St. Francis and the Song of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

St. Francis and the Song of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

St. Francis and the Song of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

St. Francis and the Song of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

Excerpt

In a discourse on superstition Voltaire (1694-1778) dismissed St. Francis in the words: “A raving lunatic who goes about stark naked, talks to animals, catechizes a wolf and makes himself a snow-wife.” A world view confined by reason or restricted by logic can have no place for a man like Francis of Assisi, because he cannot be contained within the limits of reason nor confined by the laws of logic. Voltaire neutralized any impact St. Francis might have had on him by the sure and lethal weapon of mockery. It is indeed recorded in the early sources that Francis on occasion went about stark naked. He began his life of penance by taking off all his clothes in public and he ended it lying naked on the ground with his arms outstretched as Christ died on the cross. They tell us that he talked to a lamb, a leveret and the swallows because he recognized them as his brothers and sisters; that he tamed the wolf of Gubbio and instructed it in the ways of Christian charity; that he built himself a snow-wife and rolled naked in the snow to curb temptations of the flesh, for he was a passionate man.

St. Francis belongs to the middle ages, an era which seems to us lost in the twilight of fantasy even more than it seemed to eighteenth-century minds. For Voltaire and all the leaders of the Enlightenment the middle ages were despicable as intolerant, authoritarian, superstitious and stigmatized by ecclesiastical and feudal tyranny. What could a thirteenth-century mystic have to say to the Age of Reason?

To pure reason, no matter how enlightened it may be, what Francis said and did must appear as raving lunacy. Swallows do not write erudite tomes on philosophy nor compose encyclopedias of universal knowledge, so what can be learned from talking to them? It is ironical, however, that in ridiculing St. Francis, Voltaire rejected a man who had realised in himself everything good the Enlightenment stood for. Francis was free, a champion of humanity and a lover of nature. He was tolerant, humble, religious and full of reverence and wonder.

It is ironical also, in respect of Voltaire's rejection of him, that Francis was looked on as a lunatic even in his own time. His outlook was no more acceptable to what may be called the commonsense rationality of his contemporaries than it was to the pure reason of the Enlightenment. His father, Pietro Bernadone, found Francis’s behavior totally incomprehensible.

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