Book review: A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim

When asked by Eerdmans Publishing Company to review A Gathering of Larks by Abigail Carroll I hesitated at first. I am dense when it comes to poetry. Unless the language is plain, the meaning escapes me. I don’t know how to read it nor can I write it, despite the fact that I have written a plethora of song lyrics.

The cover and the title won me over. I am a bird lover yearning for Spring when scores of birds will fill my yard again with song. It seemed like a good way to prepare for that eventuality.

I cannot judge Abigail Carroll as a poet as I have no point of reference. What I can say is that her lines moved me. More than half the book has turned-down page corners to mark poems that struck a nerve. Her writing is accessible to anyone whether or not you are a poetry connoisseur. She addresses her poems as letters to someone who is on the minds of many because of his namesake, Pope Francis.

Carroll offers a brief biography of the life of St. Francis of Assisi which is helpful when reading the letters that follow. He was born around 1181, the son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant. He was expected to follow his father into the family business but instead became a French troubadour. Eventually he chose to become a knight and joined the Fourth Crusade. That plan was thwarted the very first night by a disturbing dream which drove him back to Assisi in shame. Over the course of time he abandoned his wealth and adopted a life of poverty, caring for lepers and rebuilding the church (sometimes literally). An order of friars grew around him along with a sister community led by St. Clare of Assisi.

St. Francis is affectionately remembered for his love of nature and animals along with canticles and poems he wrote in his later years while afflicted by poor eyesight and chronic illness. He never lost his ability to lift up the spirits of those around him with his creative skills.

Carroll’s letters to St. Francis are deeply personal without falling into sentimentality or lament. Her intimate knowledge of Francis aids her in building a bridge between his world and hers. That bridge extends to the reader who is brought along on the journey through her use of everyday cares and concerns.

Randy St. Francis of Assisi, Flickr Creation Commons

During her course of writing the book, Carroll suffered a foot injury which left her totally dependent on others to take care of her needs. She weaves this experience into her letters discovering through her correspondence with Francis that ability to let go of control over her life and revel in the unexpected freedom her injury brings.

Illustrated with drawings by John James Audubon, A Gathering of Larks is an easy read filled with wonderful messages. Read to get the overview, and then prayerfully study with pencil in hand to ponder the many messages within.

A Gathering of Larks by Abigail Carroll
Published by William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan








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My special deck of cards means companions for the journey

My morning prayer begins with a deck of cards. Not playing cards but prayer cards with pictures of my favorite saints. I have amassed quite a collection—seventeen to be exact. Each day I begin my walk with God by inviting each saint to walk with me.


In the beginning …

It began thirty years ago with St. Anthony of Padua. He was a must-have saint when it came to our baby boy losing his pacifier. Our son preferred the old-fashioned kind, the kind that was hard to replace. St. Anthony became a good friend in short order, always finding that pacifier (whether it was the old one or a new one at the store).

For many years St. Anthony was the only one. I had trouble figuring out how to talk to God and also make room for other heavenly friends in the conversation. It made the room feel crowded.

Growing the list

Then, a few years ago, an improbable event occurred in my life: I was asked to write a book. Having never done anything like that before and having no formal education in writing, I knew I needed help. And that’s when my list of saintly friends began to grow.


Teresa, Therese, Bernadette …

Saints Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux were the first to make the list. Both were reluctant writers and both relied heavily on God. I even used some of St. Therese’s own words in River of Grace.

Next I saw “The Song of Bernadette” and became enamored with her. In reading her biography I was intrigued by her ability to be absorbed in thoughts of God even when surrounded by large crowds. I wanted that ability. Now I ask her for it every day.

Paul and Cecilia

I clearly remember the time and place where I first encountered St. Paul—it was in the middle of an emergency (stuck in traffic and desperate for a rest room!). St. Paul the marathon runner came to mind and I asked him to run with me and help me endure the pain. He did. Now I always ask him to run with me.

St. Cecilia is restoring my love of music. There was a time not so long ago when I wanted nothing more to do with music having been a performer for many years. But then, God invited me to join the choir at church and I turned to St. Cecilia. She has been working overtime for me, securing blessings which fill my heart up again with the sounds of music.

