Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Brother Sun

Over at reaching for the light we're reminded that the summer solstice is almost upon us. The word solstice literally means the stopping or staying of the sun. Since light is a very important image for Quakers --and for me, as you may have inferred from the title of my blog-- I'm happy to join earthfreak in wishing everyone happy solstice!

The day when the sun decides to tarry a bit longer overhead makes me think of me of St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun, also called the Canticle of the Creatures. One of the earliest examples we have of written Italian, while hymns were mostly written and sung in Latin, it's the first item usually found in anthologies of Italian literature.

In his canticle, most certainly inspired by Psalm 148, St. Francis exhorts us to sing praises to God for all the wonderful gifts
of creation that sustain our life on earth. He does so using the literary device of personification, as though telling the sun, the moon, the birds, and the other creatures that they should praise their Creator.

Following the grammatical gender of the nouns used to name them in Italian, he addresses each creature as "brother" or "sister." Thus, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, and so on. All are equal before God, our Master. However, acknowledging the supreme importance of the sun without which life on this earth would be impossible, he gives the sun a special title, messor lo frate sole, "my lord Brother Sun."

I can only imagine how pristine the rivers and streams must have been back in St. Francis' time, since he qualifies water as casta, "pure." (Usually referring to the virtue of purity in persons, the adjective continues the author's use of personification.) Wonder what he'd think if he saw our streams and rivers

A personal recollection:

I had always been a bit puzzled when reading about St. Francis in English because his biographers would say that he called the birds "our sisters." The Italian word I knew for bird, uccello, is masculine in gender. One day I had the opportunity of asking my Italian professor. She told me that St. Francis didn't use that mundane word. He found the birds so fascinating that he called them poetically le creature dell'aria, "creatures of the air." (The word creatura is always feminine, regardless of what is refers to.)

Well, what can you expect from a blissed-out guy who stood in the middle of the piazza wearing rags and singing in Provençal? That's right, St. Francis mother, Madonna Pica, was Provençal, or so the
story goes, and taught her son the songs of the trouvères or troubadours. Francis' father, Pietro Bernardone was a well-to-do cloth merchant who had to make frequent trips to France in search of luxury fabrics, and the legend goes on to say that one day he brought back a French wife. His son was born while he was away on yet another trip, and Lady Pica, who had obviously embraced her new homeland, gave him the good Italian name Giovanni (John). But, the legend continues, when Pietro returned home and saw his new son, born while he was in France, he changed his name to Francesco, "little Frenchman."

Anyway, happy summer solstice, and as St. Francis said:

Laudate et benedicete mi Signore et rengratiate
e serviateli cum grande humilitate.

Praise and bless the Lord and give him thanks
Serving him always with great humility.

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