From "The Little
Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi," 1476
The humble servant of Christ, St Francis, a short time after his
conversion, having already assembled and received many brothers into
the Order, was much troubled and perplexed in mind as to what he ought
to do; whether to give himself entirely to prayer, or now and then to
preach the Word. Through his great humility, he had no opinion of
himself or of the virtue of his prayers; and, wishing to know the will
of God, he sought to learn it through the prayers of others. Wherefore
he called to him Brother Masseo, and thus addressed him: "Go to Sister
Clare, and bid her from me to set herself with some of the holiest of
her sisters to pray the Lord that he may show me clearly whether he
wills that I should preach or only keep to prayer. Then go to Brother
Silvester, and ask of him the same favour."
Now Brother Silvester had been in the world, and was the same who had
seen in vision a golden cross come out of St Francis's mouth, whose
height reached up to heaven and its breadth to the farthest extremities
of the world. Brother Silvester was so holy, that whatever he asked of
God was granted to his prayer, and very often he held converse with the
Lord; so that St Francis revered him greatly. Then Brother Masseo did
as St Francis had commanded him; carrying the message first to St
Clare, and then to Brother Silvester, who set about praying
immediately; and, having received the answer from the Lord, returned to
Brother Masseo, and said to him: "The Lord says, go and tell Brother
Francis that he has called him to this state not to save merely his own
soul but that he may produce fruits in those of others, and that
through him many souls be saved."
Having received this answer, Brother Messeo returned to Sister Clare,
to ask what she had learnt from God; and she told him that she and all
her companions had received from God the same answer as the Lord had
given to Brother Silvester.
Then Brother Masseo hastened to St Francis to bring him these answers;
and St Francis received him with great charity, washing his feet, and
serving him at dinner.
When the repast was over, he called Brother Masseo into the forest,
and, kneeling down before him, put back his hood; and crossing his arms
on his breast, he said to him: "What answer dost thou bring me? what
does my Lord Jesus Christ order me to do?"
Brother Masseo answered: "The Lord Jesus Christ has revealed both to
Brother Silvester and to Sister Clare, that it is his will thou
shouldest go about the world to preach; for thou hast not been called
for thyself alone, but the the salvation of others."
Then St Francis, having received the answer, and knowing it to be the
will of the Lord Jesus Christ, arose with fervour, saying, "Let us go
in the name of God"; and taking with him Brother Masseo and Brother
Agnolo, both holy men, he let himself be guided by the Spirit of God,
without considering the road he took.
They soon arrived at a town called Savurniano, where St Francis began
to preach, first ordering the swallows, who were calling, to keep
silence until he had finished; and the swallows obeyed his voice. He
preached with such fervour, that the inhabitants of the town wished to
follow him out of devotion; but St Francis would not allow them,
saying: "Be not in such haste, and leave not your homes. I will tell
you what you must do to save your souls." Thereupon he founded the
Third Order for the salvation of all; and leaving them much consoled
and well disposed to do penance, he departed thence, and reached a spot
between Cannaio and Bevagno.
And as he went on his way, with great fervour, St Francis lifted up his
eyes, and saw on some trees by the wayside a great multitude of birds;
and being much surprised, he said to his companions, "Wait for me here
by the way, whilst I go and preach to my little sisters the birds"; and
entering into the field, he began to preach to the birds which were on
the ground, and suddenly all those also on the trees came round him,
and all listened while St Francis preached to them, and did not fly
away until he had given them his blessing.
And Brother Masseo related afterwards to Brother James of Massa how St
Francis went among them and even touched them with his garments, and
how none of them moved. Now the substance of the sermon was this: "My
little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye
ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has
given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither
spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for
yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into
the Ark with Noe that you might not be lost to the world; besides
which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you
fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in
which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that
your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such
bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and
study always to give praise to God."
As he said these words, all the birds began to open their beaks, to
stretch their necks, to spread their wings and reverently to bow their
heads to the ground, endeavouring by their motions and by their songs
to manifest their joy to St Francis. And the saint rejoiced with them.
He wondered to see such a multitude of birds, and was charmed with
their beautiful variety, with their attention and familiarity, for all
which he devoutly gave thanks to the Creator.
Having finished his sermon, St Francis made the sign of the cross, and
gave them leave to fly away. Then all those birds rose up into the air,
singing most sweetly; and, following the sign of the cross, which St
Francis had made, they divided themselves into four companies. One
company flew towards the east, another towards the west, one towards
the south, and one towards the north; each company as it went singing
most wonderfully; signifying thereby, that as St Francis, the bearer of
the Cross of Christ, had preached to them and made upon them the sign
of the cross, after which they had divided among themselves the four
parts of the world, so the preaching of the Cross of Christ, renewed by
St Francis, would be carried by him and by his brethren over all the
world, and that the humble friars, like little birds, should posses
nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on
the providence of God.
Note: Below is a picture of the shrine in Cannara, Perugia, Umbria,
Italy which marks where the preaching to the birds took place. This
picture is used by permission of the photographer, Richard Rupnik