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Stories of the Saints by  Grace Hall
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ST. FRANCIS, THE BIRDS AND THE BEASTS

[216] THE sweet Saints were not alone friends of God and friends of man; friends of the beasts they also were, friends of everything that lived and suffered, and so it is small wonder that the beasts, great and small, loved and understood them by whom they were so loved and understood.

Countless stories are told of the good understanding existing between Saints and animals. Chief perhaps among these great lovers is St Francis. No animal was too mean, insignificant, or repulsive to be enfolded in his heart. All breathing creatures were his Brothers and Sisters. With solicitude he removed Brother Worm from the path lest he should be trodden under foot by some more unheeding passer by; not Brother Worm alone, or Sister Grasshopper, but any insect or reptile was with care placed by him in safety against destruction. The fishes, caught and gasping, he replaced in the sea to live and rejoice in their freedom; a little rabbit, brought to him to furnish him with food, he released, and when it would not leave him, but remained hidden in the folds of the skirt of his brown woollen frock, feeling itself safer there than anywhere, he took Brother Leveret up in his arms and held him until he could release him in the forest to sport unseen with his kin in the undergrowth and brambles.

He was seldom to be found without a lamb as companion. Once, coming upon a young man who was taking some doves to market, he stopped him, saying: "Oh, good young man, these are the birds whom the [217] Scriptures compare to those who are pure and faithful before God! Do not kill them, I beseech thee, but rather give them to me!" The young man consented, and Francis returned to his convent with his Sister Doves in his bosom. He made for them nests, and fed them daily until they became so tame that they ate from his hand.

At one time, returning from Syria across the Venetian plain, hearing numberless birds singing, he said to his companions: "our Sisters, the birds, are praising their Creator, let us sing with them." And he began to sing the service, whereupon the birds sang but the louder, drowning the human voices until St Francis addressed them "Be silent, my Sisters, until we also have praised God!" They were then silent until he had finished his service, and only resumed their song upon his granting them permission.

Another time, as he was preaching, swallows in process of building their nests twittered so that he could not make himself heard. "You have talked enough, my Sisters," he said to them; "it is now time that I should speak; let me have my turn, be silent, and listen to the Word of God." And they immediately obeyed him.

But once a congregation of birds who sat about in the trees, shrubs, and on the grass, had a little sermon quite to themselves, for St Francis addressing them spoke: "My Brother Birds, greatly should ye praise your Creator who clothes you with feathers, and gives you wings wherewith to fly, and a purer air to breathe, and who cares for you, who have so little care for yourselves."


[Illustration]

ST FRANCIS TENDING LEPERS

The birds having listened with heads bowed, and shining, attentive eyes bent upon him, spread their wings, stretched their necks, and opened their beaks, chanting in chorus when he had finished; then, as he [218] left them, passing among them, even brushing them with the skirt of his robe, they remained in their places, until he, making the sign of the Cross over them, dismissed them, when they all flew away.

And then there was the wolf of Gubbio, a savage beast who was the dread and terror of the countryside, for not only did he devour sheep and cattle, but children and men as well.

To this bloodthirsty creature St Francis, having gone in quest of him and found him in the forest, thus addressed himself: "Brother Wolf, come hither."

The huge brute, probably to his own surprise, obeyed: "Brother Wolf, I command thee in the Name of Christ, that thou do no evil to me nor to anyone more." St Francis went on to chide him for being a murderer and a thief. "And I wish, Brother Wolf," he ended, "to make peace between thee and all men; therefore torment them no more, and I promise thee they shall pardon thee all thy past crimes, and neither men nor dogs shall molest thee."

In acknowledgment of this promise the wolf, raising his right front paw, offered it to Francis in pledge of acceptance and good faith, then, like an obedient dog, followed him to Gubbio, where in the market-place, surrounded by all the townsfolk, Francis stated Brother Wolf's case, saying that he would make peace with them all, and never more steal, or kill, if they in return would give him the necessary sustenance for existence.

With cries of delight the people consented. The wolf bowed his erstwhile savage head and again gave his paw to seal the compact, and ever after, like any tame and friendly member of the community, daily begged from door to door his needed food, nor ever again harmed man or beast.


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