One of the works of literature which has had a more profound influence on me–my thinking, my spiritual life, my way of looking at the world–is G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi. In this book, he presents a sketch of the saint, somewhat light on biographical details, but full of insights on Francis’ character. It was in the pages of this biography that I was first exposed to St. Francis’ powerful, beautiful poem, The Canticle of the Sun–another work of literature that has had a profound influence on me. Here is an English translation of the text, which was originally written in 1224 in the Umbrian dialect of Italian (in fact, this poem is thought to be one of the very first poems written in the Italian vernacular).
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.
And here is a version of the poem set to music by Leo Sowerby in 1945: Canticle of the Sun
There are a lot of things that could be said about the Canticle of the Sun, but I’m going to focus on how it’s affected me, personally. When I first read the poem, I didn’t know what to think about it. I wasn’t sure if I even liked it. I found it strange, the imagery delightful yet not what I was used to. The concept was not something that I had thought of much before, or had been exposed to very often. The idea of viewing the natural world as a brother was relatively new to me, though I had already come to believe that God shows forth His majesty in Nature. I’ve always been something of a nature-lover, but I did not look at the natural world with the same kind of familial affection expressed in the Canticle.
But then the words off St. Francis began to work their way into my heart. They filled me with a mysterious longing and worked on my soul. As time went by, I went continuously back to The Canticle of the Sun, re-reading it because it seemed an expression of some deep truth. These words, from the mouth of one of the most astonishing of Medieval saints, have stayed with me even when I forget so much else that I read.
From St. Francis, as expressed in the Canticle, I have learned to see the hidden ways in which all of God’s creation cries out His praises. I have found hints of the way Man is meant to have dominion over Creation–as a kindly elder brother, a gentle steward, tilling and keeping and singing of the beauty of all his little siblings, fellow creatures made, like him, to offer unending praise to God. I have seen how death is not always to be feared, can even be a gift. I have seen how to praise God for pain and suffering. The Canticle has been, to me, a truly enlightening look at pain, a marker showing that all things can work together for the good of those who love Him–that trials, properly embraced, can bring about good.
This poem has also brought a new light and joy into the natural world for me. I can look at the sun now and laugh because he is my little brother. I can join my voice with the voice of the moon, of the wind, of water, of the animals, all of us praising God; I can give thanks that all those things should be given as gifts to Man. I think, for me, this is the biggest impact of The Canticle of the Sun; the joy that it has enabled me to see and take part in.
Praise the Lord for Brother Francis! For the written word, so useful and humble and good, a vessel for all manner of meaning! Praise the Lord for song and poetry, lenses of truth, of pure feeling and of connection with deep and inexpressible things.