A Gathering of Larks

Written for Ruminate Magazine, from Eerdmans 2017

Before picking up a copy of Abigail Carroll’s poetry collection A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day PilgrimI knew little of Saint Francis of Assisi but for one sepia-tinged photo in my family’s photo album. It was my childhood dog, McCauley, looking somewhat sheepish and decidedly uncomfortable as a beaming priest, with one hand on McCauley’s furry head, blessed him in front of the Episcopal church. On the back it says, “Saint Francis Day.”

It’s an odd thing to learn as a kid: that there is a special day—amidst all the priestly garb and organ-song—to bring your dog to church. And yet through Carroll’s writings, as I got to know Saint Francis in all of his quirks, nothing seemed to encapsulate his love for animals, his theatricality and absurdity, his fondness for a laugh, and his commitment to humble impropriety so much as a Springer Spaniel sitting in the third pew.

Through a collection of poems composed as letters to the Saint, Abigail Carroll intertwines his extraordinary journey of faith with her own, linking arms with her readers and bringing us along on the barefoot walk in pursuit. As Carroll parses through tales and myths, she speaks to Francis only as much as she listens to his example and asks his guidance. She imbues his long-ago figure with a fresh sense of relevance, ushering in his wisdom when it comes to her list of chores, her internet browsing, her quiet walks, and her affinity for gelato. As she writes, “What good is someone who is not actually there?” But to Carroll, and to her readers, Francis is as true a friend and constant a companion as my McCauley; the poem continues, “but how grateful I am that you are beyond a doubt / for real—not my lonely mind’s madcap invention.” 

The true gift of A Gathering of Larks is Carroll’s skill for connectedness. She harnesses the power of words to connect people to one another across miles, experiences, and in this case, centuries. Toward the end of her book, she tells the story of Francis hearing of an argument between friends, penning an extra verse to his hymn, and sending a friar to sing it to them; his words reconcile their friendship. Carroll writes of this story, “You sewed a handful of words to a tune and changed the world with a song.”

Carroll too, sews handfuls of words together, and by doing so, threads together entire worlds and personhoods. Remarkably, Carroll presses into Francis’ very character, the person between the stories, who experiences pain and indecision and loneliness just as we do. She searches for him as a singular, complicated individual emerging from the mismatched narratives and centuries thick with tradition. And this practice of searching mimics that of Francis himself, reading through the stories of Christ, and pursuing a life of poverty patterned after the man of the Scriptures.

Contemplative and amusing, Abigail Carroll’s A Gathering of Larks is an invitation to listen and to take delight in what one hears. It is an invitation to birdsong, to jokes and performances, to rustling leaves, and to one’s own voice asking questions into the world. But most of all, it is an invitation to friendship of a new kind, one unlimited by temporal proximity. As the story goes, at Francis’ death, the larks gathered in the sky above his body, in union with his gentle spirit across even species and language. One must wonder whether Carroll’s title isn’t more of a call to gather us into a flock, into a transcendent communion with a man whose connection to nature and commitment to the divine knew no limits.