I'm not an expert on the life of Francis of Assisi, but I do know he had one of the most dramatic and thoroughgoing experiences with the call of Jesus of all time. Sued by his father and brought into court with the hopes he'd change his ways and retrieve the property he'd already given away, Francis stripped himself of his father's clothes before the judge, renounced worldly possessions, and commenced on a path that brought forth a rule of living followed by thousands and eventual canonization. Francis traveled widely, preaching to all and serving the needs of the poor. He was reported to be one of the most humble and forgiving men of his time. He is often depicted with birds and animals and was fond of celebrating the beauty of God's creation.
One of the hymns that is attributed to him, "All Creatures of Our God and King," Lutheran Book of Worship #527, makes this point poetically evident. Like a cosmic symphony, each verse allows different choruses from God's creation to sing the praises of the Trinity, animate and inanimate alike:
"O rushing wind and breezes soft,
O clouds that ride the winds aloft:
O praise him! Alleluia!
O rising morn, in praise, rejoice,
O lights of evening, find a voice.
O praise him! O praise him! Alleluia..."
The most profound verse is the one where the humans finally chime in. As Francis writes it, the way in which humans join in the praise of God with creation is through forgiveness.
"O ev'ryone of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O praise him! Alleluia!"
This is no ordinary spiritual pantheism going on here. Humans, who alone in creation bear the guilt and mark of sin, must truly praise their Creator by showing forth the manner of reconciliation. The human creature therefore reflects the news of God's love by forgiving others and being of "tender heart." The verse ends, poignantly, with other human voices joining in praise of God. Which voices? Ones "who pain and sorrow bear." That is, the ones who know and understand the news of the resurrection are the ones who then can truly join in the paeans of eternity. In Francis' hymn, the only human singing is done by those who forgive and those who have felt the pain of sorrow and know to cast their burdens on God. No intelligent or famous voices. No powerful voices. No distinctively athletic or even "gifted" voices that can warble and hit the high notes. Forgiving voices and humble voices and hurting voices. This probably tells us as much about Francis' theology and his way of life as anything else.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest...for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
I think of the awful shooting this week in the Amish Country of eastern Pennsylvania. The perpetrator was carrying heavy burdens of grudges and self-hatred that eventually led to awful violence and bloodshed. If these crimes had happened many other places, they might have been greeted with a similar response. But the Amish grandfather of two of the slain girls is taking up the lighter burden of reconciliation: "Help us forgive others as they trespass against us. We must not think evil of this man [who did the killing]," he is reported to have said. His heart is surely breaking in the aftermath of these horrific events, but thankfully he is hearing that the yoke Christ offers is easier than the strangling yoke of seeking revenge. What a great example of the humans' part in Francis' hymn. May we all be so courageous to sing it with him.