FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

2. Writings of St. Francis of Assisi (5)

Prayers

i. The Canticle of Brother Sun

2.55. The "Canticum Fratris Solis" (CantSol) or "Cantico delle Creature" is a poem which Francis composed in his Umbrian dialect. The Codex 338 of Assisi presents the following rubric, just before the words of the Canticle: "Beginning of the canticle of creatures which blessed Francis composed in order to praise and glorify God, when he was ill at San Damiano". The Codex even leaves an empty space for the musical notes, which were unfortunately never written down.



 
St. Francis saw in nature the "work of God"

2.56. The historical circumstances leading to the composition of the Canticle are found in the Legend of Perugia, 43-44 and 100, as well as in the Mirror of Perfection, 101. The Canticle was written in three stages. The first part of the Canticle, which is the praises of God through creation, was composed when Francis was ill at San Damiano in the spring of 1225. Francis was practically blind. Yet he composed this song of praise of God for all the wonders of creation that the poverello could not admire any more. The second part of the Canticle deals with forgiveness. It was composed when Francis reconciled the bishop and podestà of Assisi, after sending his friars to sing the first part of the Canticle in front of them. The last section of the Canticle is about "sora nostra morte corporale", and was written some time before the death of St. Francis.

2.57. Chesterton writes that the Canticle of Creatures "is a supremely characteristic work and much of Saint Francis could be reconstructed from that work alone".

2.58. The Canticle witnesses the profound union between Francis and creation, seen as a gift of God. This union is built upon the category of universal fraternity, in such a way that every creature becomes for Francis "frater et soror".

ii. The Parchment given to Brother Leo

2.59. The "Chartula Fratri Leoni data" contains the "Laudes Dei Altissimi" and the Blessing given to Leo on La Verna, after the event of the stigmatisation of Francis in September 1224. The parchment is treasured as a precious relic in the chapter hall adjacent to the lower basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

2.60. The historical circumstances referring to the composition of these writings are given by 2 Celano 49. Brother Leo was passing through a crisis, and Francis helped him in that difficult moment by writing for him the praises of God and giving him a special blessing modelled upon the blessing of Aaron in Numbers 6,24-26.

2.61. Brother Leo himself wrote a rubric on the parchment. On the part where the Blessing is Leo wrote: "Blessed Francis wrote with his own hands this blessing, and gave it to me, brother Leo". Then he adds: "In the same way he signed it with the Thau cum capite". This sign is that of the letter Thau, under which there is the representation of a skull. This was a common Christological symbol, taken from the Fathers of the Church, which denotes the universal salvation of humankind which Christ brought about by his cross. The skull symbolises the forefather of humanity, Adam, who is redeemed by the blood of Christ crucified.

2.62. Another rubric of Leo states: "Blessed Francis, two years before his death, celebrated a period of fasting on mount La Verna in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Michael the Archangel, from the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin until the September feast of St. Michael. The hand of God came down upon him. After the vision and words of the Seraph and the imprinting of the stigmata of Christ upon his body, he composed these words of praise which he wrote on the other side of this parchment, and which are written by himself, while thanking God for the goodness shown towards him".

iii. Exhortation to Praise God

2.63. The Exhortation to Praise God was handed down to us through a manuscript written by the Franciscan historian Mariano da Firenze (+ 1537). The author describes these praises as verses taken from Scripture, and says that he copied them from an altar front in the Franciscan hermitage of Cesi di Terni. In this place there was a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. These praises, which include the salutation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin, and a prayer to St. Michael, are a clear example of the familiarity which Francis had with Holy Scripture texts.

iv. Prayer inspired by the Our Father

2.64. Both Thomas of Celano (First Life of St. Francis, 45) and St. Bonaventure (Legenda Maior IV,3) speak about the fact that Francis taught his brothers how to pray, by explaining to them the prayer of the Lord. This prayer is a meditation upon the Our Father, in line with an age-long tradition handed down by the Fathers of the Church. Examples of such prayers are found in the writings of St. Bernard and Hugh of St. Victor. Although many expressions in the prayer might not be original, it is nevertheless important to consider their choice and collocation as Francis' own doing, and hence the prayer is authentically Franciscan.

