LITTLE FLOWERS OF SAINT FRANCIS, INTRODUCTION
We are beginning a new book, "Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi." I know little of Saint
Francis, and I'm reading this book for the first time, as are some of the rest of us.
From this introduction, by Arthur Livingston, I came away with some distinct ideas. One was, the text
that formed the basis for the translation we have before us is related to that of several other
documents. We are dealing with a tradition, a collection of legends, that has appeared in other forms,
with different numbers of episodes recorded. The knowledge that what we're reading has such a history
leads some people to see it as fiction. Legends aren't history, but they aren't fiction, either. Just
from this introduction, I can tell we're going to be reading miracle stories, as in the gospels, but
involving Saint Francis. What I hope to provide here is some profitable ways we can approach these
legends, these miracle stories. Maybe the most important place to start is to say, whether we have
trouble believing these events could have occured as narrated or not, they weren't told as fiction, the
people who told these tales believed them, so there's something behind them. And we have beside the
tales themselves, other evidence that something miraculous happened, in the results of these events
in history. One might dismiss the story of the parting of the Red Sea as impossible. They crossed some
shallow water somewhere. But whatever "really happened," there is in history the Isrealites, the Jews,
who are descendents of people who somehow escaped slavery in Egypt. I can't use examples from these
stories, because I haven't read them yet, but so it is here, whatever happened, if it was different
from the stories as we have them, people's lives were changed. Saint Francis came to be venerated. It
is a gift to be able to believe in miracles, and to believe particular miracles. But even with this
gift, if we see nothing but yes, it happened thus and so, we miss other great blessings.
In The Cloud of Unknowing, that author wrote about lectio divina, a way of reading spiritual or
inspirational literature, contemplatively. This was in chapters 35 to 39. I would like to suggest that
Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi is an excellent candidate for lectio divina. For those of us
not inclined or too busy to review The Cloud at this time, I have a favorite poem to present which may
be enough of a hint to prove useful. I first ran accross it in the introduction to the Paulist Press
edition of The Cloud of Unknowing. The original poet is unknown, but possibly the Dominican, Augustine
Litera gesta docet; quid credas, allegoria;
Moralis quid agas; quo tendas, anagogia.
Never mind it's Latin, I'll make the meaning plain enough, and the rhythm and rhyme are a mnemonic aid.
It points out four ways that we can find meaning in a piece of spiritual or inspirational literature,
be it the Bible or the material we're about to explore here. These aren't necessarily an exhaustive
list, and not always will we be able to find all four of these ways, but they're four ways we can
explore. These four are the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic. Maybe only the last needs
further comment. The anagogic sense of a passage is its ultimate spiritual or mystic sense.
This posting is already getting beyond the optimum length, so I hope these hints are helpful.
Other imortant ideas I got from this introduction are probably best expressed in Arthur Livingston's words:
one must raise a warning against reading the
Little Flowers with that long face of piety which is so easily put on
in the presence of any literature that has a sacred look. Such
sentimentalism, which blinds so many devout Christians to the art of
the Bible for instance, is at variance with the shrewd simplicity of
this folk masterpiece of Central Italy. What we have here, let us
insist on the point, is humor; and one who cannot - I will not say
laugh - one who cannot smile, will have read the Little Flowers in
One need not and perhaps should not further analyse the motivation of
the smile, which is the smile the sophisticated must always have for
the I. The I is always humor because it tends to simplify the majestic
and the complex, making it mechanical, but at the same time more
approachable and more lovable. The smile cannot be a laugh. A tear
lingers just behind it.
There is little, if any, theology about these simple friars. Such
questions belonged to those who were lettered and knew people off in
the big towns, Rome, perhaps. They cared little about such things,
having found in faith at all times, and now and again in "rapture", a
direct access to the benign powers.