Canticle of the Sun

Today, the fourth of October, is the feast day of Francis of Assisi. Popular culture has made of him a sort of tree-hugging hippie – and there is that side to him – but the spirituality he developed and lived is exigent in the extreme. Nothing wishy-washy about it.

The son of a merchant, Francis was not well-educated. Clare of Assisi, the nobleman’s daughter who together with him founded the order that came to be known as the Poor Clares, had much better Latin than he. Nevertheless, Francis composed a number of poems or songs in the dialect of his native Umbria. The only one to have come down to us so far is the Canticle of the Sun, composed shortly before his death. In fact, it is said that the last verse, the praises of “our Sister Bodily Death” was composed minutes before he died.

I love this text because it is at the same time exalted and lowly, magnificent and simple, spiritual and practical – like Francis and Clare themselves.

This translation from the Umbrian text of the Assisi Codex is attributed to Bill Barrett.

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, 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.

Death. Change. Life.

The Oasis of Ein Gedi, west of the Dead Sea.

It’s a poetry reading kind of day and I turned, as I so often do, to Emily Dickinson. Thumbing through a couple of collections, here is where I stopped (poem 749):

All but Death, can be Adjusted—
Dynasties repaired—
Systems—settled in their Sockets—
Wastes of Lives—resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs—
Death—unto itself—Exception—
Is exempt from Change—

It’s odd to read such an optimistic poem in which death features so prominently, but it exactly suits me at this moment.

All but Death, can be Adjusted… I’ll speak to this a little more when I get to the last line of the poem, but for now I am reading it at face value. Death is the only thing that is inexorable, unavoidable, unchangeable.  Death will come to all creatures. It is the only inevitable.

Everything else can be Adjusted, changed somehow. Dynasties and governments can be repaired or replaced. Systems (for me right now that speaks loudly of bureaucracy) can be settled in their Sockets, they can be dealt with, controlled, tamed. Citadels, seats of power, both physical and moral or psychological, can be dissolved, can be conquered or undermined, made to dissapear.

Wastes of Lives can be resown with Colors. This is a particularly beautiful image. Imagine someone’s painful, lonely, guilt-ridden, fearful, anxious, limited life as a broad expanse of wasteland. Now watch as it gains new life By Succeeding Springs – springs in both senses: water sources and seasons of growth. Spring after spring floods the wasteland and changes it until it is resown with Colors. We have all seen that, many of us have experienced it, some of us have been privileged to work with people in the wastes of their lives, slowly and patiently, until they, too are resown with Colors. I can think of no greater joy, no greater privilege.

So we have see that Dynasties and Systems and Citadels and Wastes of Lives are not inevitable, they can be changed. Only Death–unto itself–Exception / Is exempt from Change, says Dickinson.

Yes… and no, says Knot Telling.

Yes, death is inevitable. Everything that is alive will one day die. So in that sense, yes: All but Death, can be Adjusted. But for me, there is a larger sense that derives from my spirituality and my religious beliefs.

I believe that death itself is a change, a passage from one plane of existence to another, just as real but very different. Theologians and mystics provide all kinds of (sometimes amusingly conflicting) details about in what the difference consists. I don’t worry myself about such things. I content myself with knowing that my bodily death will come, probably sooner rather later at this point, and that something else, something unimaginably different and wonderful awaits me. As Francis of Assisi said in The Canticle of the Sun “Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.” Yes, embrace! When our Sister Bodily Death comes for me, I will embrace her and we will dance as she guides me through to the next thing.

As I’ve said here before, and I insist again, I’m no bliss ninny. I am not rushing headlong toward death, but I know it will come and with Stage IV cancer that will most probably be sooner rather than later. I am concerned about being dependent on others at the end of my life, but I am not in the least worried about what will come after I die. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Till We Have Faces: A Novel of Cupid and Psyche, “Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

See you there, when the time comes!