We are about to enter the season of Lent, traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, penitence and almsgiving that is in part meant to emulate the time of Jesus in the wilderness. There is a significant connection for me between Jesus’ retreat and Franciscan spirituality. St. Francis of Assisi was well know for the value he placed on retreating to and living in the countryside to commune with nature, and his rapport with animals is legendary. He found the basic elements of nature serving as divine intermediaries, ministering God’s love to him, and providing him with avenues to praise and love God in return. In some ways this seems to reflect the wilderness experience of Jesus, for Mark 1:13 says, “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
As part of a Lenten experience, it can be helpful to follow special disciplines of meditation and prayer, and of further help to integrate them with devotional rituals. Below you will find a devotional ritual for your home chapel or place of meditation and prayer that can be used during Lent, or any time. The ceremony is based upon the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis, which is perhaps the first known work of literature in the Italian language, composed around 1225. Traditional Christian imagery and movements have been added to provide a more holistic experience in this ritual. For example, the four Holy Creatures – ox, eagle, lion and man – are often associated with the four Apostles to whom we attribute the canonical gospels, respectively Luke, John, Mark and Matthew. They also match with the four archangels – Uriel, Gabriel, Michael and Raphael – and the four elements of classical philosophy, which are earth, water, fire and air.
Your sacred space can be very simple and minimally appointed, or furnished more elaborately if you wish, and can vary from time to time. You might want to set up an altar, in the east if possible, bearing such items as: a cross, a Bible, a candle or lamp, incense, or flowers. It can also be quite nice to play soothing serene music. I find Celtic harp with nature sounds in the background to be most fitting (click for my favorite), and Gregorian chant or adagios of just about any sort are usually very suitable.
For the actual words of the canticle you can use any translation you like. What follows is a nice English translation I have slightly edited in places, and with further instructions added. It can be helpful to print it out to read as you perform the ritual.
Begin by setting things up, and then sitting or standing quietly for a moment to center yourself. Face your altar and cross yourself, then speak the following words with calm reverent intent.
Most high, all-powerful, all-good Lord. All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing. To You alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are able to pronounce Your name.
Imagine a beautiful dawning on the horizon before you.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through all that You have made, and first my Lord through Brother Sun, who brings the day, and the light You give to us through him. How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor. Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Look up and imagine the stars and moon high above.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars; in the heavens You have made them, bright and precious and fair.
Cross yourself, and imagine a winged angel before you, a breeze blowing through his hair and robes.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Wind and Air, and all the weather’s moods, fair and stormy, by which You cherish all that You have made.
Turn clockwise 180 degrees, the altar now behind you, cross yourself and imagine a majestic eagle, soaring over a lake of still clear water.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious, and pure.
Turn clockwise 270 degrees, the altar now to your left, cross yourself and imagine a lion of flames.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful he is, how joyful, full of power and strength.
Turn clockwise 180 degrees, the altar now to your right, cross yourself and imagine an ox cow with a full udder, surrounded by flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.
Turn clockwise to face the altar, recalling all the imagery around you.
All praise be Yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of You; through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace; by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Imagine a golden aura or halo shining around your head, then look down, cross yourself and imagine your feet on the soft dirt of a freshly filled grave.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Happy those she finds doing your will; the second death can do no harm to them.
Look up into the heavens.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.
In His name, and unto His service, this space is now consecrated. Amen.
Cross yourself and then sit in meditation and prayer (click for some possibilities). End by rising, offering either a traditional or spontaneous prayer of benediction, and crossing yourself a final time.
I hope you enjoy this ritual. I have found it to evoke an atmosphere that is very gentle, harmonious, serene, nurturing and healing. Please feel free to ask any questions or discuss your experience of it with me. Maranatha!