The Story Behind This Icon
Anyone who has had a pet or been around animals understands that not only does every animal have its own unique personality and intelligence, but that animals can be very responsive to the human beings around them. In the lives of the Saints we find this responsiveness can be brought to unimaginable levels in the presence of holy people. And the stories of Saint Francis and the animals are the perfect and most beloved examples of this. It is no wonder that the Seraphic Friar is known as the patron saint of animals, birds, and the environment.
Let's consider the animals included in Monastery Icons' image of Saint Francis and the Animals.
"All ye birds of the air, bless the Lord"
Saint Francis and his companions were making a trip through the Spoleto Valley near the town of Bevagna. Suddenly, Saint Francis spotted a great number of birds of all varieties ' doves, crows and others. Swept up in the moment, Saint Francis left his friends in the road and ran after the birds, who patiently waited for him. He greeted them in his usual way, expecting them to scurry off into the air as he spoke. But they didn't move.
Filled with awe, he asked them if they would stay awhile and listen to the Word of God. He said to them: "My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in the air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God's guidance and protection."
At this the birds began to spread their wings, stretch their necks and gaze at the saint, rejoicing and praising God in a wonderful way according to their nature. Saint Francis then walked right through the middle of them, turned around and came back, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic.
Then he gave them his blessing, making the sign of the cross over them. At that they flew off and Saint Francis, rejoicing and giving thanks to God, went on his way.
Later, Saint Francis wondered aloud to his companions why he had never preached to birds before. And from that day on, he made it his habit to solicitously invoke all birds, all animals and reptiles to praise and love their Creator. And many times during his life there were remarkable events of Saint Francis speaking to the animals. There was even a time when he quieted a flock of noisy birds that were interrupting a religious ceremony! Much to the wonder of all present, the birds remained quiet until Francis' sermon was complete.
In 1228 Francis was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX, who laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of of Saint Francis in Assisi. According to legend, the doves at the Basilica arrived as soon as the foundation stone was laid and have roosted there ever since.
One day a brother brought a rabbit who had been caught in a trap to St. Francis. The saint advised the rabbit to be more alert in the future, then released the rabbit from the trap and set it on the ground to go its way. But the rabbit hopped back up onto Saint Francis' lap, desiring to be close to the saint.
Saint Francis took the rabbit a few steps into the woods and set it down. But it followed Saint Francis back to his seat and hopped on his lap again! Finally Saint Francis asked one of his fellow friars to take the rabbit far into the woods and let it go.
Tamed by the Spirit of Peace
While Saint Francis was staying in the town of Gubbio he learned of a wolf so ravenous that it was not only killing and eating animals, but people, too. The people took up arms and went after it, but those who encountered the wolf perished at its sharp teeth. Villagers became afraid to leave the city walls.
Saint Francis had pity on the people and decided to go out and meet the wolf. He was desperately warned by the people, but he insisted that God would take care of him. A brave friar and several peasants accompanied Francis outside the city gate. But soon the peasants lost heart and said they would go no farther.
Saint Francis and his companion began to walk on. Suddenly the wolf, jaws agape, charged out of the woods at the couple. Saint Francis made the Sign of the Cross toward it. The power of God caused the wolf to slow down and to close its mouth.
Then Saint Francis called out to the creature: "Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone." At that moment the wolf lowered its head and lay down at Saint Francis' feet, meek as a lamb.
Saint Francis explained to the wolf that he had been terrorizing the people, killing not only animals, but humans who are made in the image of God. "Brother Wolf," said Francis, "I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven."
The wolf showed its assent by moving its body and nodding its head. Then to the absolute surprise of the gathering crowd, Saint Francis asked the wolf to make a pledge. As Saint Francis extended his hand to receive the pledge, so the wolf extended its front paw and placed it into the saint's hand. Then Saint Francis commanded the wolf to follow him into town to make a peace pact with the townspeople. The wolf meekly followed Saint Francis.
By the time they got to the town square, everyone was there to witness the miracle. With the wolf at his side, Saint Francis gave the town a sermon on the wondrous and fearful love of God, calling them to repent from all their sins. Then he offered the townspeople peace, on behalf of the wolf. The townspeople promised in a loud voice to feed the wolf. Then Saint Francis asked the wolf if he would live in peace under those terms. He bowed his head and twisted his body in a way that convinced everyone he accepted the pact. Then once again the wolf placed its paw in Saint Francis' hand as a sign of the pact.
From that day on the people kept the pact they had made. The wolf lived for two years among the townspeople, going from door to door for food. It hurt no one and no one hurt it. Even the dogs did not bark at it. When the wolf finally died of old age, the people of Gubbio were sad. The wolf's peaceful ways had been a living reminder to them of the wonders, patience, virtues and holiness of Saint Francis. It had been a living symbol of the power and providence of the living God.
Saint Francis and the Lambs
Saint Francis had great love and respect for the sanctity of all life, seeing all creation as his brothers and sisters in the Lord. On one occasion he came upon a merchant carrying two small lambs to market. Moved by the plaintive bleating of the lams, he caressed them and asked the peasant, "Why do you torment my brothers the lambs?" When he learned in horror that the man intended to sell them for slaughter, he declared "That will not happen!" and bought them from the man. At Portiuncula for many years he had a tame lamb which followed him everywhere, even into the church, where its bleating mingled with the chants of the brethren.
At another time in Rome Saint Francis procured a lamb for himself, which upon his departure he gave to the lady Jacopa. The lamb lived in her house many years and used to follow her to mass in the mornings. Indeed, in its eagerness to go to church it would often wake its mistress with friendly buttings of the head when she was late it getting up. Out of this lamb's wool Jacopa spun and wove the habit which in the autumn of 1226 she took with her to Portiuncula, and in which Saint Francis died.
The Donkey Who Wept
It is said that on his deathbed St. Francis thanked his donkey for carrying and assisting him throughout his life, and his donkey wept.
The Congregation of Fish
Whenever a fish was caught and he was nearby, he would return the fish to the water, warning it not to be caught again. On several occasions the fish would linger awhile near the boat, listening to Saint Francis preach, until he gave them permission to leave. Then they would swim off. In every work of art, as Saint Francis called all creation, he would praise the artist, our loving Creator.
Prayer for the Blessing of Pets (commonly done on Saint Francis' feast day, October 4th)
Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.