The Radical Compassion of St. Francis

The Radical Compassion of St. Francis
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St. Francis, with his sisters, the birds

St. Francis, with his sisters, the birds

I once met a parishioner’s daughter who worked for a puppy rescue service, who told me the story of Fifi, an abandoned miniature poodle she spotted living in a patch of dirt by the freeway. She made multiple attempts to get Fifi to come to her, but the poor thing was too terrified of people. She finally put out a food trap overnight, caught Fifi, and placed her into a loving home. At another parish where I worked, another scared and hungry puppy was found that had been thrown over the fence of a storage area. But after surviving that violent act from his previous owner, he found himself happily adopted into the home of the parish priests.

These are just two stories that show there are sadly still people who lack compassion for animals and choose to abandon them. There are those who say compassion for animals is nice, but we ought to have compassion on our fellow humans first. I understand that. But rather than worrying about who is receiving compassion, I think it’s worth celebrating that we are able to give any compassion at all. Just looking at the headlines, it’s clear that we as a species have trouble offering even basic compassion. Our hearts are naturally hard and we have to work at being kind.

Francis Honored All Beings as Equals

St. Francis, whose feast we observe this week (Oct 4), was familiar with the hard- heartedness of human nature. He spent a year in his youth as a prisoner of war. His own father was so lacking in compassion that he had him beaten as a punishment for giving his inheritance away to the poor. He not only lacked compassion for the poor, he didn’t even have any for his own son! But this punishment did not deter Francis from giving up everything he owned, even basic necessities like a change of clothes, because he trusted that God would provide for him anew each day.

The most well-known story about Francis (which has inspired millions of birdbaths worldwide) is that one day when traveling with his brother friars, he stopped and told them, “Wait here. I have to go preach to my sisters, the birds…” They found him in a clearing with dozens of birds gathered around him, even resting on his shoulders and in his hands. There they remained until he told them his sermon was over and they could go in peace. They all flew away instantly.

That story may be only a legend, but Francis calling the birds his sisters is true. From the small amount of writings passed down to us, it’s clear that he did often personify animals and elements of nature by calling them brother or sister. Sweet. But Francis was not being cute. He was acting on his deeply held belief that to call someone brother or sister, whether an animal or another human, is to honor them as equal. Francis did not hold himself higher than even the least of God’s creatures.

Praying For Enemies, or “Difficult People”

I often observe a Buddhist practice known as tonglen or ‘lovingkindness’ meditation. It’s a great practice for Christians because it reminds us to pray for our enemies as Jesus commanded. It’s a convenient thing to forget to do, but in this meditation, it’s built into the structure. You begin with the person for whom compassion is the easiest: yourself. Next, you pray for someone that you feel positively towards, then for someone you’re neutral towards, then for an enemy, or to be more politically correct, a “difficult person.” Finally, you pray for the whole of creation. It looks something like this…

May I be peaceful, may I be free from harm, may I be happy.
May (nice person) be peaceful, free from harm, happy.
And neutral person…
And nasty person…
May all beings without exception be peaceful, free from harm. May they be happy.

Whenever you hear a story about human cruelty—abandoning an animal is just one example, I’m sure you can think of many others—rather than just shaking your head, you might try to use the above formula to offer a prayer of compassion. Because how unimaginably sad must it be to live inside the skin of someone with that hard of a heart. Imagine how amazing it would be if one day, someone like that, wracked with guilt, were to try to find the little puppy they abandoned. And what sort of reconciliation they might feel to see the creature they had cast aside happy and cared for.

Compassion Springs From Resting in God’s Hands

Our faith teaches us that no one, not even the worst sinner with the hardest heart, is beyond redemption. They are in God’s loving hands, just like Fifi was in God’s hands when she got rescued by the side of the freeway. Just like Francis was in God’s hands when he gave up all his possessions. Just like we put ourselves in God’s hands every time we worship together and hang our hard hearts on the hope that what we do makes a difference.

Like a bird resting in the hand of a saint, we are resting in the hand of God. Secure in that knowledge, we can have compassion, not only on our own selves and those we love, but even for the hard-heartedness of humanity and even unto the whole of creation. May we be peaceful, may we be free from harm, may we be happy. May all beings, without exception, be peaceful, may they be free from harm, may all beings, without exception, be happy.

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