St Francis Part 2: Sermon for the week of 9 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

The first pilgrimage that I went on was in 1983 and it was to Assisi in Italy. It was a journey organised by a church in Brighton which I had got to know in the 1970’s and where I had made a number of friends. As on all good pilgrimages, those of us travelling were a motley crew: a teacher in her 50s; a couple of teenagers, one the brilliant daughter of an eminent professor and the other a school-leaver with few qualifications and a moody disposition; a trainee accountant; a music teacher; a wood turner; and a cook-cum-gardener and odd job person (that was me). There was also a young priest who hated discomfort of any kind, which was a bit unfortunate, as we were packed in a mini bus and spent every night on a different campsite, including one in Florence – our last stop before Assisi – where the rain was so heavy that all our tents were washed away during the night and we had to stake them out to dry before completing the final stage to our destination.

My fascination with St Francis had begun a few years earlier and was formed by biographies and novels. Later, when I was studying Medieval History, I had to look at him and the movement in a different way – one purporting to be objective; but the stories I had come across earlier undoubtedly had more impact.

In last week’s sermon I reflected on some of his ideas that might help to enrich our understanding of nature and provide an alternative to some prominent contemporary notions which see the world as both empty of God and devoid of any spiritual values and merely the arena for individual self-assertion.

This week I don’t want to give you much more information about St Francis’ life or try to boil down his view of things to make it accessible, but to tell some of the stories told about him which grew up in the years following his death, which were quite clearly told and re-told because they provided different windows on what he meant. One of the criticisms made about St Francis at the time and since is that he didn’t have a coherent philosophy of life. So much was this the case that, indeed, he was sometimes, and still is, regarded as mad. In some of the villages he visited to preach peace and seek charity he was pelted with rotten vegetables and worse by the inhabitants. More charitably, he has been labelled a holy fool.

I find it helpful to remember that before his conversion to his life of poverty, Francis was a troubadour, a singer of songs, and the one of the last and the most famous things he wrote was a song: the canticle to the creatures, on which the hymn ‘All creatures of our God and King’ is based. Singers and song writers don’t always make rational sense but they do connect with and give a voice to our emotions and our convictions. Stories do the same.

Here is one you might not have heard before.

St Francis had become virtually blind towards the end of his life, but one of his favourite places was the lake of Piediluco. He loved talking to the fishermen there, and they and the lake itself reminded him of the Sea of Galilee and the first disciples who had followed the same trade.

One day he was out in a fishing boat with some friends when one of the fishermen offered St Francis a fish that he had just netted. The saint took the fish and thanked the fisherman, greeted ‘brother fish’, and then gently placed it back in the water. It swam off. Those with him were angry that they had lost their dinner. Francis explained that all creatures were connected and were brothers and sisters to people. Then everyone noticed that the fish was swimming behind the boat and it wouldn’t go away until Francis ordered it to return to its usual life.

And here is a better known one.

There was a town in Italy called Gubbio. One day a wolf came down from the mountains and attacked and killed a lamb. A lot of the forest had been cut down, and where it live was being turned into farm land and grazing land. People were frightened, so someone was told to go and guard the sheep and chase the wolf off if it came near. That person was never seen again.

So the people of the town asked three soldiers to go and hunt the wolf and kill it.

Next day one soldier came back alone and told everyone that the wolf had come and attacked them all and carried off the other two soldiers.

So the people of the town had a meeting to discuss what to do. And someone stood up and said, ‘Let’s ask Francis to come and help. He has a way with animals and has been known to chat to the birds.’ So they did this.

And a few days later Francis came, wearing a brown robe and leaning on a stick. When they went to meet him they saw the wolf had also come to town and was running straight at Francis, growling and showing all its teeth. Francis held up his hand and made the sign of the cross and blessed the wolf and wished it peace – he did this to everyone when he was walking anywhere.

The wolf stopped and, as gently as a pet dog or cat, came and sat at Francis’ feet. Francis told the wolf that the things it had been doing were verry bad and it should stop. ‘I know you are starving, so I am going to ask the people here to feed you, and you must make peace with them.’

The wolf bowed its head.

Francis asked the people of the town if they would make peace too by giving the wolf food to eat, and they agreed. So, he turned to the wolf and asked it to promise not to harm anyone ever again if they cared for it. It put its paw in Francis’ hand, and everyone watching clapped with joy.

From then onwards the wolf lived in the town. Even sleeping sometimes in people’s homes. It lived for another two years and never hurt another living creature again. When it died everyone in the village was devastated.

I won’t re-tell the story about Francis preaching to the birds, because that is too well known, or possibly too well misunderstood. But if you would like to ask me about it anytime, please do.

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