Benedicite, omnia opera Domini.
The Canticle is a praise to God that unfolds with intensity and vigour throughout the works —of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone OFM, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi—, which consequently also becoming a hymn to life; it is a prayer permeating with a positive vision of nature, since the image of the Creator is reflected within creation: from this derives the sense of brotherhood between mankind and all of creation, which is very distant from contemptus mundi, a detachment and “contempt of the world” and all worldly concerns, marked by sin and suffering, typical of other medieval religious trends (such as the one established by Blessed Iacopone da Todi OFM [† 1306]). Creation consequently becomes a grand means of praise to our Creator.
Composed in the Umbrian vernacular of the thirteenth century, with Tuscan and French influences, and Latinisms. Some Latinisms are purely graphic, a cause of recurring reading inaccuracy, such as the dental double ct (tucte, fructi = tutte, frutti = all, fruits) and the grapheme cti of sanctissime (santissime = most holy). Critics have discussed these at length, without reaching any precise conclusions, the value to be attributed to the preposition “per = for”: its use is in fact central to the definition of the “laudatory” nature of the poem. Numerous interpretations have been given: i. causal value; ii. instrumental; iii. agent; iv. medial; v. from state to place; vi. circumstantial.
The Canticle has the form of an assonanced rhythmic prose. The text was originally provided with musical accompaniment, composed by Saint Francis himself, which has unfortunately been lost. The simplicity of the sentiments expressed are reflected by a simple syntax, in which the terms are often coordinated by polysyndeton The verses are grouped in small easily recognisable blocks, differentiated from the thematic point of view. The homogeneity of these blocks is ensured by calculated formal artifices, which modern criticism has rehabilitated as refined and attentive, not naive as was thought in the Romantic era.
Francis’ attitude towards God reflects a simplicity which is not, however, the absence of profundity. Between the two possibilities that the doctrinal panorama of the Doctors of the Church offered at the time, Francis tends towards a celebration of the divine Glory through rapture and ecstasy, rather than for speculative-philosophical enunciation. The action of praising God appears here as an itinerary from Creation to the Creator, an itinerary of the senses rather than of the mind, implemented gradually.
This liturgical action —which appears to be the purpose of the Canticle— is composed of three elements: a speaker, a message and an addressee. The speaker is the officiant of the rite and performs the function of inviting creatures to direct their praise to God. The message is the exaltation of God’s love, which manifests itself in the creatures themselves whose task is to praise him. The recipient is of course God.
On the speaker, however, weighs the doubt of the very words with which the Canticle opens: “… et nullu homo ene dignu te mentvare — and no man is worthy to mention Your name”. As Giovanni Pozzi writes: “Creatures cannot pronounce praises befitting God. So why would God’s praises be His if not in the common passive sense […] but in an active sense, because He alone can say them adequately, because He can only be mentioned as the agent and speaker of praise?” [Turin 1992]. The long and authoritative tradition of Neoplatonic and Augustinian negative theology contributes to support this interpretation, for which no discourse about God is possible, if not from God himself.
Regarding the contents of the message, it is perhaps appropriate to clarify that the list of creatures offered by the Canticle are not a “mere presence” of existential elements within direct reach of man, but represents —on the biblical model mentioned above— the encyclopaedic system of all cosmic reality then conceived, structured in a poetic sequence and endowed with great oratorical conciseness.
This structural complexity is confirmed in the analysis of references to the elements of creation. We immediately find that all creatures are seen in a positive way and are called “brother” or “sister”: Francis places man on their level, as he too (and us) is a creature, but called to a greater moral responsibility, being endowed with free will: man finds happiness only in the respect of the divine law (v. 30) and in the imitation of Christ (vv. 23-26). The Praise to the Lord begins with the admiration of the stars, whose beauty and usefulness are emphasised: the Sun is given greater attention, also because it transmit in a particular the “signification” of God.
