BOOKS: The Lessons of St. Francis

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1998:

The Lessons of St. Francis:
How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life
by John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey
Dutton (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 1997.
255 pages, hardcover, $21.95.

A member of the 1960s country/ rock
band Mason Profitt, John Michael Talbot
either reinvented or rediscovered himself after
the band broke up––first as an admittedly
obnoxious evangelical “Jesus freak,” and then,
as the zeal of the newly converted gave way to
recognition that he still didn’t like himself
much, a lay Franciscan.
Bible-thumping hadn’t brought
Talbot inner peace, but working to emulate St.
Francis did. Still a professional musician,
Talbot eventually founded the semi-communal
Missouri-based Brothers and Sisters of Charity,
and became a respected Franciscan scholar.

The Lessons of Francis is Talbot’s
effort to share his faith, now in a low-key nonevangelical
way. Relatively little pertains to
animals, but “Even though Francis wasn’t a
vegetarian,” Talbot offers on page 28, “I’d bet
a bag of beans that he would become one if he
saw the conditions animals endure in many
agribusiness complexes today.”
Talbot later recounts how Francis
preached to the birds at Spoleto; rescued birds
from traps; freed a trapped rabbit near Grecio;
threw a fish back into the water outside Rieta;
moved worms out of roads; befriended mice;
kept a falcon but did not hunt; kept bees;
enticed the wolf of Gubbio to quit menacing
the residents in exchange for regular meals;
and as a central activity of his order, bought
cruelly trussed lambs and other animals at public
markets, as gifts to families who would
keep them as pets and not eat them.
“Francis wasn’t a political activist,”
Talbot explains, “but there was one problem
so urgent and widespread that he felt it required
government intervention: abuse of animals.
Whenever he saw a farmer beating a horse, a
hunter snaring a bird, or the citizens of a town
allowing dogs to starve, Francis grew intensely
sad. Boldly and repeatedly he petitioned government
officials to outlaw such cruelty.”
Wrote Francis himself, “If I could
talk to the emperor, I would beg him to publish
an edict forbidding anyone from trapping
our sisters the larks, or from inflicting any
harm on them. Further, all the lords of castles
and of villages ought to oblige their subjects
every year on the day of the Nativity of the
Lord to throw wheat or other grain on the roads
so that the birds and especially our sisters the
larks would have food, and that everyone be
obliged to give our brothers the oxen and the
asses a generous amount of feed.”
Continues Talbot, “Various groups
of animal rights activists have tried to enlist
Francis in their battles. I feel certain that
Francis would join them in condemning the
abuse of animals. Francis invited creatures to
praise God, which seems to suggest he
believed animals could experience both joy and
pain. Consequently, I am convinced that he
would condemn” factory farming, in particular,
among many modern institutionalized
abuses of animals that did not exist in his era.
However, Talbot observes, “It’s true
that Francis rarely ate meat, but that’s because
of his desire to live a life of simplicity and
poverty, not because he was a vegetarian. And
Francis rarely rode on donkeys or horses, but
that’s because he usually offered a ride to
someone who was walking. He never claimed
that people couldn’t use animals, only that
they shouldn’t abuse them. Francis wouldn’t
agree with segments of the animal rights movement
who claim there’s no difference between
animals and humans,” Talbot asserts, “or that
humans have no right to eat meat and use other
animal products. Putting animals and humans
on the same level won’t necessarily guarantee
that humans will treat animals better,” he adds.
“And as some thinkers have argued, such
moral equivalency may only complicate
already complex social issues like euthanasia
and rationing limited medical care.”
One gets the impression, though,
that Francis himself wasn’t afraid of complicating
political life with compassion.

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