Since his death, Saint Francis of Assisi has been the subject of some of the world’s most admired works of art. His image is also found quite often in what we call the popular arts: in the form of greeting cards, plastic statues, medallions and plaques. These forms of art often get mixed reviews.
People at times poke fun at some of the more sentimental or sappy images of Francis holding a rabbit or with birds flying around his head. And there are always those who like to belittle admirers of the saint when they place his statue in flower gardens or on a birdbath.
In most cases, I beg to differ with this point of view. I would like to share with you some reflections on this topic that I put into writing a few years ago.
The Man behind the Birdbath
Perhaps the most popular sculptured image of Francis is that of the ragged little man standing on a birdbath. This figure, which has become so universal, could be discovered as easily in a Methodist’s backyard or a Buddhist prayer garden as at a Franciscan retreat center.
To those who grumble that this birdbath art is too lowbrow and sentimental, I say “Lighten up! Francis belongs to the popular arts as much as with the fine arts—and he certainly belongs to the birds.” To set Francis on a birdbath or in a flower garden or to depict him with birds circling around his head is just a popular way of saying: “This man had a special link with all of God’s creatures, and it’s just like him to be standing there among them.”
Francis was in awe of the swallow and cricket and rabbit. “Where the modern cynic see something ‘buglike’ in everything that exists,” observed German writer-philosopher Max Scheler, “Saint Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.”
Another reason Francis should keep his place on the birdbath or amid the daffodils in that his being there helps us see, as Francis himself did, that the world of nature and the world of God are one. Francis did not fall into the trap of dualism, which creates an artificial wall between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred. For Francis, every creature was sacred. The world he lived in was not something wicked to be rejected but a sacred ladder leading to its Creator.
Francis would say that the birds coming to the birdbath are holy. Water is holy. Bugs are holy. Why shouldn’t Francis be there in the garden where he can be pelted by rain or sleet or kissed by the sun and wind or a passing butterfly?
In 1992 the Catholic Bishops of the United States published a statement on the environment entitled Renewing the Earth. In it, they praised Saint Francis and emphasized: “Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly in it, rather than managing creation as though we are outside it.” We should see ourselves, they added, as stewards within creation, not as separate from it. Francis was ahead of his time, He saw himself, as do today’s ecologists, as part of the ecosystem, not as some proud master over and above it.
Francis addressed creatures as “brother” and “sister”—as equals, not subjects to be dominated. And that’s why the humble figure of Francis standing at the birdbath or among the plants and shrubs is so right for our day. He truly saw himself as a simple servant and steward of creation—little brother to the birds and the fish and the lowly ivy. Saint Francis reminds us that we are a part of our environment and are called to love and protect it.
Patron Saint of Ecology
In 1979, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology. The pope cited him for being “an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation….Saint Francis,” he added, “invited all creation—animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon—to give honor and praise to the Lord.”
Canticle of the Creatures
All praise be yours, My Lord,
through all that you have made.
And first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day….
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright and precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air….
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten up the night….
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us…and produces various fruits
With colored flowers and herbs….
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.
—St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies,
edited by Marion A. Habig, ©1973 by Franciscan Herald Press