v. Praises to be said at all Hours

2.65. The Assisi Codex presents these praises which Francis recited before the canonical Hours of the Divine Office. These praises are a collage of verses taken from Scripture and the liturgy, and especially from the books of Apocalypse, Daniel and the Psalms. Again we have a proof of the familiarity which the saint had with Scripture texts, even though he never considered himself a great scholar.

vi. Office of the Passion

2.66. The Office of the Passion is a collection of Psalms, composed by Francis, through a careful choice of texts from Scripture, in order to celebrate the main mysteries of Christ's birth, public life, death and resurrection. The name Office of the Passion is only an indication of its contents, because this Office is, in reality, the celebration of the mystery of Christ.

2.67. The Office is divided into five parts: (1) the Sacred Triduum and ferial days during the year; (2) Eastertide; (3) Sundays and principal feasts; (4) Advent; (5) Christmas and Epiphany.

2.68. Together with these Psalms, Francis also includes an antiphon to the Virgin Mary, which he recited before and after this Office.

2.69. The Office of the Passion is a purely devotional prayer, common in the Middle Ages. It did not substitute the canonical Hours of the Divine Office, which Francis prayed even when he was weak. In his Testament we have ample proof of his love for the Church's official prayer.

2.70. An interesting note is that St. Clare recited this Office. The Legend of St. Clare, 30, states that "she learned the Office of the Cross as Francis, a lover of the Cross, had established it and recited it with similar affection".

Christ crucified wih St. Francis and friars in compassion

vii. Prayer before the Crucifix (1205)

2.71. This is one of the oldest prayers of St. Francis, which he recited before the crucifix of San Damiano in the early years of his conversion. The prayer has been handed down in the original Umbrian dialect, as well as in Latin. The manuscript of the Bodleian Library at Oxford (1384-85) explains that this prayer was composed by Francis when he prayed in front of the crucifix of San Damiano (for the episode of San Damiano, cfr. 2 Celano, 10 and Legenda Maior II,1).

2.72. The Prayer before the Crucifix shows striking resemblances to another prayer, known as "Adoramus te", which Francis and the first brothers often recited. This prayer is found in the Testament, and proof of its authenticity is given by Bonaventure, in the Legenda Maior IV,3:

2.73. "They spent the time praying continuously, devoting themselves especially to fervent mental prayer; they had not yet got any of the liturgical books, so that they could not chant the divine office. Christ's cross was their book and they studied it day and night, at the exhortation and after the example of their father who never stopped talking to them about the cross. When the friars asked him to teach them how to pray, he said, `When you pray, say, Our Father, and We adore you, O Christ, in all your churches in the whole world and we thank you, because by your holy cross you redeemed the world" (Omnibus of Sources, p. 655).

2.74. The style of the Prayer before the Crucifix, beginning with the words "Most High and Glorious God" refers to the San Damiano cross, in which Christ appears glorified in his resurrection.

viii. Salutation to the Virgin

2.72. Thomas of Celano, in the Second Life of St. Francis, 198, writes: "Toward the Mother of Jesus he was filled with an inexpressible love, because it was she who made the Lord of Majesty our brother. He sang special Praises to her, poured out prayers to her, offered her his affections" (Omnibus of Sources, p. 521).

Mother of Christ on Throne, angels and St. Francis of Assisi

2.75. These words are ample proof to the authenticity of the Salutation to the Virgin, in which Francis calls Mary "virgo ecclesia facta", echoing a very strong theological tradition in the Church.

2.76. This marian prayer is also linked to a short salutation of the virtues present in Mary's life, as well as to another prayer, called the Salutation of the Virtues, which is referred to by 2 Celano 189.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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