This painting, Willows at Sunset, is sometimes also called Van Gogh’s Orchard on fire. Although the painter’s intention is to make us see the fire of the setting sun, the colors in this painting are so vivid that they can also represent Brother Fire of the Canticle of the Sun: «Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.»
For us today, it is almost only on the occasion of meetings around a camp fire or at the cottage near the fireplace, that we can admire the beauty of brother fire. But what was the situation in the time of St. Francis?
Let us recall the first Franciscan community trying to rebuild the chapel of the Portiuncula, located near the large and thick forest in the countryside of Assisi. The brothers lived in small huts, and they saw fire daily, given that meals were cooked over the campfire. Francis had great admiration for brother fire: ‘In the evening at dusk, every man should praise God for this creature that is brother fire…’ And he added: ‘we are all like blind men, and it is by this creature that the Lord illuminates our eyes during the night.’
We know through brother Leo, companion of Francis, that he had a special reverence for the fire, to the point that once, he refused to extinguish the fire that was ravaging his cell and grieved for having saved a fur coat which, by greed, he had thus saved from ‘brother fire’.
There is no doubt that fire spoke to the heart of Francis. We know, wrote Eloi Leclerc, «the deep emotional experience of Francis, stemming from the singular love he had for fire, and the seductive and idealized image that he dreamed up. The fire that he loved and imagined, was a fire from which he had nothing to fear, a fire whose violence was transformed into an invincible force of light. This fire was not frightening or scary. “It was a fire ‘beautiful and playful and robust and strong that lights up the night ‘: a fraternal fire.»
An image of this fraternal fire is found in the Franciscan legend recalling a mysterious fire at the convent of the Portiuncula: « One day, Francis had felt obliged to respond to the desire of sister Claire, then secluded at San Damiano, inviting her to dine with him and his Brothers at St Mary of the Angels. We know, thanks to the Fioretti, that « during the first course, St. Francis began to speak about God with such sweetness that they were all raptured in God. And while they were sitting there, in rapture, with their eyes and hands raised to the sky, the people of Assisi and the surrounding area saw St. Mary of the Angels, including the convent and the forest next to it, going up in flames… The people arrived in great haste to put out the fire. However, when they saw that nothing was burning, they entered and found St. Francis with St. Clare and all their companions transfigured in contemplative prayer, seated around a humble table. They then knew for sure that this was a divine fire.»
Fire and heat! Bless the Lord:
give glory and eternal praise to him!
Georges Morin, ofm