We’ve all heard the stories of Francis preaching to the birds and the wolf of Gubbio and perhaps we’ve prayed his Canticle of Creation —which images our familial connection to nature, calling the Sun, Moon, Wind, Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Death our brothers and sisters. What we may have not heard (or imagined), was Creations response to Francis.
In 1981, Italian novelist and poet Luigi Santucci, published La lode degli animali (Edizioni Messaggero Padova). He offered up a series of snap-shots of Francis’s interaction with the animals, retold from the perspective of the animals. The Canticle of the Creatues for Saint Francis of Assisi (Paraclete, 2017), is a new, English translation of Santucci’s book. Translated by Demetrio Yocum, a scholar of Medieval and Renessaiance Literaure, Canticle of the Creatures combines Santucci’s imaginative prose with Illustrations from Br. Martin Erspamer, OSB.
It was Erspamer’s illustrations that first caught my eye. As a well-known liturgical artist, and monk at St. Mienrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana, Erspamer renovates church worship spaces, produces commissioned pieces and (of course) illustrates books. His cartoony depiction of Francis, in his burlap habit, and the colorful creatures, are reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, signaling the perfect playful note for these Franciscan tales.
In this book, we hear from the birds (the nightingale, the swallows, the falcon of La Verna, the water bird, the larks, the pheasant, and the doves). We also hear from a fish, a little rabbit, Jacoba’s lamb, the cicada, the bees, Clare’s cat [this story features Clare, not Francis], Gubbio’s wolf a worm and an ox. A final section of the book is written from the perspective of the animals in Francis’ 1223 Christmas crèche at Greccio. Each creature’s narrative voice is introduced by excerpts from Franciscan tales and legends.
This book is not so much a theological treatise but an invitation to see and hear the world around us, and sense the world charged with the grandeur of God. Too often, we are mere consumers of the natural world, not just in our consumption of its resources, but even in the way we take in scenic views of panoramic landscapes (as though their beauty exists merely for our own enjoyment). Francis’s stories, and Santucci’s imaginative reflections, invite us beyond this consuming mindset towards conversation with creation. The witness of Francis was not that he preached to birds, but that in the music of their song he heard their praise for their Creator. May the one with ears, hear. I give this book four stars. -★★★★☆
Notice of material connection, I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.