Francis and Nature
St Francis of Assisi is known throughout the world as a lover of
nature. Many artistic portrayals of the Saint connect him with the
environment. It was not surprising then, that the Pope declared him
the Patron Saint of the Environment in 1979. Why in the 21st Century,
in the midst of global pollution and warming, expanding holes in the
ozone layer and massive devastation of our planet's eco-systems, do we
look to a 13th century man to give us guidance and inspiration?
Long before the environment became an issue, Francis saw human
beings abusing nature.
In what could be the first "ecological statement" outside the
Bible, Francis said this:
"These creatures minister to our needs every day; without them we
could not live and through them the human race greatly offends the
Creator every time we fail to appreciate so great a blessing." -
Legend of Perugia 43
There is no doubt that he demonstrated an affinity with nature and
with the animal kingdom.
Many of the old medieval legends about St Francis speak of his
ability to communicate with nature in an extraordinary way. There is
the famous story of how he tamed the man-eating wolf that terrorised
the citizens of the small village of Gubbio. Or the occasion when near
the village of Bevagna he preached to the birds. We are told he even
lifted worms from his path so that they would not be trodden upon.
regard was not just for animals. Toward the end of his life, as he was
going blind, the doctors had prescribed applying a red-hot poker to
his forehead. As the poker was being brought from the fire to be
applied to his frail body, he prayed, "My Brother Fire, that surpasses
all other things in beauty, the Most High created you strong and
beautiful and useful. Be kind to me in this hour; be courteous." It
was during this period, in his last days while he lay sick and dying,
that this great 13th Century mystic composed that most famous poem
dedicated to God and Nature, known as The Canticle of All Creatures.
It is important to see that Francis was much more than someone who
St Francis was a man of faith. He was a mystical person. He therefore
saw God's presence in everything around him. Thus, when he encountered
nature, he encountered God. He saw everything and everyone through the
eyes of faith. One of the main attributes of God was that of Creator.
Thus, all beings animate or inanimate, were therefore creatures.
Francis was not an animist or a pantheist; that is he did not worship
"god" in the tree/ the stone or the water. Rather, he saw God's
providential love expressed in and through all creatures: the beauty
of a forest, the simplicity of a solitary leaf, the wondrous
complexity of a human hand; all of them shouted to Francis that "God
is here." For Francis, the world about him drew him to God and was a
display of divine love.
Francis had no doubt that human beings were the pinnacle of all of
God's creation. In this, he followed the understanding of the Bible,
as expressed in the book of Genesis. Woman and man were created in
God's image and likeness. They were especially to be loved and
Francis cultivated a mystical and deeply personal relationship with
the person of Jesus Christ. This relationship was so profound, that
for the last three years of his life, he bore the marks of the
Crucified Jesus in his own body, known as the stigmata. He was in fact
the first person in Christian history to have received this
extraordinary gift. Thus, when he related to his fellow human beings,
it was through the eyes and heart of Jesus. When he embraced that
leper on the road near Assisi, it was not only a hideous leper whom he
kissed but also the very person of Jesus, incarnate in the leper. For
Francis, Jesus was present in every human person, but particularly in
the poor and outcasts.
These three premises allow us to understand just how deeply
inter-connected all beings were under God as Creator and through
Jesus, who was the incarnation of God's extraordinary love.
St Francis - a Greenie?
It would be too easy to make Francis the medieval man into a modern
day Greenie. Some have tried to do this. The "hat" does not fit. Too
often some relate to Francis as a type of Dr Dolittle who can perform
all sorts of tricks with nature; others have relegated him to the
birdbath! This is not the Francis of history.
Francis did not have a sense of the ecological "crisis" as we have;
that goes without saying! Nor would be approve that attitude that
seeks to "save the planet" so that there is something left for our
children and grandchildren. That would have been an human-centred
approach for Francis. It leaves God totally out of the picture. Terms
like "environmental sustainability"/ "eco-systems"/ "extinction of the
species" would mean little to Francis.
The solution of Francis
have asked: what would Francis do or say if he lived today? How would
be react to the current ecological crises facing our planet?
Look firstly at your attitudes and behaviours.....
