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ST FRANCIS AND OUR CALL TO CARE FOR THE EARTH

Fr Billy Swan



The ‘Season of Creation’ ends on 4th October, the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. It is no coincidence that this is the case as St Francis is the patron saint of ecology and the environment. There are two main reasons why Francis is associated with the environment. The first is because of his beautiful insights into how God reveals himself through all creatures and the created world; the second is his understanding of himself and all human beings as being at one with the created order, without diminishing the uniqueness of the human person.


Taking each of these in turn, the first is Francis’ deep appreciation that God discloses something about himself and his nature in the created world we are part of. Francis’ biographer and successor St Bonaventure, taught that God had written two books of revelation – the book of Scripture and the book of creation. At a time when many people could not read or write and hadn’t access to the written Word of God, contemplation of the book of nature was very important for it was accessible to all. In the words of Bonaventure:


‘To read this book is the privilege of the highest contemplatives, not of natural philosophers, for the former alone knows the essence of things and do not consider them only as traces’ (Hex. 12.15).


Obviously for Bonaventure and for Francis too, the two books of revelation did not contradict each other because they had the same author. They spoke of the same truth and witnessed to the same reality, namely the creative, dynamic and living love of God made visible. For Francis, the same love of God that moved creation into being was the same love that God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Gospels, culminating in his passion and death on the cross for sinners. The love with which God created all things through Christ was the same love that sent Christ in the world in order to save it. This is where Francis’ love for nature and for Christ connect – if everything was created through Christ, then everything reminded him of Christ and moved him to love of Christ. Whether it was contemplating the wonders of nature or gazing on the image of Christ crucified in the church of San Damiano, Francis was moved with the same feelings of awe and gratitude that lead him to adoration and praise. As Bonaventure beautifully describes:


‘For St Francis, it was Jesus fastened on the cross that melted his soul so that whenever Christ’s crucifixion came to his mind, he could scarcely contain his tears and sighs’ (The Life of St Francis, 1, 5).


Francis’ contemplation of Christ enflamed in creation and revealed in his birth, ministry, death and resurrection, reminds us of the poetic insights of Joseph Mary Plunkett, the Irish poet and rebel. As Francis saw Christ in all creation, Plunkett famously wrote:

‘I see his blood upon the rose, And in the stars the glory of his eyes; His body gleams amid eternal snows, His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower; The thunder and the singing of the birds are but his voice-and carven by his power, rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn, His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea, His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn, His cross is every tree.


That Francis came to see God in all his creation points to the idea that Francis contemplated God’s goodness in what he saw there. To contemplate is not just to see. Rather it is a penetrating gaze that looks deep into the heart of reality and considers the One responsible for it all. Francis didn’t just look at things as isolated elements of the natural world but saw everything as an organic whole, designed and created by God as part of a greater unit. Of Francis, St Bonaventure wrote in his Major Legend:


‘In beautiful things, Francis beheld Beauty itself and through the footprints impressed on things, he followed his beloved everywhere, out of them making for himself a ladder through which he could climb up and lay hold of him who is utterly desirable’ (9, 1). In other words, all things pointed beyond themselves to their Creator. here is the principal of sacramentality in our faith that grounds our understanding of the seven sacraments as visible signs of an invisible grace.


When it comes to Francis’ coherent spirituality of nature and his faith in God, it is all the more impressive when we consider the religious landscape in Italy at the end of the 12th century. The town of Assisi was influenced by the Cathar heresy that maintained a split between matter and spirit. The name ‘Cathari’ means ‘pure ones’ coming from the Greek term ‘katharos’ meaning ‘pure’. The Cathars believed that matter was created by an evil god and the spirit world by a good god. This lead to faith in two gods and a dualism between the natural and spiritual worlds. In contrast, Francis consciously emphasized the unity of God as both Creator and Father. He also insisted that matter and the created order were infused by God’s goodness and so were the places where we can encounter the divine.


The second unique feature of St Francis’ spirituality is the appreciation he had of his connection with the rest of the created world. He considered us human beings to be part of and not apart from all that God had made. Because God is the source and origin of all things, this implies that there is a familial bond or relationship we have with other created things. Of course, the origin of this insight comes from the Book of Genesis that tells us that we humans were fashioned ‘from the dust of the earth’ (Gen. 2:7) meaning that our bodies share the same substance as the rest of the created world.

This unity with the natural world is seen at its best in his famous Canticle of Creatures in which he refers to elements of creation in familial terms. Francis wrote this canticle a year before he died and so it summarises a lifetime of contemplation and mature reflection. It is the capstone of his theological vision. In this hymn which celebrates the cosmic Christ, Francis addresses ‘The Most High’, God who has become flesh. He alludes to the mystery of Jesus Christ through the metaphor of ‘Brother Sun’ and to the Holy Spirit through ‘Brother wind’. He refers to ‘Sister moon’, ‘Sister water’ and ‘Mother earth’.

Like the three youths in the fiery furnace in Scripture (see Dan. 3:57-90), Francis praises God through the elements of creation for the Canticle discloses Francis’ view of nature as a sacramental expression of God’s generous love. Because everything has been created through Christ, everything is related to everything else. Through him, with him and in him, everything is offered up in praise to the glory of the Father, in the love of the Holy Spirit.


For Francis, this priestly duty of praising God was not something he wanted to do on his own. Nor did he perceive his duty to adore God as something he did on behalf of creation but rather something he did with creation. He wanted all creation to join with him in praising God. We see this in the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ but also in an episode recorded by St Thomas Celano who recalled Francis calling a cricket over to him to sing: ‘My sister cricket, come to me! Sing, my sister cricket, and with joyful song praise the Lord your Creator!’


He continued: ‘Fields, vineyards, ricks and woods and all the beauties of the field, flowing springs and blooming gardens, earth and fire, air and wind; all these he urged to love of God and to willing service’. Similarly St Bonaventure said of him: ‘He savoured in each and every creature that fontal goodness and…sweetly encouraged them to praise the Lord’ (Major Legend, 9, 1).


This observation of Francis’ priestly task as leading creation to the praise of God has implications for how we see ourselves part of creation and the relationship of the whole created order with God. It also challenges us to greater respect of the natural world and to the existence of every species of living things that each, in their unique way, glorify God by their very existence. This oneness of humanity with the rest of the created order is the basis of Pope Francis’ teaching in his 2015 encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. In the opening paragraph he writes:


“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us’. Then in the following paragraph, the pope identifies the root problem of the environmental crisis: ‘This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will’. He continues: ‘The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves’ (Laudato Si, 6). For the remainder of the document, the pope calls for a proper retrieval of St Francis’ spirituality of the inter-connectedness of all things and for us to see that we are part of the created world that we must respect and relate to.

So as the ‘Season of Creation’ ends for another year and as we celebrate the feast day of St Francis, may the spiritual insights of this beloved saint translate into a deeper intimacy with God through the world he has made and lead us to a greater commitment to care for the earth our common home.

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