Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton
Chronicle Books, 2011
According to tradition, Francis of Assisi composed The Canticle of the Sun (or Laudes Creaturarum, “praise of the creatures”) toward the end of his life, around 1224. Written in the Umbrian dialect – rather than church Latin – it is a beautiful song praise to God for the glory of his creation. Its simple, earthy images drawn in a common language are a reminder that regardless of social station, we all are created beings, dependent like the rest of nature on the care of a good and loving God.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a “reimagining” of Francis’ song by Katherine Paterson, illustrated with absolutely gorgeous cut-paper images by Pamela Dalton. Seriously: these may be my favorite illustrations yet for a book we’ve reviewed on this blog. They are rich in detail, warm, peaceful, and inviting. Somehow they capture the song’s vision of humans living in bountiful harmony with nature, husbanding it together for the common good as we were created to do.
The song itself, as rendered by Ms. Paterson, praises God for our “brothers” and “sisters” in the created order: the sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire and earth, as well as for human beings who live as peacemakers and grace-givers. Each of these reveals something about God himself, and bears his image stamped on its created being. It is a marvelous example as theology-in-prayer: Francis sees God revealed in nature, praises him for it, and in that prayer teaches us about God, too. My favorite passage in this vein, then:
We praise you for Sister Water, who fills the seas and rushes down the rivers – who wells up from the earth and falls down from heaven – who gives herself that all living things may grow and be nourished.
On the same page, the picture is framed by two large trees planted by streams of water (Psalm 1): as we see the trees nourished by the gift of water, we understand that we too are nourished by a self-giving God who poured himself out like water — and we are able to praise him for his gift of self and water with greater thankfulness. It is this sort of simple yet deeply rich imagery that makes this book a valuable piece of theological literature.
The last gift for which Francis thanks God – and which, according to legend, he added to the song on his deathbed – is for “our Sister Death, who will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known and loved us.” Now it’s true, theologically, that death is an enemy destroyed by Christ and a punishment for sin: so what’s with the Sister imagery? Well, for the Christian, death is no longer something to be feared; though intended for our destruction, it too has become God’s handmaiden, delivering the faithful safely into the presence of Christ. And again, the illustrations! On this page, a small boy and girl sorrowfully bury a small pet, surrounded by an explosion of butterflies – that ancient symbol of resurrection. Again, we are reminded that for the believer, death is nothing but the doorway to true life.
Lastly, some readers may find Paterson’s rendering of the final lines of prayer off-putting: “For this life and the life to come, we sing our praise to you, O Lord, the Father and Mother of all creation.” Taken in context, this is no denial of God’s Fatherhood; it is the simple recognition of God as the Parent of all creation and the image of all created fatherly and motherly care. The Old Testament uses both images to talk about God’s providential care, and it’s a lovely acknowledgement of just how deeply encompassing that love is.
This is a simply lovely book, suitable for reading aloud as a family or for individual poring over. If your child has a quiet corner or space where you keep devotional books, this would be a worthy addition. I think it will be appearing at our house on one of the twelve days of Christmas this year!