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Good Letters

moon-public-domain-by-joe-jungman-on-flickrThe biggest moon I’ve ever seen was over the North Sea in Scotland. Many nights, I watched it from a bench overlooking the beach. The moon was absurdly large and luminous as it rose or perhaps sunk into the sea, so that I felt I was actually on its surface looking out into space at the earth dipping into the blackness of the universe.

Over the course of four years, I had the opportunity to watch the waxing and waning of this moon. My first year in grad school when I lived in student housing just behind a barrier to the beach, the sea and the moon were visible out the tiny kitchen window from the apartment I shared with three other women.

It was very cold those nights on the beach. Though most evenings that first year were cold to me. I moved there from Texas and the wind off the sea would beat against the outer stone wall where my bed was; sometimes I felt I would never be warm again.

I hesitate to admit how I chose Scotland over another grad school. It reveals the romantic, emotive, and self-absorbed way I have made some major decisions in my life. The fact that I even had a choice is a desperate sign of my privilege.

But here it is: I decided to move while listening to a song by Enya on The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. The Enya song, with both its Celtic musical influence and some of the lyrics sung in the Elvish language created by Tolkien, transported me to the mysteries and magic of the bleak highlands.

As I listened to the music, I was that girl who wished Middle Earth were real because she longed to live with the elves in the trees. And the feeling of that moon was that same sort of longing that had taken hold of me with the Enya song, a longing that reached deeper than the physical chill.

I wonder if St. Francis had a similar moon in mind when he wrote his famous Canticle of the Creatures. Even though it was a remarkable moon when I walked along the beach, I never would’ve thought to call it Sister the way that St. Francis did. I suppose, at that time in my life, I would’ve thought that naming parts of the earth, elements, and the universe as family members would be a bit pagan.

But for Francis, loving creation was a way of loving God.

I weep to think that when he finally wrote his Canticle, St. Francis was nearly blind. What a tragedy for the saint who loved creatures so much, who preached to the birds and made a friend of a wolf, to be nearly blind and write the most beautiful song giving praise to God for the earth, its creatures, and its celestial bodies.

Yes, he must’ve felt a deep longing. But how different a feeling it was from that grad school girl who wished that Middle Earth were real.

It took illness and the proximity of death for St. Francis to finally pen such a lovely song.

It took the loss of his sight to really see.

When Francis spoke of the moon, he knew that it represented the shadows and cycles of life. When he spoke of the wind, even a wind such as the hard cold that swept off the North Sea, he might have been speaking of the Holy Spirit, which blows with purpose and mystery.

And then, there was death, the “ultimate poverty.” (St. Francis’s thoughts on the elements, the moon, the wind, and death are taken from Marie Dennis’s book St. Francis and the Foolishness of God.)

In the final days before he died, St. Francis wrote the last verse of the song. In Francis of Assisi In His Own Words, Jon Sweeney says that Francis called his close companions, Leo and Angelo, to sing to him:

“Praise to you, O my Lord, for our Sister Death and the death of the body from whom no one may escape…”

If I traveled back to Scotland now, I might feel differently than I did on that cold beach fifteen years ago. Grief, maturity, loneliness, depression, and a more focused longing have changed me. I don’t suppose I would think of elves or Middle Earth, but perhaps I would think of St. Francis.

And maybe I would be a little bit closer to the blindness necessary to call the moon Sister, to the foolishness necessary to call the wind that battered my Texas constitution Brother, and to the proximity of suffering that named death itself Sister.

 

Christiana N. Peterson lives with her family in intentional community in the rural Midwest. Her forthcoming book with Herald Press is about the Christian mystics and life in community. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Christiana N. Peterson

Christiana N. Peterson lives with her family in intentional community in the rural Midwest. Her forthcoming book with Herald Press is about the Christian mystics and life in community. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.

The above image is by Joe Jungman, who designated it as public domain.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Well, we’re certainly on the same wave-length! The past few months or so, I’ve taken to reciting Francis’s “Canticle” as part of my morning prayer. A line I especially love is “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air; and fair and stormy all the weather’s moods, by which you cherish all that you have made.” It’s that “cherishing” that makes my heart melt. And yes, his praise of God through “Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape”: I find this “embrace” so consoling.

    • Oh, I’m so glad I have a companion in those thoughts!

  • Jessica

    It is right and good to long for Middle Earth. But I love what you say about Francis loving nature as a way to love God–even in the very natural but horrifying act of death.

    • I think you’re right, Jessica. And perhaps I wasn’t fair in seeing that longing for Middle Earth as childish. Maybe my understanding of it just wasn’t full enough yet.

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