PSYCHE, NATURE and PRAYER
Francis of Assisi’s “Song of Brother Sun”, as interpreted by Eloi LeClerc in The Canticle of Creatures, illustrates concretely the points I have tried to make above, and the kind of poetic prayer, imaged from nature, that is the thesis of this paper, as well.
In The Canticle of Creatures, LeClerc presents a portrait of Francis of Assisi as poet, visionary and dreamer, man passionately in love with God and nature, who celebrated this love and these dreams in a “Song of Brother Sun” just shortly before he died. This song of God's praise is clothed in images of creatures: images drawn from nature.
Song of Brother Sun
Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honour and all blessing.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made. And first , my Lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendour. Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars; In the heavens you have made them, bright, and precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, lowly, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful he is, how gay! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon for love of you; through those who endure Sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those She finds doing your will! The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, And serve him with great humility.”
LeClerc sees the “Song of Brother Sun” as an encapsulation, in symbolic and archetypal form, of Francis’ whole life and of his individuation process: that is, of his process of relating himself to God (Self), the Source of his life, joy, meaning and love, and to himself (ego), Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, human person on a ‘journey into God’ who comes from a specific time, place, temperament and personal history). In the “Song” Francis recounts his relation to his own psyche and the images that live there and speak to him of his life’s events, lessons, high points and conversions, and which speak to him of nature itself, and of God as well. It does so in images from nature that “‘reconcile the supernatural, the natural and the human.’ The cosmic realities named and praised are symbols as well as material things. They continue to be material things. The cosmic universe here symbolizes an interior universe. Therefore the full meaning of the poem is to be sought in the relation between these two universes.
The “Song of Brother Sun”, written almost as a last act in Francis’ life, was a kind of final summation produced by the transcendent function in Francis, by which he moved to a new attitude, one of closure with his life and of preparation for death. In it, conscious and unconscious meet. The “Song” can be read as a product of Francis’ conscious attitude which had developed over nearly a lifetime of loving and living close to nature and of praising God. Yet LeClerc can find a very great deal ‘unsaid’ - the many unconscious contents, both personal and collective that lie beneath the surface of the words and images of the “Song”. These images can do this because they come from a deep level of Francis’ being : he has ‘dreamed’ them.
LeClerc owes much to the French philosopher of science and poetry Gaston Bachelard for his concept of ‘dreaming’ about material things until they become richly tapestried images carrying deep symbolic meaning within the soul LeClerc writes,
“Gaston Bachelard has set out to show that there is a basically creative imagination of material things. Contrary to what is usually assumed, an image of something material is not always a simple reproduction nor even a combination of elements derived from the object perceived, there is an image that is created by the imagination. The former derives from perception and memory and is connected with our capacity to grasp the real. The latter, on the other hand, is connected with our capacity to grasp what is unreal; its domain is the realm of the imaginary: its subject matter is oneiric.”
And in Gaston Bachelard’s own words, "It is near water that I have best understood that reverie is an ever-emanating universe, a fragrant breath that issues from things through the dreamer.”
When Francis wrote the “Song of Brother Sun”, he was totally blind, and related solely to the images as they existed in his own imagination. After a lifetime of loving and of living with them in intimacy, they lived now in his psyche in very individual and meaningful ways. The archetypal images of the elements - sun, moon, wind, water, fire - have specific qualites and values that contextualize them in the “Song” because of Francis’ personal associations with them, and because of his particular experiences of the primordial realities they represent - the cosmic images represent truths Francis has learned in his process of living, and in his process of individuation or ‘becoming himself’ - these truths are about himself about God and about nature. Paul Ricoeur writes,
“It is this function of symbols as surveyor’s staff and guide for ‘becoming oneself’ that must be united with and not opposed to the ‘cosmic’ function of symbols as it is expressed in the hierophanies described by the phenomenology of religion. Cosmos and Psyche are the two poles of the same ‘expressivity’; I express myself in expressing the world; I explore my own sacrality in deciphering that of the world.”
An example can be found in Francis’ lines of praise of Sister Moon and Stars:
“All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars; in the heavens you have made them, bright and precious and fair.”
Although Francis’ own life was one of exteme poverty and simplicity, he nevertheless desired to see the things of the Lord’s Supper kept in ‘precious’ containers and surroundings - in keeping with the reality of their true character as he saw it, viz., as the sole treasure of this life, that which is truly sacred. The only places in Francis’ writings where the word ‘precious’ occurs, are in conjunction with the sacraments, and in the “Song” in relation to Sister Water and Sister Moon and Stars.
