Not too long ago I heard a speaker make reference to Francis of Assisi. After commenting on how Francis liked to preach to birds he said that today we would lock someone like this up but instead many want to make him a spiritual master. In other words, Francis was probably a lunatic and should be treated as such. Nothing noble here—let’s move on. From what I’m reading in Jon Sweeney’s book, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, this speaker has a pathetically poor understanding of Francis.

Sweeney says that the “most common misconception about Francis is that he loved nature.” (p. 105) When I read that I was puzzled. After all, Francis is the patron saint of animals and most of the statues of him show him with birds and other animals. Sweeney explains that Francis “did not love nature because he never loved anything or anyone in the abstract. To love nature is akin to loving everyone and everything in the universe, and we know that is impossible for a mere human. Francis’s gift of caring was specific, which is what is most unusual about him, more than his being drawn to birds. If we generalize a particular love of this lover who excelled at loving particularly, much is lost.” (p. 106) He continues, “Francis did not love ‘people.’ This wouldn’t have made much sense to him at all. He loved that person, he loved this person, he showed love for Clare, for Leo, for Matteo—the person in from of him at that moment.” Sweeney says this was an insight he gained from G.K. Chesterton’s little work on Francis. I pulled that from my shelf and read the following.

“He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea. And for the modern reader the clue to the asceticism and all the rest can be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics. Tell it as the tale of one of the Troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole of the modern puzzle disappears. In such a romance where there would be no contradiction between the poet gathering flowers in the sun and enduring a freezing vigil in the snow, between praising all earthly and bodily beauty and then refusing to eat, and between glorifying gold and purple and perversely going in rags, between his showing pathetically a hunger for a happy life and a thirst for a heroic death. All these riddles would be easily be {sic} resolved in the simplicity of any noble love; only this was so noble a love that nine out of ten men have hardly heard of it.” (Saint Francis of Assisi, pp. 11-12; Paraclete Heritage edition)

None of this should take away from the fact that Francis definitely loved animals. Sweeney writes, “He seemed to look into the eyes of creatures and see himself in them. Animals resemble us, of course, and many animals have eyes that are quite like ours. Francis saw the similarities himself and animals when he met them face-to-face. He stopped and took the time to care for those that most of us carelessly pass by. He never missed an opportunity to understand all sorts of creatures better, from the birds and animals around him to many of the human beings he encountered throughout the day.” (p. 107)

The love expressed by Francis challenges me to be more concrete in expressing my love for those I encounter. Especially for the one in front of me at this moment.