Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was born in Portland, Maine, studied at Bowdoin College, and later taught at both Bowdoin and Harvard Colleges. Longfellow was the first American poet to translate Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” into English. And he is remembered as one of the finest and most popular poets in American literary history. In 1875, while struggling with the effects of celebrity and fame, Longfellow wrote a poem about Saint Francis of Assisi, one of human history’s great paragons of humility. In the poem, Francis preaches to a flock of birds about the things of God. Even though Francis doubts that the birds understand him, he finds peace and solace for himself. For modern readers like us, “The Sermon of Saint Francis” is a powerful reminder of God’s abiding care and love for all creatures both great and small.
The Sermon of Saint Francis
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Up soared the lark into the air,
a shaft of song, a winged prayer,
as if a soul released from pain
were flying back to heaven again.
Saint Francis heard: it was him
an emblem of the Seraphim;
the upward motion of the fire,
the light, the heat, the heart’s desire.
Around Assisi’s convent gate
the birds, God’s poor who cannot wait,
from moor and mere and darksome wood
come flocking for their dole of food.
‘O brother birds,’ Saint Francis said,
‘Ye come to me and ask for bread,
but not with bread alone to-day
shall ye be fed and sent away.
‘Ye shall be fed, ye happy birds,
with manna of celestial words;
not mine, though mine they seem to be,
not mine, though they be spoken through me.
‘Oh, doubly are ye bound to praise
the great Creator in your lays;
he giveth you your plumes of down,
your crimson hoods, your cloaks of brown.
‘He giveth you your wings to fly
and breathe a purer air on high,
and careth for you everywhere,
who for yourselves so little care!’
With flutter of swift wings and songs
together rose the feathered throngs,
and singing scattered far apart;
deep peace was in Saint Francis’ heart.
He knew not if the brotherhood
his homily had understood;
he only knew that to one ear
the meaning of his words was clear.
A Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Almighty God and Father,
you made Saint Francis of Assisi
Christ-like in his poverty and humility.
Help us to walk in his ways,
so that with joy and love,
we may follow Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us!
Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us!
Our Lady of Angels, pray for us!
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit that seeks to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the inspiration of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. Our mission is to serve the Church and to give witness to the Good News of Christ through formation and prayer, pilgrimage and retreat, and educating others about our way of life. In 2017, in celebration of our 10th anniversary year, we will lead our annual fall pilgrimage to Assisi; meet monthly for Mass, faith formation, and faith sharing; and offer adults several opportunities to experience a Franciscan days of prayer and reflection. For more information about the Assisi Project and upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage in the Franciscan spiritual tradition, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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