“The image (of Sister Moon and Stars) is, of course, a (‘dreamed’) poetic image: the ‘precious’ star is a star of imagination and dreams, for the quality of ‘preciousness’ cannot be an object of simple observation. We see the stars sparkling in the heaven. The poet’s imagination passes from ‘sparkling’ to ‘precious’, and the sparkling star becomes a precious thing. But to see the stars as precious, one must do more than simply look at them, one must dream of them, and dream of them until one no longer sees the stars themselves but in their place an enchanted world of precious stones. Only dreams can thus combine star and precious stone and transform the one into the other, so that the stars become the diamonds of heaven’. As a poetic and oneiric image, the ‘precious’ star originates in dreams and stimulates dreams. It is always to some extent the mysterious star, fascinating and enchanting, and linked with the depths of the soul . One who loves to watch the ‘precious’ stars in the heights of heaven carries a hidden treasure in the depths of (her) own soul.”
This is why Pierre Bezhukov, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, can laugh when he realizes that the French soldiers are keeping ‘him' prisoner:
“Forests and fields...and beyond those forests and fields, the bright, oscillating, limitless distance lured one to itself. Pierre glanced up at the sky and the twinkling stars in its faraway depths. ‘And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!’ thought Pierre. ‘And they caught all that and put it into a shed boarded up with planks!’”
For Francis of Assisi, even in his blindness, the stars still sparkled in his soul, all the creatures he had loved and lived with in intimacy still lived and were experienced by him within himself. For him, the creatures were symbols of the sacred: of the presence of the God who, in reality, penetrated all of creation, and who dominated Francis’ life entirely. Sister Moon and Stars express that sacred presence. Leclerc writes,
“When we are confronted by such images of material things, we must ask what they mean, and we must learn to decipher them. It is here that attention to the way in which values are attributed to substances or elements becomes extremely important.”
Leclerc proposes that Sister Moon and Stars express the sacred for Francis because they indicate that there is Light even in the realm of darkness, suffering and death, and that therefore, when we find ourselves in this realm, we can let go futile attempts at controlling our own destinies and trust God. Leclerc writes,
“(Sister Moon and Stars) tell us that even on this side there is light. Not everyone is able to contemplate in the nightly heavens the ‘precious’ stars. Night is illumined in this manner only for one who accepts the total mystery of existence and entrusts himself to it. The attribution of religious values to the night is bound up with an attitude of trusting acceptance when confronted with those depths of life and being which exceed our grasp.”
Francis himself lived this reality; even in blindness he carried the ‘precious’ lights of faith, hope and love within him, like beautiful guiding stars, and he trusted God enough to spend his nearly final hours composing a song of praise to Him. A lifetime lived in intimacy with creatures caused him to ‘dream’ and combine in poetic imagery the ‘preciousness’ of the sacred with the reality of the night time moon and stars.
Francis brought depth of meaning to each of the images in his “Song”. Leclerc reminds us,
“We must bear in mind that during the night before Francis composed the Canticle he received from the Lord the assurance of his entry into the kingdom; it came in the imaged form of a transfiguration of the whole earth into ‘an immense and precious treasure.’”
Every element is its own unique forrm of treasure. ‘Each of them in its own way is something ‘precious’ to Francis, a hierophany, a language that gives expression to the (sacral).” Also “in this image (a) heavenly voice tells Francis of the destiny that awaits him as he too is transformed and his entire being is transfigured in the kingdom of light.
According to LeClerc even the very structure of the “Song” is an image expressing Francis’ life and spirituality, his movement toward that Transfiguration. He begins it in praise of the Most High - but He is One Whose “name no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce.”
“At this point, the movement toward the Most High is jarred by self-awareness: ‘No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.’ This is not a phrase tossed out in passing. It expresses a basic attitude of innermost poverty before the transcendent God. No praise, however sublime, can manifest the mystery of God. Francis is aware of this: he recognizes and accepts it. Francis now turns to creatures: ‘All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made.’ Since he cannot name the Transcendent One, he will name things and sing the praises of this world.”
He begins his “Song” of praise in the ‘transcendent heights’ with Brother Sun and Sister Moon and Stars, but quickly moves down to the humbler elements of water, wind, fire and finally earth itself, where he is more at home by nature.
