This startling and powerful reflection of Francis of Assisi, written near the end of his own earthly life, reads in the original: “Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo vivente po skappare…” Yesterday I wrote about the lesson on living as human beings from the example of our brother and sister elements of creation. In Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, it is only at the end of the poem that we read about human beings. The last section of the Canticle written was this passage about death. It is an additional instruction to those who would come after the Saint on how to view the world and creation through the eyes of God.
Last January, I had an article published with the title, “Embracing Sister Death: The Fraternal Worldview of Francis of Assisi as a Source for Christian Eschatological Hope.” It was, to my unfortunate surprise, a very difficult article to work on. I found that to write an article about death necessarily drew out emotions and thoughts that we do not normally like to explore. It is partly for this reason, this reality shared by most human beings, that the thought of bodily death as “sister” is so startling.
The centrality of language is important in understanding the significance of Francis’s prayer and song. It represents a radically prophetic perspective of creation and God. Death, he asserts, is not something to be feared, to be battled like some existentialist philosophers suggest. Instead, death is simply a natural part of our life. We are as dependent on death as we are on life or any other dimension of creation. Furthermore, as Christians we realize that we are already experiencing a part of our share in the resurrection of Christ. What is there to fear?
Today, October 3rd, is the world-wide celebration of the Transitus of St. Francis. Transitus, the passing of Francis from this life to the next, could be seen as a grim celebration in light of its literally morbid theme. However, as the Canticle of the Creatures shows us, we are not to look at death as something to be feared or ignored – death is the liminal experience that commutes our life in this world into new life. It is a transformation, not a termination. It is an occasion of hope rooted in our faith and not a expression of morbidity to be avoided. Easier said than done!
Nevertheless, on this day when men and women who have found the life and example of Francis of Assisi to inspire their hearts and minds gather to celebrate the Transitus, may we allow the mystery of life and death enter our experience as we might allow a sister or brother to enter our own life.