Francis then goes on to praise the four fundamental elements: wind, water, fire and earth. Great destructive events are not connected to the wind and any variation of the weather, but they are described and praised for what they naturally are, that is, a source of sustenance for creatures; however, the wind also happens to be a symbol of God. The positive vision in fact leads us to see the elements not in catastrophes, but in their simplest function and existence: here we recall, for example, the biblical episode of Elijah who finds God not in the impetuous wind and strong, neither in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the light wind (He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord will pass by.” There was a powerful, strong wind that tore the mountain apart and shattered rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a tiny whisper.” 1 Kings 19:11-12). Water is also seen as “useful” and “prescient”; moreover, her humility and chastity characterise her as a means of purification, in the sacraments of baptism and penance.
Fire finds importance as a source of light and heat, but, like water, it is part of a Christian symbolical interpretation, being referable to the Holy Spirit (and therefore also here, as in the wind element, there is a reference to Pentecost). Finally, the earth is the mother who nourishes her creatures: we can glimpse the reference to the image of the earth that makes the wheat grow in The Parable of the Sower (Gospel according to Matthew 13:3-9), but also a parallelism with the land in which the dead body of Jesus rested and from which the risen one returned. Note therefore the marked symbolic parallelism to the events of salvation and to the sacraments. The tone of the lauda now changes: the hymn focuses upon the man who, as we have seen, only with God can be blessed.
St. Francis reaffirms the divine character of Creation also in its material aspects, against the Cathars, who in those same years claimed that God had created the spiritual reality, while the material reality was of demonic origin. St. Francis of Assisi also argues against the mercantile mentality that was rapidly spreading throughout the known world and for which nature was being exploited simply for economic purposes, while the saint from Assisi argues that nature provides man with everything he needs and therefore invites us not to worry about scrambling about continuously, seeking ever greater but useless material goods.
From here Francis moves on to the theme of death, also a sister: no man can avoid her and, for a man in a state of grace, this too will become a positive fact, the passage to an authentic life with God; in particular, attention can fall on the expression morte secunda—second death, which can refer both to the fact that death, benign, cannot harm a pious man, and to the fact that the just, on the day of Judgment, will not have to fear the second, definitive death of the soul. In conclusion, Francis formulates the invitation to the men touched by the Canticle to praise and bless God, serving him with humility.
|Original Text In Umbrian Vernacular||English Translation|
|Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore, tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione.|
Ad te solo, Altissimu, se konfàno et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare.
Laudato sie, mi’ Signore, cum tucte le tue creature, spetialmente messor lo frate sole, lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui. Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore, de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora luna e le stelle, in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate vento et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo, per lo quale a le tue creature dài sustentamento.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’aqua, la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate focu, per lo quale ennallumini la nocte, et ello è bello et iocundo et robustoso et forte.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora nostra matre terra, la quale ne sustenta et governa, et produce diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per quelli ke perdonano per lo tuo amore, et sostengo infirmitate et tribulatione.
Beati quelli che ‘l sosterrano in pace, ca da te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.
Laudato si’ mi’ Signore per sora nostra morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo vivente pò scappare: guai a quelli che morrano ne le peccata mortali; beati quelli che trovarà ne le tue santissime voluntati, ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.
Laudate et benedicete mi’ Signore’ et ringratiate et serviateli cum grande humilitate»
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Notes: so = sono = are; si = sii (be!); mi = mio = my; ka = perché = why; both u and v are written as u, sirano = saranno = will be.
|Most High, all powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and all blessing.|
To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those who will find Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.
I will start, therefore, from the sources precisely to define the exact point where the Saint abandoned them or replaced them with different materials.