“Henceforth his way toward the Most High will paradoxically, be a way that leads from heaven to earth. From the heights of heaven where ‘my lord Brother Sun’ radiates his light. Francis in his praise gradually descends to things ever closer to us, ever more accessible, and ever more humble as well : a humble journey of return to mother earth (that) brings us back among things and sets us in their very midst; he calls us back to our lowly origins. Praise and bless my Lord...with great humility’, says Francis at the end of his Canticle.”
The route Francis has chosen to take to return to the Most High is in accord, in harmony and at peace with his human nature, which comes out of a past and a present lived in union - both in identity and interaction with the earth: this is the route also chosen by the Only Begotten, First-born Son of God, the lncarnate Word.
“It is in Christ that Francis sees fully embodied the movement by which the Soul renounces equality with the Most High and accepts its lowly roots in the psyche and cosmos and that fraternal presence to the world that becomes for it the pathway of spiritual ascent. For Francis, Christ is the true archetype, who ‘though he was in the form of God...did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, He emptied himself. Because of this, God highly exalted him.’ (Phil.2-6)
This route passes through the human realities of suffering, sickness and death, and also through pardon, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace-making. The last four stanzas are dedicated not to cosmic creatures or elements but to human beings and some of the ways they can show forth the transfiguring power of the Most High.
“(Francis’ spirituality) starts with the highest and most ambitious kind of contemplation, that of the ‘Most High’. Then, recognizing that it is not ‘worthy to pronounce your name’, it returns, under cover of the images of the great cosmic realities that are welcomed as brothers (and Sisters), into herself and its unconscious depths, back to its lowly origins and to the obscure forces of desire, to Eros. While remaining fully open ‘to the summons of highest heaven’ it accepts its own fraternal communion with ‘Sister Earth, our mother who feeds us.’ In this manner it succeeds in descending into its own archaic depths where irrational forces dwell. This path of ‘great humility’ and fraternal communion with creatures becomes a path to the soul’s complete reconciliation with itself The obscure forces of desire come under control of the spirit’s lofty aspirations, while the spirit in turn consents to draw vital energy from the forces of desire (or passion). The final four stanzas no longer appear to be mere fortuitous addition to the praise of the cosmos. Instead, they show where the praise was leading. They celebrate humankind as fully reconciled: the (person) in whom Eros and Agape have met and fused in a vast desire for pardon and peace.’
Why should the soul follow a spirituality that leads it through the depths of the psyche and the material world? Will it ever reach God by means of this route? LeClerc writes,
“The image of the Most High does not point to an abstract transcendent Being cut off from creatures, nor does it symbolize the imaginary refuge of a soul permeated with resentment of its earthly condition and of the obscure, unconscious links that bind it to the natural world. The image expresses a Transcendence that is to be encountered in an ever more intimate presence to the humblest of created realities. The Transcendence waits for (us) down at the roots of being. The Most High thus appears here as the crowning fulfillment of this humble love of creatures, to which the soul has opened itself by becoming reconciled to its own mystery in its fullness, and which manifests itself in a boundless desire for pardon and peace.”
Through loving attention to creatures, we also lovingly attend to the elements within our own psyches; as these parts within us are reconciled, reconciliation takes place in the world, in the view of Jungian psychology summarized above. LeClerc writes that, “Mother Earth is an archetypal image of the unconscious and she symbolizes the whole obscure psychic life of the soul.” As we open ourselves to this totality, or to the Self in Jungian terms. we open ourselves to God as well. And for us, then, too:
“Praise of the cosmos (is) revealed as the symbolic, unconsciously spoken language that (gives) expression to an interior journey in which the very depths of the soul (are) being explored. The Canticle turn(s) out to be as it were a ‘poetics’ for our reconciliation with our own ‘archaeology’ and for our opening ourselves to plenary existence in the light of Being. ‘To manifest the “sacred” on the “cosmos” and to manifest it in the “psyche” are the same thing...Cosmos and Psyche are the two poles of the same “expressivity”, I express myself in expressing the world; I explore my sacrality in deciphering that of the world.’”
Through loving attention to creatures, we also lovingly attend to the God panentheistically present in them. God's Panentheistic presence in nature lives in the symbols of nature within our souls as well. When we ‘dream’ and ‘pray’ them, they communicate meaning and power (affect), wisdom and healing, to us.