Francis was aware of human sinfulness; he had a sense of his own
sinfulness and knew well the causes of unhappiness and much of human
suffering. Francis understood that the root causes of environmental
destruction are to be found in attitudes of avarice, ignorance and
pride. He knew that much of human misery came about because of these
How often has it not been said that the "evils of globalisation"
are due to sheer greed? Or that the "multinationals" see themselves as
"buying-off" the resources they need to expand? Or that the "wealth of
the First World is built on the poverty of the Third World"? Pride and
arrogance go hand in hand; is not that the attitude of those who rape
the environment for their own ends?
Cultivate the virtue of humility.....
Francis was known for his humility. This is not a popular word in our
dictionary! Who wants to be "humble"; yet, the word originates from
the Latin humus, which means "of the earth". The humble are close to
the earth with feet firmly fixed on the ground and know who they are
and where they stand. They see themselves as part of the "whole,"
dependent on the environment for their survival.
Above all, in Francis' understanding, the humble are upright
people, who live with integrity and see themselves as a creature, not
as a 'creator'.
Seek unity with God and with all creation.....
Francis, the medieval mystic, captured the essential truth that all of
us are reliant on the environment for our survival in his own unique
way. He had that innate sense that his life and being were intimately
connected with every other being but especially his fellow human
being. He "transgressed" the borders that separated rich from poor/
Muslim from Christian Crusader/ the outcast from those in the town/
men from women.....
Because of his person and his lifestyle, so firmly fixed on the
Gospel of Jesus, literally thousands came to follow him, from every
walk of life and from every part of Christendom of that time.
So, is it not surprising that today, the message of Francis of
Assisi, speaks not only to Catholics and Christians, but often to
people of every major world religion.
At the core of Francis' "spirituality," was not some
"pseudo-new-age" style of "unitarianism", but his firm belief in the
Oneness of God: that only in and through God is the whole of creation
united and connected and that in Jesus Christ, all are equal in the
sight of God. For Francis, Jesus was his "brother, his friend and
companion." So was every human person.
St Francis was not an environmentalist in our sense of the word
but, he was a mystic who was deeply in communion with his own
environment. His influence endures to this day and his followers,
Franciscans of every walk of life, are often involved in environmental
Franciscans Today and the Environment
As might be expected, many of the followers of St Francis today are
deeply concerned about the environmental issues afflicting our planet.
Some of these contemporary disciples of Francis are also involved in
trying to address some of the many concerns about the future of our
Franciscans International, the body representing the world's
Franciscans at the United Nations, attended the world summits on the
environment, including the recent Kyoto meeting. They alert Franciscan
missionaries in various Third World nations where there has been and
still is exploitation of the local people and environmental
destruction such as in PNG where a Friar pastor became a rallying
point for the opposition by locals at a company's destruction of their
Environmental activities in this part of the world
In 1997, the Franciscan Friars agreed to support an environmental
restoration project in the outer western Sydney region of Penrith near
the Nepean River system. This project had as its aim the restoration
of wetlands adjoining the Nepean River system; creating a flora and
fauna reserve and erecting an information centre to be known as The
central Victoria, near Castlemaine at the Franciscan House of Prayer,
the community care for a couple of hundred acres of farmland, which
had been denuded of its trees by previous generations of sheep
farmers. The Friars have now actively begun to replant trees on this
property with some assistance from the local Municipal Council. A
similar project is occurring on the Friars' property in Campbelltown,
NSW, and at Pomona in Queensland where Padua College, the Friars'
school, has its campsite.
In Minto, an outer southwestern suburb of Sydney, the Friars live
and work in a local government Housing Estate. When the Friars arrived
in 1998, the Estate was badly in need of cleaning-up, as tenants did
not have the usual access to the Council rubbish disposal system
available to private housing sectors. The Friars helped establish a
system, whereby the Council supplied a 25 cubic meter Skip Bin (once a
month to a nominated street in the Estate. The Friars then assisted
the locals in loading the bin with their larger household items, like
old washing machines/ broken furniture/ old engines, which up until
this time, had been dumped around the house or out on the streets. The
Minto friars have also helped establish a community vegetable garden.