St. Francis’s embrace of simplicity is made abundantly clear in virtually every text that records his life. It was not just the simplicity of his material possessions, or the simplicity of his rule (however strict it was), but as Patterson points out, the simplicity of the spiritual condition that sanctifies the man. As St. Francis has it, “God has called me by the way of simplicity and has shown me simplicity…And the Lord told me what he wanted: He wanted me to be a new fool in the world” (Patterson 10). I believe St. Francis was best able to communicate his “foolishness” to a world full of skeptical clergymen married to an intricate ecclesiastical hierarchy and laymen married to material wealth by placing himself on par with the animal world. In doing so, Francis reinforces a preeminent Christian tenet, namely that the lowliest will be made most high: Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:27). Francis understood that Christ’s followers must place themselves on equal footing with the lowest of God’s creatures if they want to love all beings unequivocally, and in turn be worthy of God’s love; he exemplifies this message in the “Brother Pigs” story, in which Francis agrees to roll in mud with the pigs at the behest of Pope Innocent III, after the Pope observes Francis’ deplorable physical condition. Francis returns muddied, and out of pity the Pope grants him a hearing. By becoming a pig, Francis has not denigrated his status, but rather elevated it by affirming his childlike purity. By equaling himself to an animal before the Pope, Francis glorifies the simplicity of the animal, its incapability to feel pride or malice, qualities which ideally Christians should strive to possess.
But it is no secret that Francis admired is animal “brothers and sisters” for their natural simplicity and total unselfconsciousness, these are the features that make them the purest of God’s creations. Their absence of ego makes them ideal models of behavior; the birds and the fish, though not rational or sentient like human beings, possess a spiritual openness that man must struggle for, we are in this sense their spiritual inferiors. However, I believe that what makes Francis’s sermons to the animals meaningful is the presence of people on the sidelines. Sometimes they are spiritually impoverished, as they are when St. Francis preaches to the birds of Rome, but most of the time they are simply human observers. Through his preaching, Francis proclaimed that animals were worthy recipients of the Gospel, unveiling to his human audience the superiority of animal simplicity, and thus compelling them to reconsider their disdain for the simple man. Brother John, aka “St. John”, is the human embodiment of animal innocence: “’Not brother John but St. John’: this man whom we, with the peculiar reticence of our time, would call developmentally challenged is the perfect instance of the literalistic sanctity toward which Francis constantly aspired but which necessarily eluded him” (Patterson, 14). Animals represented the lowliest of men, and only the lowliest could claim uninhibited modesty.
In his book Reluctant Saint, Donald Spoto notes that doves, crows, and magpies, the birds to whom Francis preached, serve as symbols of manual labor in the fourteenth century Les Livres du Roy Modus et de la royne Ratio. Spoto equates Francis’s birds with the lowest levels of society, poor manual workers to whom Francis’s preaching appealed, in contrast with the powerful and wealthy nobility and clergymen who mocked his austerity. He states: “Any overly literal reading of the episode of the preaching to the birds risks trivializing the importance Francis had for those without power, influence, prestige or political strength-precisely the people symbolized by the birds, ad the group that most welcomed his message” (Spoto, 104).
The parallel between animals and the humblest humans is very clear. One aspect of St. Francis’s animal sermons that remains ambiguous is his reasoning behind damning some animals for their transgressions, while pardoning others. In class on Wednesday I mentioned a specific passage in the New Testament that might be of help in determining what makes an animal damnable in Francis’ eyes, and after doing some research, I realized I was referring to Luke 12:35-49. Essentially, the parable compares two servants and their preparedness for the coming of their master. Jesus concludes the parable: “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:47-49). Only two animals are actually condemned by St. Francis, and both instances may be considered exceptional, because they are symbolic condemnations of evil: Francis kills a snake and damns a sow that kills a lamb. Snakes represent evil, because they brought sin to the garden. Francis’ killing of the snake reflects his role as paradisal restorer. The sow must be condemned because it killed a lamb, which represents Christ. Therefore the other animals that do harm, wolves, foxes and the like are simply chastised; their transgressions do not signify any over arching enforcement of good over evil (i.e., they are not snakes, and they are not harming lambs) Ultimately animals cannot be blamed severely, because they are the servants who don’t know of their master’s coming.
Patterson, Lee. “Brother Fire and St. Francis’s Drawers: Human Nature and the Natural World,” Medieval Perspectives 15 (2000): 1-18.
Soto, Donald. Reluctant Saint. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.