Once, there were two young fish swimming. They happened upon an older fish who nodded and said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” Puzzled, the two young fish continued on. Eventually, one of them looked at the other and asked, “What’s water?”
This little parable, attributed to the late, best-selling author David Foster Wallace, serves as a reminder that we are sometimes oblivious to the most obvious and important realities that surround us. I know that when I’m overly preoccupied with something—whether it’s called for or not—I can lose sight of my surroundings and those inhabiting it.
For St. Francis of Assisi, the impetus for prayer was everywhere around him. Sure, he loved churches—keep in mind he rebuilt at least three of them. But he never lost sight of the revelatory nature of God’s handiwork and how creation gives us an experience of divine proximity.
His longing to draw nearer to God may explain why he spent so much time tucked away in the forest gorge known as the Carceri, eventually retreating to La Verna, where he received the stigmata. Perhaps the very first work of literature written in the Italian language, St. Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun” expresses his irrepressible need to praise God for the excellency of creation. Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio puts it this way: “Everything spoke to Francis of the infinite love of God. Trees, worms, lonely flowers by the side of the road—all were saints gazing up into the face of God.
In this way, creation became the place to find God, and, in finding God, he realized his intimate relationship to all of creation.” Stefan Walser, in his essay “Th e Act of Prayer According to Francis of Assisi,” adds that for St. Francis: “There is nothing that does not relate to God, and so there is nothing that cannot be part of prayer. Everything—even death—can guide one towards God, the Creator of all things.”
And so, while someone may be inclined to close their eyes when engaging in Ignatian prayer and visualization, prayer for St. Francis was an eyes-wide-open affair. Prayer was such a sensory experience for him that he warned the brothers of such things as academic studies, which posed the risk of extinguishing “the spirit of prayer and devotion.”
In his biography of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano writes that the saint was “not so much praying as becoming totally prayer.” Since he was not a man of half measures, this certainly rings true.
Right now, our country is experiencing sorrowful division. It seems as if everywhere you turn there’s another conflict competing for our attention or another group believing that theirs is the only right way. Such situations can take up a lot of room in our lives and, as St. Francis warned, could even imperil the “spirit of prayer and devotion.”
But following the example of St. Francis doesn’t require idyllic conditions. In his day, there was plenty to worry about: poverty, the Crusades, and leprosy, just to name a few. Add to that the physical illnesses and limitations with which he had to contend. It’s believed that he dictated the “Canticle of Brother Sun” toward the end of his life because he could no longer see. Life was far from easy for this beloved saint. Yet, at the same time, he was filled with joy! How was that possible?
I believe the answer can be found in these four words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Seek first the kingdom.” We know St. Francis had his priorities, so putting anything ahead of his relationship with God and all of God’s creation would have been unthinkable. If to seek something is to earnestly look for it with the expectation of finding it, then it really matters what’s at the top of the list.
Just imagine what a difference it would make if, instead of seeking out the mistakes and limitations of others, we were to look for yet another example of God’s handiwork. That could make all the difference in the world!
Let Us Pray
We are surrounded by your
majesty and grandeur!
Everywhere we turn, the works of
your hand can be found.
Your loving kindness is revealed in
the awesome beauty of nature as
well as in our fellow human beings.
Thank you for the example of your
servant Francis, who so delighted
in your creation that nothing could
extinguish his joy.
Help us to make more room in our
lives for you and open our eyes to
your handiwork in all we perceive.