I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to the modern French composer Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen was a devout Christian, a Roman Catholic, and was for over 50 years the organist at the Holy Trinity Church in Paris. Now, I warn you, if you run out and buy some of Messiaen’s music, you’re likely to find it jarring and off-putting at first. When a church organist plays Messiaen, you can be sure that someone will complain. But to say that it rewards patience and persistence is an understatement of monumental proportions. If you just let it wash over you, not so much listening to it as just being in the same space with it—then it can take you into a new and different place, a place of great wonder and beauty. It’s music that seems to come from the future, from the world of resurrection, strangely beautiful, jarring and consoling, bizarre and serene at the same time. Not long ago I met a pianist and professor of music who, she told me, had become a Christian through her studying and playing of Messiaen’s music. And Messiaen’s most monumental work—his only opera—is Saint François d’Assise, a properly Franciscan, ecstatic celebration of God and creation.
Francis and Messiaen had some things in common. In a 1948 interview for a Paris newspaper, the then up-and coming Messiaen was asked about which composers had especially influenced him:
—[W]hich masters do you recognize as having left their mark on your work?
—Yes, the birds; I’ve listened to them a lot, when lying in the grass, pencil and notebook in hand.
—And to which do you award the palm?
—To the blackbird, of course! It can improvise continuously eleven or twelve different verses, in which identical musical phrases return. What freedom of melodic invention, what an artist!
And in a 1988 interview he picks up on the same theme. He says:
[Birds] were the first to make music on this planet… They were singing a long time before us. And a long time before us, they knew not only about pitch, but also about modes. And not only modes, but also quarter-tones, third-tones, sixth tones. They even knew about collective improvisation. Each bird, with his brothers, gives a general concert at dawn and at sunset.
Dawn and sunset, matins and vespers—archetypal times of prayer, meditation and song in Christianity, Judaism, and other traditions as well—instinctive moments of prayer and praise. But the birds were doing it first. In the 13th Century Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure describes an incident of Francis preaching to the birds—with the birds listening and responding—it’s one of the scenes in Messiaen’s opera, and in it he included a riot of birdsongs that he had noted down in his travels all over the world.
But Francis wasn’t just a nature-lover. First and foremost he was a God-lover, and more concretely a Christ-lover, a Jesus-lover. He was drawn to, enraptured with the humility and humanity of God revealed in Jesus, Jesus who was willing to learn from the flowers and the birds and to teach his disciples to do so as well—yes!—but also Jesus who told his disciples to take nothing with them on the road as they set out to preach, Jesus who suffered rejection and abuse, Jesus the crucified one, whose wounds of crucifixion Francis asked for, and received—mystically and physically—in his own body. It’s a challenge for us to hold together the different facets of Francis’s spirituality, his great love for Creator and creation, his exultant joy and his humility. In the Fioretti, or Little Flowers, there is an account of Francis soon before he receives the stigmata. Francis is weakened and suffering as a result of fasting and demonic attacks, and, it says,
[H]e began to think of the limitless glory and joy of those who are blessed with eternal life. And then he began to pray that God might grant him the grace of tasting a little of that joy. And while he was meditating on that thought, all of a sudden an angel appeared to him in a very bright light, holding a viol in his left hand and a bow in his right hand. And as St. Francis gazed in amazement at the angel, the latter drew the bow once upward across the viol. And immediately such a beautiful melody invaded St. Francis’ soul and suspended all his bodily senses that, as he later told his companions, he wondered whether, if the angel had drawn the bow down again, his soul would not have left his body owing to the unbearable loveliness of the music.
