Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi

Surrounded by wildlife and the natural, St. Francis is one of the most widely revered saints and for damn good reason. He is associated with a love of nature and his ability with animals. He is usually depicted wearing simple robes or a cloak, sometimes with a pilgrim’s staff. This is from the Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Coyoacan, Mexico. (Credit: Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca CC-BY-2.0)

I suspect no matter their views on religion or Christianity many people, especially natural scientists, have a soft spot for St. Francis. He is a patron saint of Italy, and the founder of the Franciscan order of monks. However he is probably most famous as the patron saint of animals and ecology.

He was born to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Assisi in the 12th century, and was baptised as Giovanni, but his father would call him ‘Francesco’. It was a bit of double entendre by all acounts, a play on both “Freedom” and “Lover of French things.” The young Francis was, allegedly, a carefree sort and a Francophile. The latter likely inspired by his French mother.

By many accounts he was a typical wealthy young man, dressing well, living well and throwing money about. However he became disillusioned.

One of the early stories is of St. Francis and the beggar. Whilst working at the market place selling his silks, cloth and velvet, he was approached by a beggar asking for money. Francis, after concluding his business, ran after the beggar and gave him everything he had in his pockets, to much mockery from his friends and anger from his father.

St. Francis giving his cloak to a beggar. There are few people, few saints, written about as performing so many small, but significant charities as St. Francis. A kind heart does not only look for the big gestures, but constantly delivers the small ones, too. This fresco is by Giotto di Bondone around 1300 CE. Giotto is widely regarded as one of the most influential of proto-renaissance painters. He painted many scenes of Saint Francis. (Credit: Public Domain)

It wasn’t until after his military career that he seemed to really develop those Franciscan traits to their full, though. He was captured in an expedition against Perugia and imprisoned, apparently becoming quite ill. This caused him to rethink his life but on returning to Assisi he got back to his wealthy lifestyle. In 1205, however, he planned to enlist in an army yet again but…didn’t.

He had a vision, and after that just wasn’t at all interested in living an earthly life, with all its trappings, anymore. He lived as a beggar. He lived like a hermit in a cave near San Damiano to escape the ire of his father. When he did return home his father beat him and locked him up. He was released by his mother and once again went and sought sanctuary in San Damiano, this time with the church.

He was pursued by his father during this time, seemingly to prevent his son having any of his wealth. St. Francis, at a trial before the Bishop of Assisi, is said to have renounced his father and any patrimony (money or property inherited from your father) he could provide. In some versions stripping himself naked as a token of this renouncement and being covered up by the Bishop with the Bishop’s own cloak; A sure endorsement of his holiness.

Another Giotto, this time of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. (Credit: Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

After this Francis was a wanderer and was given the iconic style we know him from today, humble robes and a pilgrim’s staff. He set about living a penitent life, a life of atonement, presumably in pursuit of spiritual forgiveness for his earlier lavish lifestyle. He is said to have restored several chapels and churches on his own. One such church is San Damiano’s in Assisi, which he apparently restored by going around the town begging for stones and carrying them, one by one, to the chapel to rebuild it.

St. Francis truly believed in creation, and believed all that God had made was good. It was human sin that the world’s ill. It is this attitude, his appreciation of life, nature and its beauty that would become his lasting, popular legacy.

So popular in fact that in the 14th century a collection of folk tales about Francis, the ‘Fioretti di San Francesco’ – Or ‘Little Flowers of Saint Francis’ – was published.

One of these stories is a parable that every wildlife enthusiast, biologist, zoologist and ecologist should read, the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio.

A simple statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio – The story is an incredible one and whether you want to think of it as merely a fable or whether you truly believe it the lessons it teaches us are profound and relevant to this day. I cannot find any details about this statue! But I like its gorgeous simplicity. (Credit: Wikiarius CC-BY-SA-3.0)

St. Francis spent time in the city of Gubbio, in Umbria (Central Italy, north of Rome and east of Tuscany) and whilst there a wolf was taking livestock and upsetting the residents. The wolf then graduated to taking people and so the city was determined to hunt the wolf down. St. Francis was unhappy with this, sure that the wolf must have its reasons.

He went up into the hills and found the wolf, and spoke with it. He found out that the wolf was alone, with no pack, and was stricken with hunger. He told the wolf he would ensure the people of Gubbio would feed him, and he would never be hungry again. In exchange he asked the wolf to promise not to harm any more people or livestock.

