The Canticle of Brother Sun - Part 2
November is traditionally associated with the remembrance of our deceased loved ones and meditation on the Last Things. We start off the month on a triumphant note with the Solemnity of All Saints, while the day following strikes a more somber tone as we commemorate All Souls’ Day. Right away the Liturgy focuses us on heaven, hell, death and judgment, and it will lead us through this month, especially in the readings for Mass, toward the crowning glory of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. So it is a fitting time to continue and conclude last month’s reflection on St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun, the last two stanzas of which speak of forgiveness and “Sister Death.” Let me begin with the origin of these verses.
One day, during St. Francis’ final illness, he heard of a quarrel between the Bishop and the Mayor of Assisi. The two were at loggerheads: the Bishop had excommunicated the Mayor and the Mayor forbade the citizens of Assisi to do any business with the Bishop. The news of this greatly saddened St. Francis, not just because of the disturbance this was causing in his beloved city, but because he cared for the souls of these two men.
St. Francis had an idea, and it began with creating a new stanza for his canticle: 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. Once written, he taught the verse to one of the brothers and sent him to gather the Bishop, the Mayor and all who were with them. This good brother did as St. Francis had instructed him, and after they were gathered, he sang the Canticle of Brother Sun, complete with the new verse. Upon hearing it, the spiritual and temporal rulers of Assisi were moved to make peace with each other, forgiving and embracing one another.
The final verse of his Canticle St. Francis composed on his deathbed in order to welcome “Sister Death,” who would soon lead him to meet Jesus: 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.
When we look at the Canticle of Brother Sun as a whole, we see St. Francis praising God for and through the beauty of his creatures, culminating in the human person, the crown of God’s creation. After gazing outward at the sun, moon, stars, et cetera, St. Francis then looks inward, to the soul. He shows us how we can prepare ourselves to receive the Lord in grace and in the Sacraments here on earth, so that ultimately we may be prepared for total union with Him in heaven: through forgiveness, accepting trials, and doing the Lord’s will. Forgiveness is a key to unblock our hearts, opening them to God, while accepting trials in this life out of love for the Lord conforms us to Christ Who suffered for us. In terms of death, St. Francis is disarmingly straightforward, placing before us the two paths we can choose to follow: sin, leading to death, or God’s will, leading to eternal life.
During this month of November, may I suggest that we take a look at these verses of St. Francis as a kind of examination of conscience? Taking our cue from Francis, we could ask ourselves the following questions. Is there anyone I need to forgive? Is there any trial or suffering in my life that I need to accept or bear more patiently out of love for Jesus? Is there anything I could do to help bring peace to my family, friends, or those around me? Am I doing my best to carry out the Lord’s will in my daily life?
After taking stock, and focusing ourselves once again on doing the will of Our Lord, we can join St. Francis in his joyful song to our most loving, merciful God: “Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.”
Sr. Cecilia Francis, CFR