from the gate.
He had gone but a little way when out rushed the wolf to meet him, with his mouth wide open, roaring horribly. Then Saint Francis made the sign of the cross and said gently: "Come hither, Brother Wolf. I command thee in Christ's behalf that thou do no evil to me nor to any one." And wonderful to say! The wolf grew tame and came like a lamb to lie at Saint Francis' feet.
Then Francis went on to rebuke him, saying that he deserved to be hung for his many sins, being a robber and a wicked murderer of men and beasts. "But I wish, Brother Wolf," he said, "to make peace between thee and men; therefore vex them no more and they will pardon thee all thy past offenses, and neither dogs nor men will chase thee any more."
At this the wolf wagged his tail and bowed his head to show he understood. And putting his right paw in the hand of Saint Francis he promised never again to steal nor slay. Then like a gentle dog he followed the holy man to the market-place of the town, where great crowds of people had gathered to see what Saint Francis would do with the great beast, their enemy, for they thought he was to be punished. But Francis rose and said to them: "Hearken, dear brethren: Brother Wolf who is here before you has promised me that he will make peace with you and will never injure you in any way, if ye promise to give him day by day what is needful for his dinner. And I will be surety for him." Thereupon with a great shout all the people promised to give him his daily food. Again the wolf wagged his tail, flapped his long ears, bowed his head, and gave his paw to Saint Francis to show that he would keep his word. All the people saw him do this. And then there were shouts of wonder you may be sure, and great rejoicing because Saint Francis had saved them from this cruel beast, and had made a gentle friend of their dreaded enemy.
So after this the wolf lived two years at Gubbio and went about from door to door humbly begging his food like Saint Francis himself. He never harmed anyone, not even the little children who teased and pulled him about. But all the people loved him and gave him what he liked to eat; and not even a dog would bark at his heels or growl at the friend of Saint Francis. So he lived to a good old age. And when after two years Brother Wolf died because he was so old, the citizens were very sorrowful. For not only did they miss the soft pat-pat of his steps passing through the city, but they grieved for the sorrow of Saint Francis in losing a kindly friend — Saint Francis of whose saintliness and power the humble beast had been a daily reminder.
(Saint Francis and the Wolf,
photo by Jason at Flickr)