What kind of man preaches to the birds? Was Francis a bit simple, or was he, perhaps, making a point about his frustration with human beings?
I suspect something a bit more subtle was going on, but to understand what drove the man famous for his affinity with animals and nature, it might help to start with something he wrote.
Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a “Letter to the Faithful,” an attempt, perhaps, to make sure that the people aligned with the movement he had started, had some of his words to hold on to, when he was gone.
And in that letter he told a story. The story – I’ll paraphrase it for brevity – is about a very wealthy man, a man who has become wealthy through fraud and deception. This man falls sick, and dies, without making things right for the people he mistreated, and without being reconciled to God. And rather than being appreciative of what he left them, his family curse him for not making more for them! So, Francis concludes the story with the rich man suffering torments in hell, his body being food for worms, and his ungrateful relatives remembering him with bitterness and not love.
It’s not really a cheery story, and it’s a far cry from cuddly animals. But why did Francis tell it?
It helps us if we understand a little bit about the world he lived in. Francis lived in a time of great social upheaval; the system that had dominated in previous centuries – of nobles exercising feudal power over peasants who were mostly engaged in agriculture – was giving way to the new power of merchant families who ruled city-states; expanding international trade through Italy’s big port cities made those merchants unbelievably wealthy, and completely disconnected from the poor people outside the gates of those cities. (If we listen to rhetoric about coastal “elites” and impoverished, neglected rural folk in America today, the comparison in terms of mutual distrust and ideological disconnection is actually striking).
So when Francis started his order, that movement can be seen as a powerful social protest against exploitative wealthy people feeding a lavish consumerist culture, which left the poorest and most vulnerable out in the cold.
Francis and his brothers – and later the women in their companion order, as well – lived in a way which turned those values on their heads. Choosing poverty – for they lived by begging – was a way of saying that people and things have a value which can’t be priced on the commercial market. Treating all of creation as sacred, down to the humblest animal, was a way of saying that God’s creation is good in and of itself; and that the worth of something isn’t measured by what someone will pay for it.
What price would you put on sunshine, anyway? Or the feel of the breeze on your face?
Francis wrote and talked a lot about penance, but what he seems to have meant by it is mostly a disengagement from attachment to stuff. It was about forming communities which treat each and every person with worth and dignity, and which treat the bonds of relationship between us and every other good thing which God created, as sacred.
That’s the point of the story in Francis’ Letter to the Faithful. All the luxuries in the world can’t save you, can’t keep you alive, and can’t help you have relationships worth having. And I think it’s the point of preaching to the birds, too. The birds who are our fellow-creatures point us towards more authentic humanity than anything you can buy; an alternative value system, and an alternative vision of human community; one in which people matter for who we are, and not what we have.
And that’s a timeless message which still very much resonates in our own day!
The full text of the Letter to the Faithful can be read here: http://www.traditionalcatholicpriest.com/2014/10/05/letter-to-the-faithful-by-st-francis-of-assisi/