All Creatures of Our God and King: a book review

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 Pathe-canticle-of-the-creatures-for-saint-francis-of-assisidova). 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.


Brother Duck’s Tell All Tale: a book review

Francis of Assisi is the world’s most popular saint.  His life, his joy and his connection to creation has inspired millions of people. His commitment to the poor and the least of these offers a radical challenge to our materialist age. There are many biographies, collections of stories and children’s books which pay homage to the great saint, but none quite like this.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck: a Graphic Novel by Jay Stoeckl

Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl was an aspiring cartoonist. After traveling to Assisi he became a secular Franciscan.  Saint Francis and Brother Duck is his graphic retelling of the life of Francis. In these pages we meet the young Francis who dreams of being a  glorious knight. His father sends him off to battle arrayed in fine clothes and armor.  But before he sees much battle he rescues a duck from some cruel boys.  He hears a voice telling him that he misinterpreted his ‘dream.’ In Stoeckl’s retelling, the duck he saved returns home with Francis and remains his companion for the nearly twenty years. The duck narrates this story and in the end this is as much his story as it is Francis’s.

Stoeckl revisits most of the famous Francis stories: the rebuilding the church of San Damiano, his trial before the bishop where he gave  the clothes off his back, back to his father, the first followers in Gubbio, Francis preaching to the birds (including a duck),  Clare joining the order, Francis’s overcoming brother wolf, Francis preaching to the sultan,  and his receiving the stigmata and more.

Brother Duck is a simple and earnest character. He is a faithful friend to Francis and goes with him everywhere but doesn’t always understand Francis. Sometimes he asks probing questions which allow Francis to share his grand theological vision. Other times Brother Duck provides comic relief by being  just as slow to understand Francis as the rest of us. In the end the Brother Duck is a faithful interpreter of Francis’s message and legacy.

The back cover says that this graphic novel was ‘designed to inspire ages 8 & up.’ My children are a bit younger than that, and a lot of this book is beyond them; however I found it a fun and imaginative read, full of good humor.  My favorite piece of dialogue between Saint Francis and Brother Duck is the following:

Francis (F): Brother Duck?  What if all living things were brother or sister to me?

Brother Duck (BD): That would make one really big family!

F: Yeah! and Earth would be our mother.

BD (after a pause)What about alligators?  If alligators eat ducks and a duck is your friend would you say, “Brother Alligator, you just ate my best friend brother duck”?

F: I suppose I would simply say, “Brother Alligator, I am so sad you ate my best friend Brother Duck.”

BD (another pause): What about mosquitoes? What if big, hairy creepy Brother Spider catches obnoxious blood-sucking Sister Mosquito–who had just bitten Brother Rattlesnake as he is slowly digesting slimy, disease-bearing- Sister Rat?

F: And the Lord God made them all!

BD: Hmmm.

I would recommend this book to any lover of St. Francis. The childlike-faith of Francis is showcased in this format. Young readers and old readers will appreciate what they find in these pages. I give the book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.