In Psalm 148, creatures are invited to praise their Creator: the angels, the sun and the stars, the waters; time, mountains and valleys, plants, animals and finally, as in Genesis, man. Among men, the psalmist distinguishes the chosen people, Israel. The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children in the book of Daniel 3:23 whom in the narrative part are called Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah [who is called Abednego in Babylonian, according to Daniel 1:6–7] in the part of the book in which the Psalm appears), in the situation in which they find themselves, that is, they are thrown into the midst of a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, for having refused to bow down to an image of the king, yet miraculously, the flames do not harm them, they take advantage of the opportunity to invite, with the psalmist David, the whole world, the elements and creatures, to praise. The triumph of the pious man over the external world could not be more complete since that act of singing with superhuman serenity, whilst surrounded by the devouring element, foresees the divine action, the action of the good nature of God, of that God who at this very moment the three young people escape from the dangers of an element created by Himself together with the other elements and all of the things of the universe. The singing of the three young people is therefore a heroic act that is immediately rewarded by the divinity. This heroism can be admired the longer the psalm is sung. For this reason, the list of created things forms a litany that far exceeds the dimensions of the Song of the Universe in Psalm 148 (which must have been the paradigm), as the length of this litany becomes a dramatic element of the situation. Its no coincidence that the unabridged story within the book of Daniel, using a particular situation, dramatises Psalm 148 and transforms praise into action. It can therefore be said that the pathos of the psalm springs from that particular situation. The superhuman calm of the three young people is justified by their awareness of being God’s creatures. Awareness that derives not only from their quality of filii hominum (the Sons of men), that is, of the highest point in which creation takes place, but even more from the certainty of being members of the elect (chosen) people that the divinity cannot but help as it helps those who believe in Her. Consequently, the litany unfolds with an almost logical rigour, from the filii hominum through the Israelites, the priests, the pious, the just, the saints, the merciful towards the three particular persons Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah whom God eruit… de inferno (He saved from hell); the path that the psalmist’s thought travels narrows more and more to end with those three concrete existences that God had to save and not only from a hellfire, but from the moral hell that tempts man. The three names, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah seal, so to speak, the end of the list which is also the end of the journey of the good God towards the concrete man that He can and understandably must save.
Frá Tommaso of Celano OFM (c. 1185 – † c. 1265) a poet and the author of three hagiographies about Francis of Assisi.well understood the great difference between the Psalm of the book of Daniel (and the same would apply to its source, Psalm 148) and the Laudato si, mi Signore of St. Francis when he observed that in the psalm-model it is the creatures who, are invited and come to praise God; while in the Canticle the Saint praises God directly, for his creatures or in his creatures. It could also be observed that St. Francis invites man to praise God in his creatures because the passive Laudato si, mi Signore (Laudes Creaturarum—Praise of Creatures) —which was written in an Umbrian dialect— must indicate that man is the only among creatures whom is endowed with the word (and therefore with a word which “praises”). This is how the passive understood the Speculum perfectionis: “ad incitandum corda audientium ad laudem Dei et ut ipse Dominus, in creaturis suis, ab hominibus laudetur—To incite the hearts of those who listen to the praise of God and so that God himself may be praised by men in his creatures.” Thus man, according to this passive which discreetly suggests it, becomes the witness of the whole co-created world. For anything else, remaining the same man on the level of creatures and separated from the God who praises, he also clearly affirms the hierarchy and contrast found throughout the hymn.
But why does St. Francis not say (we humans) praise God, giving man his distinctive quality of “knowing how to praise”? Why does he use such an evasive syntactic formula? This question arises, all the more so because the Saint’s psalm seems to adopt the human perspective, that is, the perspective of man in general and not that of the people of Israel, as in the biblical psalms. Within the Canticle, only the fundamental, ontological factors of human life are revealed: the four elements, day and night, time and death (of which the three pious in the furnace did not speak because they were about to conquer it when they sang). In the anthropocentric framework offered by the Canticle, there is no place, for example, for angels or animals. It follows that creatures are not only described secundum se and secundum quod sunt ad Deum relatae, as the Italian philologist Mario Casella surmises, but also secundum quod ad hominem sunt relatae, that is, in their efficacy for man. Casella writing states: «All things are considered within themselves, within their formal principle and within their properties, according to whether these properties still concur with God to whom they are transferred by similitude,» he neglected to remember that within the Canticle the elements are also seen from a human perspective, so that a trichotomy already appears in the Frate Sole (Brother Sun), which is the paradigm within the inventory of creatures. It is easy, in fact, to observe that the Saint considers the sun:
- secundum hominem = lo qual e ioꝛno⁊ allumini noi ᵱ loi.
