Modern technology seldom comes to mind in connection with Francis of Assisi, yet there is one device that he would have prized. A smartphone with a music app playing one track in an endless loop would have suited his purposes perfectly. Living in the thirteenth century, he encouraged his brothers to sing his favorite song without ceasing. He may have rejoiced, but they longed for a change in the playlist.
The lyrics that Francis insisted on hearing were ones he wrote: “The Canticle of the Sun.” The incomparable hymn to God is regarded as one of the earliest poems in Italian literature. It remains influential today; Pope Francis took it as the inspiration for his encyclical Laudato si’ on the care of the planet.
To Francis of Assisi, the canticle’s words were a prayer. He was caught up in a God who had created such marvels as the sun that brought the day and the fire that illuminated the night. But it is possible that Francis wanted to hear the song endlessly simply because he was so proud of it. Francis may not have put it that way; if he had, this beautiful hymn might have met the same fate as a little vase he once made during Lent. One day while he was at prayer, he glimpsed the vase and admired its beauty. Suddenly, ashamed that his appreciation for what he had made had taken his mind away from the Lord, he threw the tiny object into the fire.
Francis often worked to squash pride in his own accomplishments and to offset others’ admiration for him. When a poor woman asked him for alms, he handed her his cloak. Then, taking note of the crowd of admirers that was following him, he minimized his generosity by insisting, “Doing this makes me proud of myself.” When he was ill, he had to wear a fur pelt under his tunic to keep himself warm, but Francis requested that it be sewn outside his garment to show that he was taking special care of himself and did not deserve credit for self-sacrifice.
But “The Canticle of the Sun” was an exceptional situation. It emerged from a period of anguish and torment. In early 1225, Francis’s sight was failing, he was physically weak, and he was worried about the future of his order. Then he heard that Clare, whom he had persuaded years earlier to become the first woman to join his movement, was at the point of death. He had himself carried to her community at San Damiano a few miles outside Assisi, where he took up residence in a branch hut a few yards outside her window. Light soon became unbearable and animals, which had usually been a comfort, became his torturers. Mice overran his shelter, swarmed his table, and deprived him of peace at the very time he was among his closest friends. One night, as Francis endured his suffering, he heard a voice tell him to be at peace as if he were in heaven.
Enlightenment dispelled his woe. The next morning, the first line of his hymn of praise—“Most high, all-powerful, good Lord God”—came to him and he worked out the rest as his faithful secretary Brother Leo took down his words. Francis praised what had given him joy and never disappointed him: the sun, the moon, and the stars that had lit his way by night, and the earth that had sustained him—all the creation of God the Father. When a conflict arose between the mayor of Assisi and its bishop, Francis added a verse and had his expanded version sung to the adversaries. They wept, hugged, and promptly reconciled.