Jul 17 2020
The Canticle of Brother Sun
by Francis of Assisi
English version by Ivan M. Granger
My Lord most high, all-powerful, all-good,
Celebration, light, and all sweet blessings are yours,
No man speaks
who can speak your Name.
Praise to you, my Lord, and to all beings of your creation!
Praise especially to brother sun,
who fills the day with light
— through whom you shine!
Beautiful and bright, magnificent with splendor,
He shows us your Face.
Praise to my Lord for sister moon
and for the stars.
You have formed them in the firmament,
fine and rare and fair.
Praise to you, Lord, for brother wind,
for the air, for the clouds,
for fair days and every turn of weather
— through which you feed the world.
Praise to my Lord for sister water,
precious and pure, who selflessly serves all.
Praise to my Lord for brother fire,
through whom you fill the dark with light.
Lovely is he in his delight, mighty and strong.
Praise to my Lord for our sister, mother earth,
who nourishes us and surrounds us
in a world ripe with fruit, pregnant
with grassy fields,
spangled with flowers.
Praise to my Lord for those seeking your love,
who discover within themselves forgiveness,
rejecting neither frailty nor sorrow.
Enduring in serenity, they are blessed,
For they shall be crowned by your hand, Most High.
Praise to my Lord for our sister death,
the body’s death,
whom none avoid.
A great sadness for those who die having missed life’s mark;
Yet blessed they whose way
is your most holy will —
Having died once, the second death
does them no ill.
Offer holy blessings to my Lord!
In gratitude, selflessly offer yourself to him.
— from The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology), Edited by Ivan M. Granger
/ Image by rkramer62 /
Thank you to everyone who sent a note of concern about my absence from these poetry emails. I apologize about that unannounced pause. Let me reassure you that I am doing well and my health is okay. The reason I haven’t sent any poems during this past month or so is because my wife’s mother needed to go to the hospital, then hospice care, and then passed away. (Her death was not related to the current pandemic, however.)
Since my wife was her mother’s only relative, she bore a heavy burden in caring for her and in handling each new challenge and crisis as it arose. It is a profoundly difficult balance to deal with the whirlwind of decisions and responsibilities while also feeling the grief and complex emotions surrounding a close family member’s death. I went through all of this myself when both of my parents died about ten years ago. I was also an only child, but my mother had an extended family of many sisters who helped with everything. My wife has been on her own in dealing with her mother’s death, having only me to help her.
So we have been dealing with nurses and doctors and hospital administrators, sometimes having to fight with them on her mother’s behalf. Worrying questions of nursing homes and healthcare coverage switched to meetings with hospice care workers, who are the saints of the healthcare world. We wrestled with the uncomfortable questions of burial versus cremation and meetings with funeral home directors. We did a weekend sprint to move all of her mother’s worldly possessions from her tiny apartment before month’s end, rapidly sorting through things of emotional significance as if they were random objects that take up too much space. We navigated the bureaucracy necessary to close out financial accounts. I say ‘we’ but much of that effort was led by my wife. While I have helped in all the ways I could as well as acting as emotional support, I have primarily been pushing to keep my work hours high in my day job through all of this so that, in the midst of everything else, my wife can also take time to grieve without worrying about her own work.
Death is such a huge event, the final life passage. I like to think of it as our final initiation, our graduation ceremony. It is quite a challenge to find the balance that allows us to hold the appropriate sense of reverence in the midst of so many pressing practical demands. As a poet and a spiritual practitioner, I naturally want to be internal, contemplative and, of course, a loving presence to the person crossing such a profound threshold, but it takes real skill to accomplish all that is necessary and still hold that inner sacred space.
I continually stand in wonder at the immensity and beauty and crushing challenges of this human life — as well as its closure. I am in awe of every single person on this planet: we all walk a courageous path through this life.
St. Francis composed his masterpiece, the Canticle of Brother Sun, in three parts. The first part in praise of the beauty and holiness of nature as a reflection of the Divine, was written in the Spring of 1225, immediately after he received the stigmata during an extended meditation retreat among a group of caves.
The second section, the segment on forgiveness and peace, was composed soon after, perhaps in response to the squabbling of political and religious authorities in Assisi.
The final verses were written late the following year as St. Francis was dying, in which he seems to be greeting “sister death.”
This hymn is one of the first great works written in Italian. At the time, Latin was the language of the Church and of learning. Yet, as part of Francis’s humility and affinity with the common people, he composed this praise poem in simple Italian so all could be inspired by it.
Praise for brother sun and sister moon, for the living wind and water and fire and earth. Praise for love and peace, without which the living awareness collapses to barrenness. And praise to death, too, who, in the fulness of time, brings completion and life’s final initiation. Through this poem we witness the whole pageant of life as it expresses itself through us and all the world.
Be well, everyone — and bright blessings!
|Francis of Assisi|
Often called the Povorello or “Poor Little Man” for his love of radical simplicity and identification with the poor.
