The Simplicity of Animals
Chris, a friend of mine studying in the medical field, recently gave me a description of excitement as “the contraction coupling of the heart, an increase in intracellular calcium ions to the cardiac myocyte when detected by ryanodine receptors in the membrane of the sarcoplasmic reticulum which then transports calcium out into the cytosol in a positive feedback physiological response.” Impressive work, Chris. Strangely, the medical definition of “excitement” doesn’t quite elicit that same contraction coupling of the heart putting aside for a moment any kind of calcium transportation to the cytosol.
Words. Particular to humankind, words are more than mere sounds but are our only real hope for survival. With them, we make our needs known. With words, we cry for help, alert others to danger, recognise friend or enemy. Putting words to music, we can cause nations to rise up, we can illustrate the feelings of a beating heart with so much pathos that the most hard-bitten and world-weary of us can be moved to tears. We can inspire with words, we can injure with words more swiftly than with any device of torture, we can condemn to death or show mercy with a mere “yes” or “no”. We can write a thousand words and be no nearer to the truth than if we had written just four – “I do not know.” And, in a world filled with words, it is often the shortest sentences that are the most powerful: “I love you.” “I am sorry.” “Please forgive me.” “Me, too.” If 98% of all communication is non-verbal, then what a powerful 2% remains.
Perhaps it is because words can tend to build a labyrinth of meaning that obscures simple truth that Francis’ tradition of featuring commonplace animals in his journeys has become a prominent Franciscan theme. This week’s readings feature the creature stories, the crowning one of which is the story of the fearsome wolf of Gubbio. Having terrorised the populace of the mountainside village of Gubbio for years, Francis brokers a treaty between the wolf and the townsfolk so that, in the latter years of the wolf’s life, that which was once greatly feared could be seen wandering the streets and entering the homes of the local people to be fed and nurtured. It is not so much a story of redemption but one of the acceptance of nature. Perhaps it is a parable that suggests we can rise above our nature to encounter the higher virtues of mutual respect, interdependence, understanding and, ultimately, love despite oneself.
There is nothing complex about a rabbit or a lamb or a cricket or a bunch of birds. Yet we so desperately feel the need to overcomplicate life, to explain away that which needs no real explanation, to justify and rationalise. For every new situation, there is a new mission statement. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can always be accommodated in another strategic plan. We wish so much for everything to be predictable and to know more than we need to. In the simplicity of animals, we find a God of surprises revealed, a God of nature. Our God is one with the purest of intentions, just as the animals have, a God who thrives on the simple things of life without worrying about their composition. How much happier would we be if we simply rested with the mysteries around us and enjoyed a life of much fewer words?
God, who spoke to Moses in few words saying, “I AM WHO AM”. God, who calls his Son, the “Beloved”, a beautiful word with an encyclopaedia of consequences behind it. God, who calls to Francis with only three words, “Rebuild my Church.” This is the God who calls us simply, accepting our nature as it is.
This is the God who calls to us gently and says, “you are mine.”
Simple Words by Fingertips – absolutely beautiful, simple words!
SUNDAY – 19 August
A reading from ‘The Assisi Compilation’
When Francis washed his hands, he chose a place where the water would not be trampled underfoot after the washing. Whenever he had to walk over rocks, he would walk with fear and reverence out of love for him who is called ‘the Rock’. Whenever he recited the verse of the psalm: ‘You have set me high upon the rock,’ he would say, out of great reverence and devotion, ‘You have set me high at the foot of the rock.’ He also told the brother who cut the wood for the fire not to cut down the whole tree, but to cut in such a way that one part remained while another was cut. He also ordered the brother in the place where he stayed to do the same. He would tell the brother who took care of the garden not to cultivate all the ground in the garden for vegetables, but to leave a piece of ground that would produce wild plants that in their season would produce ‘Brother Flowers’. Moreover, he used to tell the brother gardener that he should make a beautiful flower bed in some part of the garden, planting and cultivating every variety of fragrant plant and those producing beautiful flowers. Thus, in their time they would invite all who saw the beautiful flowers to praise God, for every creature announces and proclaims: ‘God made me for you, 0 people!’ We who were with him saw him always in such joy, inwardly and out- wardly, over all creatures, touching and looking at them, so that it seemed his spirit was no longer on earth but in heaven. This is evident and true, because of the many consolations he had and continued to have in God’s creatures. Thus, shortly before his death, he composed the Praises of the Lord by his creatures to move the hearts of his listeners to the praise of God, and that in his creatures the Lord might be praised by everyone.