Meet my saintly friends: Top row, L to R: St. Teresa of Avila, Venerable Bruno Lanteri Row 2: St. Therese of Lisiuex, St. Francis de Sales, St. Lawrence, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi Row 3: St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, The Blessed Mother, St. Martin de Porres, St. Cecilia Row 4: Sts. Monica and Augustine, St. Nicholas, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bernadette, St. Christopher

Bruno, Nicholas and Francis

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Venerable Bruno Lanteri, the founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Through author Father Timothy Gallagher, I met the man who would do anything to hear a person’s confession. He sought out the discouraged, helping them to rise and begin again.

St. Nicholas has become one of my favorites. While searching for a patron saint of finances, I was delighted to find that the man who inspired Santa Claus was that saint. His wisdom and generosity could inspire me to seek guidance in the handling of money, and healing for a heart made stingy by past financial troubles.

And finally there is Francis of Assisi. I am a crazy cat lady with many friends who love animals. And each day I ask St. Francis to remember them all.

Making room

Each day as I take a few moments to flip through my prayer cards I realize how rich my life is with all my saintly friends, all because I opened my heart and made room for them. Doing that reminds me to the same with my earthly friends, especially those in need.

It will be wonderful traveling through Lent this year with so many helpers.

Meet my seventeen special friends


1a-cropped st teresaSt. Teresa of Avila


Writers She was a reluctant writer and attributed all to God – helps me keep my perspective. She led me through River of Grace. Doctor of the church
1b-cropped TheresePrayerCard-730St. Therese of Lisieux Writers Also a reluctant writer and master of insight into the sacredness of the everyday. She also led me through River of Grace. Doctor of the church
1c-cropped st francis de salesSt. Francis de Sales writers and journalists, because he made extensive use of broadsheets and books both in spiritual direction and in his efforts to convert the Calvinists of the region His gentle face inspired me
1d-cropped st. lawrenceSt. Lawrence librarians, archivists, cooks, and tanners
(and comedians!)
Inspired by his literal trial by fire, I ask him to put his fire into my writing; as I make use of libraries and archives, I ask for his help
1f-cropped st. thomas aquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas Writers (students) I turn to him for knowledge and understanding as I write – particularly clinging to him because of my Alcott biography
1e-cropped st john the evangelistSt. John the Evangelist Writers St. John was eloquent and mystical in his writing – asking for that in mine.
2a-cropped st. paulSt. Paul missionaries, evangelists, writers, journalists, authors, public workers, rope and saddle makers, and tent makers My marathon runner partner! He runs next to me when I need endurance.
2b-cropped venerable bruno lanteriVenerable Bruno Lanteri The confessor—encouraging the discouraged to make peace with their failing, get up and start again I turn to him whenever I have fallen and feel discouraged. His caring demeanor attracted me.
3a-blessed virgin maryMary, the Mother of God Bringing God’s children home to the sacred heart of Jesus through her own immaculate heart I ask Mary our Mother to bring all of us home to her Son Jesus.
3b-cropped st_martinSt. Martin de Porres Mixed Race, Barbers, Public Health Workers, Innkeepers private intention
3c-cropped st monicaSt. Monica
and St. Augustine
Mothers—praying their children home private intention
4-cropped st. nickSt. Nicholas those in financial need For wisdom in handling our money and for healing of stinginess (after all, he is the model for Santa Claus!)
5-cropped st. anthonySt. Anthony of Padua lost and stolen articles For finding anything, from lost objects to lost thoughts!
6-cropped st. bernadetteSt. Bernadette illness, people ridiculed for their piety, poverty, shepherds, shepherdesses, and Lourdes, France For humility and holy absorption
7-cropped st. ceciliaSt. Cecilia musicians Offering my music through her
8-cropped st. christopherSt. Christopher travelers and of children For help with driving, especially at night
St. Francis of AssisiStFrancis animals and the ecology For all animal lovers, especially my kitten cam friends

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