St. Francis of Assisi himself was a great lover of French Troubadour songs and traditions. Though he lived and taught within the Catholic Church, elements of Cathar and Troubadour spirituality can be seen in his own radiant ministry: his love of nature, his vision of a divine woman, and his relationship with St. Clare (which was very much in the tradition of the chaste Lover-Beloved relationship espoused by the Troubadour ideal of courtly love.)
Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 to a prosperous merchant family in Assisi, Italy. His father, Pietro Bernadone, was on a business trip in France when the child was born and he was upset on his return to find out that the child was initially baptized with the name Giovanni after the ascetic John the Baptist. Pietro Bernadone wanted a worldly son, someone who would one day take over his business of trading in fine cloths, so he renamed his son Francesco, “the Frenchman,” for Pietro was enamored with all things French.
As Francis grew up, his natural charisma and joy attracted people to him, becoming the leader of a raucous group of young men. He led an easy life, taking full advantage of his family’s wealth and the permissiveness of the times.
Francis shared his father’s love of France. He was particularly drawn to the songs of mystical romance brought to Italy by the Provencal Troubadours.
There were many key events in Francis’s early life that led, ultimately, to a profound spiritual change in the young man:
Francis’s father dreamed of more than wealth for the young man, he wanted his son to be elevated to nobility. Showing valor in war was the most likely way to accomplish this; and soon the opportunity presented itself when Assisi declared war against its neighboring town Perugia.
The war went badly for Assisi and most of its young men were killed, except for the wealthy who were captured and held for ransom. Francis spent a year in a dungeon before he was released.
On his return to Assisi, Francis resumed his life of revelry.
Next, a call went out for soldiers in the Fourth Crusade. Francis, his mind filled with romantic stories and aspirations for glory, bought a fine horse and had an elaborate suit of armor made — and he left for war.
But he didn’t get more than a day’s ride away. He had a powerful dream in which God told him that he must return home, which he did. This was a stunning action that was interpreted by the townspeople as cowardice. His father was outraged at the family’s humiliation and the money wasted on his armor.
Francis began to turn inward, devoting increasing time to prayer and quietly wandering through the countryside.
During this time, Francis forced himself to overcome his lifelong revulsion of leprosy by kissing the hand of a man afflicted with leprosy.
While praying at the dilapidated church of San Damiano, Francis heard Christ speak to him, telling him to “repair my church.” Francis took this literally, assuming it applied to the small church he was praying in, and began immediately to rebuild its crumbling walls. (Only later would this command be understood as a call to rebuild the spiritual foundations of the Church, with a capital “C”.) To pay for his new endeavors, he sold his father’s cloth and used the money he gained.
This was the final straw for Francis’s father. Before the bishop and the town, Pietro Bernadone demanded that his son return the stolen money and renounce his rights as heir. Francis surprised everyone by going so far as to strip himself naked in the town square and declaring that he would live by God’s grace alone from that point forward — this from the wild young man who had led gangs of carousing boys through the streets!
Francis’s natural charisma didn’t leave him, even as he adopted a life of prayer, radical poverty, and service to the sick and the poor. Followers quickly gathered about him. Many were his former friends, the sons of wealthy and noble families.
Soon, the numbers of his followers had grown to such an extent that things grew political within the Church. His mystical nature, his popularity with the poor, and his insistence on Christ’s poverty was not well liked by many within the Church, for it seemed to ally him with other mendicant esoteric groups that had been declared heretical because they criticized the Church’s wealth and abandonment of the poor.
In order to keep his followers from suffering a similar fate of suppression, he had to make it clear that he was well within the Church orthodoxy. He had to navigate a careful path of maintaining his essential message while avoiding overt criticism of Church excesses. He also had to seek formal recognition of his order by the Pope, which he finally got.
Contrary to many modern social movements, Francis didn’t attempt to abolish poverty, he embraced it, seeking to ennoble it, show it as a pathway to the spiritual life.
As Francis’s brotherhood continued to grow, increasing pressure was applied by the Church to control it further, and a new, more formalized rule had to be developed. In order to maintain his spiritual simplicity and surrender to God, Francis finally had to give up control of his order and leave its governance to others who were more willing to play the political games that must follow.
Francis’s health was never good, and it worsened as he returned to a simple life of prayer and retreat. He began to go blind, as well. During this time he received the stigmata while praying among some caves in the countryside.
It was also during this time that Francis composed his masterpiece, the Canticle of the Sun, praising the beauty and holiness of nature as a reflection of the Divine. At the time, Latin was the language of both the Church and of learning. Yet, as part of Francis’s humility and affinity with the common people, he composed his masterpiece, The Canticle of Brother Sun, in simple Italian, considered one of the first great poems in the language.
Francis died in 1226 at the age of 45 and was immediately acclaimed to be a saint by the general population.
Note: The popular “Prayer of St. Francis” is not included here because, although beautiful, it was not actually written by St. Francis. This is not debated even by Franciscan scholars. The “Prayer” first appeared several centuries after the death of Francis and was initially attributed to other individuals until it was finally attributed to Francis. The “Prayer” should still be cherished for the love and utter surrender to the Divine it inspires, but not as a work of St. Francis.