The Troubador of God
by Gary D. Penkala
Francis loved to sing.
It freed his spirit and turned the human voice, so often the organ of selfishness and sin, into an instrument of celebration...
He gave voice to the joy within him and to the beauty he saw all around him.
Whenever he felt his heart constricting, he would break into a song of joy and praise.
[Francis: The Journey and the Dream, Murray Bodo]
On October 4 the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi.
It was over 800 years ago that Il poverello (The Little Poor Man) was born in a hilly, Tuscan village.
Hardly little in his influence, Francis became a most beloved saint, both within and beyond the Catholic community.
He is remembered with many titles: the founder of an order, confessor, peacemaker, friend of nature, model of humility and simplicity.
To Joan Erikson, in Saint Francis and His Four Ladies,
He was a poet, and his life a poem; he was a troubador and his life a splendid song.
He was a jongleur de Dieu who turned the established world topsy-turvy by challenging accepted values and embracing poverty, simplicity and humility - the three dread adversaries of mercantile security.
We musicians, then, can feel honored to claim this great saint among our ranks.
While, undoubtedly, much of his music and poetry is lost, we have at least two extant examples of his art: "Peace Prayer" and "Canticle of the Creatures."
In the former, Francis eloquently summarizes much of the Gospels' teaching, offering a guide for Christian living.
"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love...
Let me not so much seek to be consoled as to console...
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned and in dying that we are born to eternal life."
In his "Canticle of the Creatures," Francis praises God for the goodness of creation - for "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon"; for stars, wind, and weather; for water, fire, earth, and flowers.
Aside from the religious value, Francis in these verses began a great tradition of Italian poetic literature - a tradition that led to the works of Dante, Petrarch, Leopoldi, and Montale.
As the saint lay dying, naked, per his wishes, on the bare earth, he had the friars sing his "Canticle of the Creatures," to which he added the final stanza, praising and thanking God for "Sister Death, who releases the soul to the light of divine grace."
Hymns based on the poems of Saint Francis include "All Creatures of Our God and King" and "Most High Omnipotent Good Lord."
Both are available in quality Catholic hymnals.
Choral anthems by various composers, including Hutmacher and Peloquin, have been based on the texts of Saint Francis. See also CanticaNOVA Publications' Prayer of Saint Francis [Catalog #5090].
In remembering the Little Poor Man of Assisi on October 4, the Church sings, "Francis, poor and lowly, enters a rich man into heaven, welcomed with celestial hymns, alleluia!" (Sacramentary)