The Canticle of the Creatures
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing,
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no human is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.
Francis of Assisi, New City Press, volume 1: the Saint.
©1999,Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY.
We celebrate the Solemnity of Francis of Assisi on October 4 with great festivity and joy. From the heart of Assisi and spreading throughout the world the Poverello is remembered in myriad ways and languages. This year I want to share with you a reflection on The Canticle of the Creatures because it is well known but often misunderstood. It can be a springboard for our spiritual development throughout the entire year. Let’s take an in-depth look.
What you see here (image to left) is a page from Codex 338 in Biblioteca Comunale in Assisi. I was honored to be able to work with this most precious volume when doing research with medieval manuscripts of hymns about Francis and Clare 1990-93. What you see is the beginning of the first manuscript of The Canticle. Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore, tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione. Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano, et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare. [Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing, To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no human is worthy to mention Your name.] Notice the large spaces between lines of text. Friar scholars Gerhardt Ruf and Marino Bigaroni told me that one story in Assisi (there are many over the centuries, of course) that claims the spaces were for the melody Francis wrote for his masterpiece. But by the time this manuscript was written no one could remember his original melody. If true, it’s our loss.
I’ll never forget the moment a librarian brought the Codex to me for study. I asked to see it on a lark and (surprise!) the librarian was delighted to bring it. I was stunned but spent at least five days reading and gleaning. Fr. Gerhardt made a microfilm copy of The Canticle and other remarkable documents of our earliest history and I treasure them.
Francis wrote The Canticle in 1225 after he experienced the Stigmata. He was living near Clare and the Ladies of San Damiano and suffering greatly from multiple maladies. The Assisi Compilation records a moment of prayer he had at the time. God said “what if, in exchange for your illness and pain, someone were to give you a treasure? Would you not rejoice? Francis said yes and God replied: “Be glad and rejoice in your illness and pain. For now, you are already secure as if in the Kingdom. Giving thanks Francis exclaimed: “For such a gift, I want to write a new canticle for God’s creatures we see every day.”
You’ll notice The Canticle is written in three sections. The first extends all the way to …colored flowers and herbs. When he’d heard there was a dispute between the bishop and mayor of Assisi, he wrote verses 9 and 10 about pardon and peace, then had a few friars sing it for the leaders. They were so moved by his words that they reconciled! The final three verses about Sister Death were written just before his death October 3, 1226. They show a radical shift from his fear of death to actually seeing death as the presence of God to be embraced. As an aside, the first death refers to our death to sin in moments of conversion as at Baptism and others of reconciliation.
When we read or pray The Canticle it’s too easy to get wrapped up in what we sometimes call “the bird bath Francis”, making him cute with the creatures and with nature. However, this is superficial and an in-depth look at this famous prayer will show how mystical his poetry and religiosity are.
In fact, I believe The Canticle was prayed and penned in the most intense period of suffering. How could a man wracked with blindness, constant bleeding, multiple problems with digestion and other sicknesses possibly give thanks? What is in the heart of a person when he’s able to transcend pain and exult in sheer joy? It was a moment of complete union with his Beloved Crucified Lord. After over twenty years of emulating Christ, Francis’ suffering, his patience with friars and the Church and his daily struggles to live the Gospel culminated in this moment in time. His entire life exults in pure praise and adulation; his poetry is an existential revelation of everything he was. Amid all his pain and ugliness Francis reached the peak of his mystical union with God. Notice there is no mention of Christ, not a single reference. A man is at one with the Creator in Christ.
The Canticle expresses the inner soul of a man who loved every creature, every aspect of the world. Each one praised within his hymn was seen as a manifestation of the Most High. Francis entered into communion with God through the medium of created things and in the very depths of them. Max Scheler, a German philosopher, wrote that the saint of Assisi made “the memorable attempt to unite and harness a perfect life as a Christian with pantheistic religions that reach for the cosmos.” When we pray The Canticle as Francis intended it, we find an approach to God in which the soul is reconciled to its self and to all of creation.
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing, He begins in pure praise of God, situating his very self within the Divine. His movement to invoke various creatures then flows from a holy heart, from a stance only a person of God could voice. This is where “the bird bath Francis” does a great injustice to the depths of our founder. Francis is not listing pretty things or cute animals. He refers to them as Sister and as Brother, actual parts of his self. He invokes Sun, Air, Water, Stars, Earth and so on as gifts who reveal or mediate the goodness and beauty and power of God. Their very natures are revelatory of the nature of the Holy One.
For example, Brother Sun is coupled with Sister Moon and Stars. They’re not only beautiful but are actual mirrors of God: “of you, Most High, they bear a likeness.” His love for these creatures was recorded in other places in the earliest sources. Thomas of Celano described the scene when the eyes of Francis were cauterized to heal his eye disease. Celano wrote Francis spoke to the fire with irons in it that would be pressed into his temples: “My brother fire, that surpasses all other things in beauty, the Most High created you strong, beautiful and useful. Be kind to me in this hour, be courteous. For I have loved you in the past in the Lord.”
This man was holy and continues to be a source of holiness for millions. The Canticle is sung in paraphrases such as “All Creatures of Our God And King” or “Canticle of the Sun”. I’ve set his words to music in three different settings over the years and probably have at least one more within me. However, I encourage people to go to the original and pray it with sincere admiration for what it holds. When I can refer to water as my “precious Sister” then I just may be able to conserve water in daily practice. Perhaps when I remember that our Sister, Mother Earth, “sustains and governs us” I will also respect her with limited use of fossil fuels, recycle and help others to honor our Mother with respectful living.
Francis discovered so much of his inner self by learning how much a part of the universe he was. His communion with nature was not just a love for cute creatures; it was a search, an exploration of creation that led him to praise the Most High. The Poverello found that his union with creation led him to understand what reconciliation truly is; hence came those verses toward the end about pardon and peace, and his final tender embrace of human death. Reconciliation was more important than division, separation was subservient to sharing. As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov: “The mystery of the earth comes into contact with the mystery of the stars” in a vast movement of pardon and reconciliation. We are part of that cosmic movement, filled with praise for the Most High who loved the universe into existence so many billion years ago.
We will continue to thank God, as Francis did in The Canticle, for the brilliance of Br. Sun, the galactic splendor in the heavens, the cool autumnal breezes, the loving forgiveness in the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, the sheer joy of being encapsulated in the joy of being a Franciscan. We friars of St. Peter’s community and the Sacred Heart Province will remember you and all our benefactors on October 4 during our celebration. The Transitus, remembering his death, is Oct. 3 at 7:00 p.m. Our solemn Mass is delayed until Monday, Oct. 6 at 11:40 a.m. Join us! May the Most High fill you with the Spirit of our Crucified Lord and may all your days be enriched with the beauties of creation. Indeed, happy Feast of Francis and we wish you peace and everything that is good.
Fr. Bob Hutmacher, ofm