The wolf submitted to Francis, putting its paw in Francis’ hand as a sign of their pact, and St. Francis led the wolf back to town. Francis delivered a sermon to the people of Gubbio, he told them of why the wolf had done what it had done, and of the pact he had made. Once again, publicly, the wolf put its paw in Francis’ hand as a sign of their agreement. The people were happy.

A bronze panel showing Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio embracing. They are kindred spirits under God. There are other people and animals depicted, too. Showing how Francis did not have an exclusive connection to nature, rather he shared his bandwidth with all. It was sculpted by Farpi Vignoli in 1973 and can be seen at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittorina in Gubbio. (Credit: Christopher John SSF CC-BY-2.0)

The wolf lived in Gubbio, provided for by the people and never again attacking livestock or humans, for a further two years. It patrolled the town, kept people safe, kept people happy as this sign of holiness and miracles, this tamed wolf, wandered their streets.

You might think this total bollocks! However during renovations of the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace in Gubbio in 1872, a skeleton of a large wolf was found. It was reburied in the newly renovated church. Perhaps that is the very same wolf and this story is true?

I love this story because I think it speaks of the understanding and patience needed in matters of human-wildlife conflicts. One must understand both sides. The people were not horrible for wanting to kill the wolf. Neither, though, was the wolf horrible for killing and eating people. They were both doing what they had to do to survive. St. Francis recognised this and set out not to chastise or castigate anyone, but to listen and find a resolution that pleased the people and the animal.

Heaven’s acceptance of the benevolent Saint Francis. This is ‘Saint Francis on his Death Bed’. He is held tenderly by the angel at his side, a smiling comfort. Other angels beckon him, reaching out their hands or pointing to the heavens. There are also angels in anguish, so holy is St. Francis that angels do actually weep for him. The engraving is by Bernard Picart, ~1710. (Credit: The Wellcome Collection, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

It’s this Franciscan approach that many of our best ecologists and conservationists have adopted, whether knowingly or merely by figuring out, as he did, that this is best practice. As human populations grow and land use changes so that humans occupy and use more territory, particularly in developing nations, human-wildlife conflict is inevitable. An overly sentimentalised view of either the needs of people or the lives of animals is going to increase the difficulty of finding that middle way, that Franciscan compromise. That compromise is vital to protect human interests without doing harm to nature. We must find balance.

There’s a tendency, particularly in developed nations, to see persecution of native wildlife by native people as a symbol of barbaric practice, a sign of their lack of education or morals. It’s just not true! If lions, jaguars or bears are taking your livestock or if elephants are trampling your houses and destroying your crops it is reasonable to be upset. It’s reasonable to seek to remove the threat. It is also easy, from a comfortable house in a developed town in the UK, Western Europe or the USA to judge. Particularly in the UK where the largest, most dangerous predator we have is the red fox, it’s easy to see someone kill a lion in retaliation and say “That’s horrible.” But we don’t live with lions on our doorstep nicking our livelihoods, our food or, worse, our friends and family.

The Franciscan approach, then, is vital. We must understand the harm caused on both sides and seek measures to mitigate conflict, manage human-wildlife conflicts and ensure a good outcome for all sides.

St. Francis in his robe and with his pilgrim’s staff. You will notice that Francis, like Julian of Norwich, is rarely depicted in a grand fashion. Even when the piece itself is a grand, extravagant composition, St. Francis is simple, muted, in his brown or grey robes. You may also have picked up that I like this. (Credit: Public Domain via PXFuel)

Even removing my biological background, St. Francis is respected by me because if his story is true he is an excellent example of what I think a Christian should be. The teachings of Jesus Christ don’t exactly pussyfoot about the matter. The rich, successful, comfortable or selfish ain’t getting into heaven. It’s in Mark Chapter 10, verses 17-31. This is the famous “Camel through the eye of a needle” bit.

A wealthy young man approaches Jesus and asks how he may get in to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is all like “Just do the commandments, mate.” And the man confirms he has. So Jesus says “Well sell all ya shit, give the money to the poor and come follow me.” To which the man is quite unhappy because he’s got designer shirts and a PS5 or whatever. This is when Jesus says “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25).

He doesn’t say “Give a bit away, that’ll do.” It is a complete renouncement of earthly possessions, and their use in aiding those less fortunate that is demanded by Jesus here. It is a commitment to that penitent type of life that St. Francis followed that Jesus seems to be demanding in order to guarantee your place at God’s side.

