Some of the earliest literature in the Italian language owes its existence to St. Francis of Assisi. The Cantico delle creature (Canticle of Living Creatures), a luminous poem of praise which Francis wrote after receiving the stigmata in 1224, and the Fioretti or Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of legends about the saint compiled by members of his order, are both prized today as much for their literary merit in the early Tuscan dialect as for their insight into the saint. Both works show Francis’ love of the natural world and the animal kingdom, a side of him much distorted in popular depictions like Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It’s refreshing to lay aside those pop culture glosses and go back to the original Franciscan sources in their purity and beauty. In them we find no sugary sentimentality, but profound theological insights about God, man, and creation.
The sermon to the birds (Chapter 16 of the Fioretti) is surely the most famous story about St. Francis. While walking, Francis sees a huge flock of birds gathered in trees by the side of the road. He tells his brother monks to wait for him while he “preaches to his sister birds.” Francis’ homily echoes the parable of the lilies of the field in Matthew’s Gospel (translations are mine):