Lord, you set us in the rocky fastness and beautify our world with flowers. Grant us always the gift of your natural beauty and may we always protect the gift of the environment from exploitation and harm. Amen.
MONDAY – 20 August
A reading from ‘The Life of Saint Francis’, by Thomas of Celano.
Once while Francis was staying near the town of Greccio, a certain brother brought to him a live rabbit caught in a trap. Seeing it, the most blessed man was moved to tenderness. ‘Brother rabbit,’ he said, ‘come to me. Why did you let yourself get caught?’ As soon as the brother holding it let go, the rabbit, without any prompting, took shelter with the holy man, as in a most secure place, resting in his bosom. After it had rested there awhile, the holy father, caressing it with motherly affection, let it go, so that now free it would return to the woods. As often as it was put on the ground, it rushed back to the holy man’s lap, so he told the brothers to carry it away to the nearby forest. Something similar happened with another little rabbit, a wild one, when he was on the island in the Lake of Perugia. He had the same tender feeling towards fish. When he had the chance he would throw back into the water live fish that had been caught, and he warned them to be careful not to be caught again. Once while he was sitting in a little boat at the port on the Lake of Rieti, a fisherman caught a large fish, commonly called a iin, and reverently offered it to him. He accepted it gladly and gratefully, calling it ‘brother’. He put it back in the water next to the little boat, and with devotion blessed the name of the Lord. For some time that fish did not leave the spot but stayed next to the boat, playing in the water where he put it until, at the end of his prayer, the holy man of God gave it permission to leave.
Lord, you give us the capacity to liberate others. May we show gentleness to all people, freeing them from captivity and allowing all a second chance at life. Amen.
TUESDAY – 21 August
A reading from ‘The Life of Saint Francis’, by Thomas of Celano.
On another occasion, blessed Francis was travelling through the Marches and Brother Paul was gladly accompanying him when he came across a man on his way to market. The man was carrying over his shoulder two little lambs bound and ready for sale. When blessd Francis heard the bleating lambs, his innermost heart was touched and, drawing near, he touched them as a mother does with a crying child, showing his compassion. ‘Why are you torturing my brother lambs,’ he said to the man, ‘binding and hanging them this way?’ ‘I am carrying them to market to sell them, since I need the money,’ he replied. The holy man asked, ‘What will happen to them?’ ‘Those who buy them will kill them and eat them,’ he responded. At that, the holy man said, ‘No, this must not happen! Here, take my cloak as payment and give me the lambs.’ The man readily gave him the little lambs and took the cloak since it was much more valuable. The cloak was one the holy man had borrowed from a friend on the same day to keep out the cold. The holy man of God, having taken the lambs, now was wondering what he should do with them. Asking for advice from the brother who was with him, he gave them back to the man, ordering him never to sell them or allow any harm to come to them, but instead to preserve, nourish and guide them carefully.
Lord, in the simplest of your creatures, may we draw lessons about purity of heart and defeat our sophistocation and arrogance. Amen.
WEDNESDAY – 22 August
A reading from ‘The Assisi Compilation’
Once during summer, blessed Francis was at [Saint Mary of the Portiuncula], and he stayed in the last cell next to the hedge of the garden behind a house where, after his death, Brother Raineri, the gardener, stayed. It happened that one day, as he came down from that little cell, there was a cricket within on the branch of the fig tree next to that cell, and he could touch it. Stretching out his hand, he said, ‘Sister Cricket, come to me.’ It obeyed him at once and began to chirp. This consoled blessed Francis greatly and he praised God. He held it in his hand that way for more than an hour. Afterwards he put it back on the branch of the fig tree from which he had taken it. And in the same way, for eight days constantly, when he came down from the cell, he found it in the same place. And daily he would take it in his hand, and as soon as he told it to sing, touching it, it sang. After eight days, he said to his companions, ‘Let us give permission to our sister cricket to go where she wants. She has consoled us enough; and the flesh might vainglory from this.’ As soon as it had received permission, the cricket went away and never appeared there again. His companions admired how obedient and tame she was to him. Blessed Francis found so much joy in creatures because of love of the Creator, to console him in his inner and outer self, that the Lord made even those that are wild to people become tame to him.
