Not Just Chickadees—Remembering Francis, a Subversive Saint
I’ve already seen the signs: “Blessing of the Animals—This Sunday”.
In honor of St. Francis—who preached to chickadees, tamed a wolf terrorizing a town, and welcomed chipmunks onto his shoulders—many churches will be offering animal blessings this Sunday. They will invite dogs, cats, gerbils, lizard, cockatoos, and more, into their sanctuaries—or at least into their front yards. They will sing All Creatures of Our God and King. They will invoke the name of Francis. And they will bless these furry and feathered friends. The children will love it.
What they won’t do? Encourage kids to steal.
Maybe they should.
Francis the Thief
Before he ever preached to an animal, Francis criticized the burgeoning merchant economy of 13th Century Italy. He grieved the way the economy put money into the pockets of some while leaving others begging along roadsides.
One of Francis’s first acts on his way to becoming St. Francis was to steal fabric from his father’s business and sell it. One account says he gave the money to a church, another says he offered it to the poor. Either way, he didn’t seem to appreciate the notion of property. The fabric—and the money it fetched when sold—wasn’t his to give away.
He did it anyway.
This act marked the beginning of what we might call Francis’s conversion—the 180 degree turn God’s Spirit was working in his life: a turn from a world in which a human economy allows people to say, “This is mine, I earned it, I can do with it what I want,” to a vision of a divine economy in which all that is belongs to God, is oriented toward God, and should be used for God’s purposes.
And, as Francis found out, living in that kind of economy can get you in trouble.
A New Vision Emerges
Unsurprisingly, Francis’s father did not think highly of this act of generosity. He flew into a rage, and Francis absconded. He hid for several weeks in a small cave, where only one friend knew where he was. He ate what little food his friend brought him, and he prayed. As one early biographer put it, “The Lord sent him such consolations and delight as he had never known.”
There’s no way to know exactly what happened to Francis in that cave, but I love the way G. K. Chesterton, in his biography of Francis, describes his new attitude when he emerged. Chesterton suggests that, when Francis came out, he saw the world upside down:
The effects of this on his attitude toward the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. . . . If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging.
Francis saw the world—all of creation, even himself and, presumably, his father and his father’s fabric—as suspended from its divine source. He saw things as they really are—coming from God, belonging to God, to be used for God. And that kind of vision doesn’t jibe with the way things typically work.
No wonder we bless the animals—that feels safe. Celebrating Francis-the-thief would contribute to the corruption of minors.
Of a Piece
But Francis-who-blesses-the-animals and Francis-who-steals-the-fabric are one and the same Francis; these two aspects of his character are of a piece. They flow from his radical reorientation.
Francis discovered a kinship with the rest of creation—Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Second-Cousin Squirrel—because he saw the trees, wolves, cockatoos, and gerbils as existing in God, as all things do. He peered into their divine heart—the same divine heart in his father and in the poor beggar. But the human economy—This is mine! I earned it! You can’t have it!—blinds us to this truth.
So when we bless the animals, we’re not just doing something cute, and we’re not just putting at risk the sanctuary carpet. We’re glimpsing the heart of reality. We’re practicing radical kinship. We’re being a bit subversive. We’re learning that not only the animals, but our very lives and our things, come from God, belong to God, and should be aimed toward God’s purposes.
Stealing St. Francis
When my wife and I got married, she bought me a little statue of St. Francis holding a basket. I filled the basket with birdseed and placed it in the front yard of our house. I loved that statue of Francis, loved how he greeted me each time I approached the front door. And I loved how, from the dining room table, I could watch the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds eat their fill as I ate mine.
When we sold the house 13 years ago, we forgot Francis. He stayed in that yard, and I wanted him back.
Last summer, when our family visited that town to see friends, we drove by the house to show our kids. “Boys,” I said, slowing down as we passed, “this is where we lived when you were born.” And then I stopped. I saw Francis, my Francis. He’d been moved from the island of azaleas in the front yard to near the bushes beneath the dining room window.
I glanced at our eight-year-old daughter, quick and small. She could pull off a heist if anyone could—dash into the yard, pluck Francis from among the bushes, and jump into the van before anyone saw her. And I’d never driven a getaway car before. It felt exciting.
Until I remembered—that’s not the kind of thief Francis was. He didn’t steal in order to own. He stole because what his father possessed wasn’t being used for its divine purpose. It had lost its place in Gods economy.
So we drove away, and I was left wondering, not whether I would every have my Francis back—I won’t—but whether I could let this vision of Francis shape my life. Would I ever really see the world the way Francis did?
And would I be willing to show that world to my kids, knowing the trouble seeing the world this way could cause them?
The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century. His latest work is Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife (Church Publishing Inc., 2019).