- who brings the day; and you give light through him.
- secundum se = Et ellu e bellu e radiante cũ grande ſplendore
- And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
secundum Deum = de te altissimo porta significatione.
- Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
It seems to me quite characteristic that the work of the sun for the benefit of man is the first to be recalled. It seems to me as though Casella is attempting to reduce the trichotomy into a dichotomy when he observes, speaking of Sor Acqua (Sister Water), that it “considered secundum if it is useful, submissive (humble), good and pure (precious and chaste).” The useful and precious epithets seem to me to refer to man (= useful to man, precious to man); whilst the epithets good and pure form the description of secundum se. What is sometimes lacking in the threefold description is the relationship to God; but it is clear that this may also be missing for two obvious reasons. Let us not forget, in fact, that Laudato si, mi Signore holds the majority of the verses and that the initial description of Brother Sun has a paradigmatic character which is also applied to all of the other creatures. Instead, the indispensable relationship of man with the creatures are either explicitly or implicitly indicated:
- sister Moon and the stars — «clear and precious» (=precious to man and beautiful);
- brother Wind (and time) — “For which you give sustenance to your creatures” (man being one of the creatures);
- brother Fire — «for which enn’ (ne, ci = for us) illuminates the night»;
- sister our Mother Earth — «which sustains and governs us»;
- sister our corporal Death — «from which no living man can escape».
The pronouns ne (enn’) once again remind the community of men (like the passive Laudato si) and it is well understood how the “Israeli-centrism” of the psalms of the Old Testament yielded in the Canticle to an “anthropocentrism”, to a perspective of man in general. But, and this should astound us, because just at the moment when man begins to enter the scene, he is neither expressly remembered (the word “man” is completely silent, those are its substitute; omo vivente a living man will later find himself in the lap of Death), nor praised as a creature of God among all of the other creatures, a creature beautiful in itself, useful to others and who “carries significance” of the Creator? There seems to be no place within the Canticle for the filii hominum in general; and man himself towards whom all creatures behave as brothers and sisters is never called a brother. We would have expected a trichotomic verse such as:
Lodato si, mi Signore, per l’omo ch’è fratello delle creature ed è alluminato da te ed è sapiente e forte e ti serve, Altissimo, con grande amore.
Praised be, my Lord, for the man who is the brother of creatures and is enlightened by you and is wise and strong and serves you, Most High, with great love.
Instead, man appears as a reason for praising God only under certain conditions: a significant dichotomy seems to open up with laxity: Laudato si, mi Signore, for those whom forgive; which suggests that the Lord cannot be praised by those whom do not forgive. It is however, according to Casella’s explanation, that man manifests his potential as a secondary cause in the imitation of the crucified Christ; yet despite that, a fact which was neglected by Casella it still remains true, namely that for Brother Sun or Brother Fire or, better still, for Sister Death the conditions for praise had not been established: they were “praiseworthy” in themselves. On the contrary, man can only be such with certain qualifications for which the martyrs who will be crowned in heaven are exclusively “praiseworthy.” For this reason it seems entirely logical that the Laudato si, mi Signore scheme of the biblical psalms should be changed to that of the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount; the blessed are those of XI produces the terrifying antithesis woe to those of XIII. Praise to the Lord changes into a right or dichotomy of saved and damned beings to which the author turns his attention, from a preacher who evokes the eschatological possibilities in front of sinners. With this moral dualism, the harmony of mundane music, of the “concert” in honour of God, of what St. Bonaventure envisioned as the actual purpose of our psalm: Coelestis concentus in consonantia virtutum et actuum, has been interrupted and cruelly broken.