Lord, you are revealed in the smallest of creation. We are your smallest creatures too. May we rejoice in you greatly despite our failings and forever sing your name. Amen.
THURSDAY – 23 August
A reading from ‘The Little Flowers of Saint Francis.’
At the time that Saint Francis was staying in the city of Gubbio, in the district of Gubbio there appeared a very big wolf, fearsome and ferocious, which devoured not only animals but even human beings, so that all the citizens were in great fear, because many times he came near to the city. Saint Francis had compassion on the people of the town, and decided to go out to this wolf, even though all the citizens advised against it. Making the sign of the most holy cross, he went out of the town, he and his companions, placing all his confidence in God. Then that wolf, seeing many citizens who had come to see this miracle, ran towards Saint Francis, who made the sign of the most holy cross on him and called him, ‘Come here, Brother Wolf I command you on behalf of Christ that you do no harm to me or to anyone.’ Immediately, the fearsome wolf closed his mouth and stopped running; and came meekly as a lamb, and threw itself to lie at the feet of Saint Francis, who said, ‘Brother Wolf, you do much harm in this area and you have done great misdeeds, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission. You are worthy of the gallows as a thief and the worst of murderers. But I want to make peace between you and these people, so that you do not offend them anymore, and that they may pardon you every past offence, and so that neither the people nor the dogs will persecute you anymore.’ And after these words were said, the wolf showed that he accepted what Saint Francis said and wanted to observe it, by movement of his body and tail and ears and by bowing his head. Then Saint Francis said, ‘Brother Wolf, since it pleases you to make this pact of peace and keep it, I promise that I will have food given to you constantly, as long as you live, by the people of this town, so that you will no longer suffer hunger, since I know very well that you did all this harm because of hunger. But in order for me to obtain this grace for you, I want you to promise me that you will never harm any human person nor any animal. Do you promise me this?’ Saint Francis reached out his hand to receive his guarantee, the wolf lifted his right paw in front of him and tamely placed it on top of the hand of Saint Francis, giving the only sign of a guarantee that he was able to make. Immediately, this news was known throughout the whole city and all the people poured into the piazza to see the wolf with Saint Francis, whogot up and preached to them saying that God allows such things and pestilences because of sins; and the flame of hell, which lasts forever for the damned, is much more dangerous than the fierceness of the wolf, which can only kill the body. Afterwards, that same wolf lived in Gubbio for two years, and he tamely entered the houses without doing any harm to anyone and without any being done to him; and he was kindly fed by the people. Finally, after two years, Brother Wolf died of old age, at which the citizens grieved very much, because when they saw him going through the city so tamely, they better recalled the virtue and holiness of Saint Francis.
FRIDAY – 24 August
A reading from a medieval Franciscan manuscript.
Brother Tebaldo once told us something that he himself had seen. When Saint Francis was preaching one day to the people of Trevi, a noisy and ungovernable ass went careering about the square, frightening the people out of their wits. And when it became clear that no one could catch it or restrain it, Saint Francis said to it, ‘Brother Ass, please be quiet and allow me to preach to the people.’ When the donkey heard this, it immediately bowed its head and, to everyone’s astonishment, stood perfectly quiet. And the blessed Francis, fearing that the people might take too much notice of this astonishing miracle, began saying funny things to make them laugh.
Lord, when we are careering around, frightening others with our carelessness, bring us to a place of calm and serenity. Amen.
SATURDAY – 25 August
A reading from a medieval Franciscan manuscript.
Brother Masseo has said that he was present with the blessed Francis when he preached to the birds. Rapt in devotion, Francis once found by the roadside a large flock of birds, to whom he turned aside to preach, as he had done before to another flock. But when the birds saw him approaching they all flew away at the very sight of him. Then he came back and began to accuse himself most bitterly, saying, ‘What effrontery you have, you impudent son of Pietro Bernardone’ – and this because he had expected irrational creatures to obey him as if he, and not God, were their Creator.
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