Perhaps the most popular sculptured image of Francis is that of the ragged little man standing on a birdbath. This figure, which has become so universal, could be discovered as easily in a Methodist’s backyard or a Buddhist prayer garden as at a Franciscan retreat center.
To those who grumble that this birdbath art is too lowbrow and sentimental, I say “Lighten up! Francis belongs to the popular arts as much as with the fine arts—and he certainly belongs to the birds.” To set Francis on a birdbath or in a flower garden or to depict him with birds circling around his head is just a popular way of saying: “This man had a special link with all of God’s creatures, and it’s just like him to be standing there among them.”
Francis was in awe of the swallow and cricket and rabbit. “Where the modern cynic see something ‘buglike’ in everything that exists,” observed German writer-philosopher Max Scheler, “St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.”
Another reason Francis should keep his place on the birdbath or amid the daffodils in that his being there helps us see, as Francis himself did, that the world of nature and the world of God are one. Francis did not fall into the trap of dualism, which creates an artificial wall between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred. For Francis, every creature was sacred. The world he lived in was not something wicked to be rejected but a sacred ladder leading to its Creator.
Francis would say that the birds coming to the birdbath are holy. Water is holy. Bugs are holy. Why shouldn’t Francis be there in the garden where he can be pelted by rain or sleet or kissed by the sun and wind or a passing butterfly?
In 1992 the Catholic Bishops of the United States published a statement on the environment entitled Renewing the Earth. In it, they praised St. Francis and emphasized: “Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly in it, rather than managing creation as though we are outside it.” We should see ourselves, they added, as stewards within creation, not as separate from it. Francis was ahead of his time, He saw himself, as do today’s ecologists, as part of the ecosystem, not as some proud master over and above it.
Francis addressed creatures as “brother” and “sister”—as equals, not subjects to be dominated. And that’s why the humble figure of Francis standing at the birdbath or among the plants and shrubs is so right for our day. He truly saw himself as a simple servant and steward of creation—little brother to the birds and the fish and the lowly ivy. St. Francis reminds us that we are a part of our environment and are called to love and protect it.
Photo: Ken Thomas