In 1993/1994, I was a teaching a course about the Biblical psalms in our formation-house of the Franciscan family in Holland and Belgium, in the city of Eindhoven. One of the novices prompted the question: 'I heard that Saint Francis of Assisi wrote some psalms. Wouldn't you read these with us?' So we did. I started examining them, translating them, meditating them; they started to fascinate me and they still do.
Francis is a poet, so I discovered. He wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun, the canticle on the poor women, the canticle on the virtues, the canticle on the Most High. And he constructed his own fifteen psalms by combining a number of verses from biblical psalms. By combining and carefully weighting each verse, a new psalm emerged, with its own composition, its own vibration and its own theme. Poetical language is a very tense language. It requires an idea to be expressed in only few words, without losing its intention or its emotional content. Francis was familiar with the rules for psalm-writing. He put himself into the harness of these rules, without loosing his poetical freedom and richdom of speech. On the contrary, often it just makes his message more powerful, more intense and more emotional.
The vitality of the psalms
This leads us to the second fascinating aspect in Francis's psalms: they burst with vitality and temperament,
with feeling and with life itself. In his psalms, Francis speaks of the things he experiences,
the problems he has to endure, the situations he encounters in his life. He tells us about
his loneliness and his joy, about his longing to give himself completely without limit or restrain.
He shares with us the pain that life, his fellow-friars or his body inflicted him. His psalms fascinate me,
because they are about me and my life. I also know pain and loneliness, deep-felt joy,
the need of warm human contact. Francis's psalms fascinate me because I recognise myself in them.
In his fifteen psalms, Saint Francis traces back these emotions into their deepest meaning. He firmly roots them in their layer of existence, in their religious layer. By doing so, he touches upon the basic need of knowing that you have a right to be here, that you are looked after. He shows us his intense need to be acknowledged and loved. He feels the urge to be lifted into infinity and he experiences a world that is beyond human speech and thoughts. The psalms of Francis raise from the basic experience of being and of simply knowing that you 'are there'. Francis discovers these experiences also in the Jesus' life. His psalms make me feel quiet with recognition. I feel safe and realize how I sometimes almost pass over this deep emotion without noticing them.
God is Real We recorded an impressive album, a double-CD with beautiful music, that expresses the wealth of the psalms of Francis. During the rehearsals and recording process of the psalms I have experienced how deeply they touch me, over and over again. They are religious experiences. Francis is a seeker of God. To him, God is an experience, not a definition, not a dogma, not a preset proposition. 'Living and real', he says (psF 15). He always wonders where and when he can experience God and meet the Living God. Francis is open for the things that are hidden to the average and normal beholder. This attitude towards life touches me. His way of discovering and feeling life inspires me and carries me on, leads me onwards on the road towards the Living God. I feel like Saint Francis: often he searched God and often he found Him.
New names In this process, Francis refers to God with well-known names: Lord, God, Lord God, King of heaven and earth, Father. But he uses several new names to be able to speak about the Living God. He says 'mi pater', my Little Father, my Home, my Saviour, my Happiness, my Patience. This diversity in names points out the many-coloured relationship Francis had with He-that-is, my trust, my help, my shelter.
We belong to God Connected to this variety of names, Francis uses the possessive pronoun my: my home, my hope, my patience. This word my indicate a relationship: something is mine. But we cannot always possess a thing: I do not own my mother, neither do I own God. The word 'my' point to a special relationship: it indicates involvement, the desire to be part of that thing or person, the strong wish to be together; my Home, my Happiness, my patience. Francis uses the word mine to express his intens relation with the Living. My tells us what the Living God means to him: without my I cannot understand me nor Him; without God I cannot understand myself. I belong to He-that-is.
God is our Perspective Francis's psalms tell us how eventually he knew Jesus.
Jesus' life is a mystery: without his Father, Jesus's life and death fail to have meaning and relation for me.
Without God, Jesus' life is meaningless. Francis began to view his own life in the same way: without 'my Home' he could not understand himself. And without my Home we cannot understand him.
I have discovered a bright new way of living my relations with God, a new way which will keep fascinating me for a long, long time.
March, 5th, 2005
Herman de Vos, Capuchin
Read also the magnificent page Psalms of Saint Francis
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