Saint Francis is probably the most popular of the non-Biblical saints, save perhaps Saint Patrick or Ireland or Saint Diego, hero of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. What is it about his life that captures the religious imagination? It’s probably because of how his tales are told to children as powerful instructional fables. Many of the stories are about Saint Francis telling some noisy animals to be quiet while he’s meditation or preaching, and the animal obeying. Obviously, when we listen to a sermon, we should be quiet as well. Proper veneration for idols is also encouraged by Saint Francis. When a spider accidentally defaces a statue of the Virgin Mary, he’s encouraged to correct his mistake. Singing pleasantly, avoiding pointless cruelty, and praying meditatively are all encouraged to animals by Saint Francis, and are all encouraged behaviors to churchgoers.
What is instructive here is to celebrate Saint Francis’ ability to enable animals to act as humans. In “The Robin Redbreast Family”, for instance, Saint Francis is pleased that the robins are acting as if they could reason. It’s their rational behavior that is miraculous, and that allows Saint Francis to interact with them. Saint Francis couldn’t punish the spider, for example, because he realizes the spider doesn’t know any better, but by speaking seriously with the spider, he’s able to impart a sense of rational behavior in it. The robin of “The Robin Redbreast Family” is firmly established to be able to approximate human rationality before it is punished for its cruelty. In “Now it is My Turn, Sister Swallows!” Saint Francis is able to reason with the sparrows (“it is my turn”) and get them to act like the humans in the crowd. In this way, rational human behavior is made miraculous.
Saint Francis is said to have treated animals as the equals of humans, but if the point of his stories are to demonstrate how he can elevate animals to human rationality, how is it possible that he considers them equals? He clearly doesn’t believe that all animals are exactly the same. Saint Francis does not like ants as much as other animals “because of the excessive zeal they display in amassing supplies for the winter.” He kills a giant snake and curses a young robin to an early painful death, while other animals are only gently rebuked when they are in error. He doesn’t reject the knowledge at the time that animals are driven by particular instincts shared among the species. Saint Francis’ surprise at the willingness of the birds to listen indicates that he’s well aware of how birds act and to a certain degree think. Perhaps it’s just that he treats the animals as if they are equals, rather than truly believing that they are equals. He negotiates with the animals rather than exhibiting a supernatural control. He can’t simply command the snake to stop attacking people, or tell the robin to share its food more ethically. He “humbly begged” (Sorrell, 401) the birds to listen to him, rather than compelling them to. The fact that he can deal with the animals in this way is the thaumaturgical element of his Sainthood. It’s what moves both him, his companions writing about him, and the modern audience.
This would seem to lead to Lynn White’s “pan-psychic” theory, the belief that all animals have some common sense of spirit that is even shared with humans. However, the context that Saint Francis’ abilities are miraculous must be emphasized. Saint Francis himself is “not a little surprised” that he is able to deliver a sermon unto the birds. That he attempts it without knowing whether the birds will actually listen does suggest that he holds a belief in a common spiritual need within the animals. He had a great affection for animals, so he was continually moved to fulfill that need. This isn’t the only reason he gives sermons to birds, though. When the people of Rome reject him, he delivers his sermon to the birds in order to demonstrate to the Romans how wicked and unfaithful they are. This story suggests two things. One is that Saint Francis believes in the importance of the sermon, an importance that may exist apart from the audience. Birds suit him just as well as people. There are multiple biblical references to preaching to non-humans. Sorrell mentions Psalm 148 the Hymn of the Three Children, but in Luke 19:40, Jesus says “I tell you, if [my disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Regardless of whether this is a literal statement, it’s a powerful rhetorical message, which may have inspired Saint Francis. Saint Francis is perfectly willing to potentially embarrass himself to reach the ears of humans. When Pope Innocent III tells Saint Francis to bathe with the pigs, he does so, demonstrating his commitment to his cause and moving the Pope’s heart. The Romans mock him for preaching to birds until he actually demonstrates that he can. This goes back to the idea of instruction. If Saint Francis can have such an equitable and harmonious relationship with animals, human rejection reflects poorly.
This final point brings up the question of power. Sorrell quotes White as suggesting that Saint Francis miracles were an attempt to create a democracy of creatures, supplanting the role of humans as the lords of creation. The idea of giving animals human reason and thereby “elevating” them does suggest that there is some anti-hierarchical activity going on in Saint Francis’ work, as does his willingness to treat with them at all. However, the very essence of Saint Francis’ abilities is that humans constantly have trouble maintaining that hierarchy, if it even existed in the first place. Anyone who has a pet knows that it takes a lot of work to get an animal to do what you tell it to do, and pets are our friends. It’s impossible for a mundane human to command a wild animal effectively. By giving the animals reason, Saint Francis is able to reaffirm hierarchy. He’s able to convince animals to listen to him and to cease interrupting his sermons, in doing so recognizing the proper authority of the priest. His encounters in Rome demonstrate that he can reaffirm human hierarchies as well. As a Saint, Francis should demand the attention of the Romans and even the Pope. That they don’t is disorder. Saint Francis’ unique charisma and humility, however, is able to move human skeptics just as well as animals. The ultimate instruction of Saint Francis’ life, it seems, is the power of polite society and respect and compassion for others.