Those Christians that truly practice what is preached are scarce.

An oil painting of St. Francis. He is depicted with an almost grim severity here. His hair is messy and gnarly, his beard unkempt and in those tatty brown robes. But he is surrounded by his reasons. He studies, likely reading the Bible. He clutches a cross, complete with crucified Christ, and a rosary. Never releasing his grip, his stigmatised grip (notice the wound, the stigmata, on his hand), from the Lord and Saviour who is his guidance. The skull a memento mori, a reminder that his time on earth is fleeting.
This kind of imagery should not be the reserve of the Christian’s alone. It has deep meaning to many humans, it inspires something in most people. Admiration of religious art, from texts, through icons, to paintings and statues, is not something atheistic people should shy away from. (Credit: Lluís Ribes Mateu CC-BY-NC-2.0)

On charity Jesus says “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) Basically public acts of charity get you no Heaven credits but to a wider extent – Do not show off or be deliberately extravagant either!

On how to live Jesus says “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Basically there’s God and then there’s the golden rule – treat others how you would wish to be treated. If you aren’t doing that, no heaven for you!

“God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) It’s pretty clear! Christianity is not a part-time pursuit for people in big houses who want to feel they’re ‘blessed’. It is not for people who are dishonest with themselves in how they act in accordance with their faith. It is not a blessing to lie to yourself and pretend you’re holy when you’re not. One must worship in truth. People who do not worship in truth are the opposite of blessed according to what Jesus said! They are damned!

It’s led to a modern Christianity far removed from what seems to have been intended in the scripture. I look at it and think “Well at least I live in truth! I know I’m a piece of shit! It’s why I’m not a Christian!” But I am very bothered by hypocrites who claim to be Christian and yet they seldom practice what is preached. That is not acting in truth and it is my belief that, regardless of any faith or religious obligation, one should always act in truth.

A stunning mural of St. Francis from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You may notice this is a very modern piece. St. Francis is still relevant. Given our climate crisis, human overpopulation and the current extinction event, possibly more relevant than ever. This mural shows St. Francis, bathed in holy, yellow light, radiating holiness. Perched above his shoulder appears to be a white dove, perhaps symbolic of the holy spirit and where that spirit is most likely to dwell. St. Francis is on the side of nature. The wolf, however, stands within an obscuring mist. He is surrounded by vice, a spilled glass, a needle, pills and bags of drugs by his feet. The wolf of Gubbio was led astray by his hunger. What is it, then, that we truly hunger when we sate our appetites with intoxication and the trappings of modern life? The compassion and understanding of St. Francis come from a willingness to establish why animals or people behave the way they do. How else can you fix it? “God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” But there is no truth in shying away from hard facts. There are lies. Animal suffering is. Animals can be cruel. St. Francis never denied this. Nor should we deny that poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and rampant misery are in our lives. In this mural the Wolf of Gubbio has come to represent a compassion for nature in all its forms, including our own human ones. (Credit: Jim McIntosh CC-BY-2.0)

St. Francis, though, he bloody went and did it. He lived in spirit and truth. He showed total devotion to a Christian lifestyle of service to the Lord, to the word of Christ, to nature and to others. He is a shining beacon for how Christianity should be practiced. For that I have a lot of respect for this saint.

Saint Francis, as I said, is enduring. His legacy is one of love and compassion for everything on our planet, for making charitable gestures, reconciliations and resolutions, big and small, to make the world a better place.

As the G20 meet, and COP26 carries on even I, an atheist, can look at the life and stories of St. Francis and take genuine, almost spiritual inspiration. His was a blueprint for how we should have been treating our planet and the other creatures we share it with since his life, since before he was born, even.

There are ‘Christians’ around the world living comfortable lives, in big houses, driving gas-guzzling cars, rooting, tooting and shooting a level of disrespect to the world that Saint Francis would be saddened by. He is a model not only of Christian behaviour, but of human behaviour. He is a solid, firm example of how we should all live to make everyone and everything’s lives just that little bit better.

It is now an even more desperate imperative. The world, its species and its climate, hangs in the balance for the wrongs we have done. We could all do with heeding the lessons, and emulating the life of Saint Francis.

For these reasons, Saint Francis of Assisi is my favourite saint.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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