And it’s a ravishing moment in Messiaen’s opera. But then there’s another episode about joy, again from the Fioretti and in Messiaen’s opera as well. Francis and his companion Br. Leo are on the road, their destination the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Angels. Francis asks Leo about “perfect joy”—what is it? Is it, he asks, to give sight to the blind and to work all sorts of other miracles, even raising the dead? No. Is to know all languages and all sciences and sacred scripture, to be capable of prophesying the future and to see into the consciences and secret thoughts of other people? No. Is it to speak with the voice of an angel, to know the courses of the stars? Is it to understand the secrets and qualities of all minerals and plants and waters, all birds and fishes and animals and humans? No. No, that’s not perfect joy. Perhaps then it would be to preach so beautifully and compellingly so as to convert all peoples to the faith of Christ? Again, no. So Br. Leo begs him, “Father, I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is.” So Francis replies (in the version from Messiaen’s libretto for Saint Francois, in which he paraphrases and compresses the version in the Fioretti), and he answers concretely, concerning the journey they are on right then:
Brother Leo, little lamb, listen well to what I am going to tell [you]… If it starts to rain and if, soaked with rain, covered in mud, tormented by hunger, we arrive after a very long walk at the door of the monastery, and if the porter does not recognize us and refuses to open up for us—if we insist and knock on the door, and if the porter abuses us, saying: Go away! vagabonds! miserable thieves! If, compelled by hunger, the storm and the night we knock again at the door, and if the exasperated porter comes out with a big stick, throws us to the ground and beats us… If we bear these things patiently and cheerfully, thinking of blessed Christ’s sufferings: that is happiness, perfect joy. For above all the favours and gifts of the Holy Spirit that Christ granted to his friends, there is the power of overcoming oneself and to bear willingly, for the love of Christ, ills, injuries, opprobrium and discomfort… That is why the Apostle says, “I do not glorify myself, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And there, of course, Francis is quoting from the passage from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that is our Second Reading today. And, of course, this spirituality can be distorted and abused, particularly if and when invoked by the powerful and comfortable to supposedly justify and “spiritualize” the sufferings of the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable. But that is such transparent abuse and distortion that we need not dwell on it. More important, I think, to recognize that when we begin to scratch the surface of this birdbath saint, to take in the fullness of who he is and what he stands for, that he is likely to bring us up short, to challenge and confound us. By general consensus Francis is the most Christ-like saint of the western church, so we ought not be surprised that he comforts and confounds us, as he draws us on into a new and strange reality. Francis isn’t glorifying suffering for its own sake. Like so many saints of all the ages he is telling us that to really love Jesus Christ means to find ourselves drawn to share in his sufferings, to share in his experience of rejection—and that means to be drawn to where that same rejection and suffering is happening in today’s world—because that is the way toward sharing in the fullness of who Jesus is, and that is the fullness of life and joy. That is the way of the Cross, the way of Resurrection, the way into the new creation.
Francis is not just a nature lover, his love for animals not just a love for creation, but a breakthrough of new creation, to use St Paul’s language. In the first lesson from Genesis, we saw the first human naming the animals. To name another being is a powerful act, and at its best an intimate act, an act of love, of gratitude, of appreciation and creativity. The naming of a child, or of a pet—a sacred and intimate act. So, Genesis invites us to see a primordial intimacy between the original human and the rest of creation, animals in particular. It seems to me this is not so much an accurate picture of a moment the past, but rather an intuition of the future, of the reconciliation of heaven and earth so long promised, and now actually initiated by Jesus in his death and resurrection. Like Jesus, Francis shows us the New Adam, celebrating the new creation. That’s what we see in his love for all the creatures of this world: he names them brothers and sisters with us in the new creation, all destined, with us, in Christ, for resurrection.
Not only Francis, but many other saints through the ages have manifested this friendship with animals that is a sign of the new creation, a sign of the reconciliation of all beings that is the work and the gift and the call of Christ. Christians, most of us, have forgotten or ignored or even suppressed this vision for way too long, with disastrous results we can no longer deny. Our need for this vision today is overwhelming, and all too obvious if we are not spiritually inert. Pray for us, brother Francis, that with you we may embrace the whole creation in delight and humility, in love and service, that with you we may follow Christ in humility, practice reconciliation with every creature, glorify God and celebrate the new creation.