Probably no saint is associated more with ecology in the west than Francis of Assisi. According to Francis’ biographer, Bonaventure, it was Francis’ close contact with the sacred that made him into such a lover of creation:
Francis sought occasion to love God in everything. He delighted in all the works of God’s hands and from the vision of joy on earth, his mind soared aloft to the life-giving source and cause of all. In everything beautiful, he saw (God) who is beauty itself, and he followed his Beloved everywhere by (God’s) likeness imprinted on creation. (1)
Whether the wolf of Gubbio, or the falcon who woke Francis each night to pray, or the lamb that followed the saint into church, Francis had a deep participatory love with all sentient beings. There are plenty of stories about Francis’ communication with the created order. Each of these stories demonstrates why so many religious traditions find it easy to relate to this particular Christian saint. Buddhists, Jains, and Muslims, for example, find in Francis, one who really demonstrated his love for all beings. “Deep calls to deep,” (2) and Francis found the depth of the great artisan even in insects and worms. The stories of Francis removing a worm so that it would not be trampled on the road, or the incident of his freeing doves which had been sold at market, show us just how committed Francis was to these imagers of the divine nature.
“He savored in each and every creature –
as in so many rivulets –
that Goodness which is their fountain-source.” (3)
Francis even praised the planets and elements as familial: “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” “Sister Water” and “Brother Fire.” And, of course, “Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.” (4)
One of the most beautiful hagiographic stories about Francis which aptly conveys his character, is the story of the Christmas crèche. Francis had a model of the barn where Jesus was born re-created. He had all his close human friends, and all his close animal friends, take their places in this replica of Bethlehem at Graccio. Francis’ mirroring of Christ’s love for all creation was so real, it was said, that in the manger appeared the Infant Jesus: “This vision was not unfitting for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through Saint Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.” (5)
The hay in which the Christ child lay was fed to people and animals who were ill, and it freed them from their diseases. “The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted (people) and beasts…The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation.” (6)
The tradition of the crèche has continued all over the world since Francis inaugurated it in the thirteenth century.
Dr. Maria Jaoudi teaches in the Department of Humanities and Religious Studies at California State University, Sacramento. Her publications include Christian Mysticism East and West: What the Masters Teach Us (Paulist Press, 1998) and Christian and Islamic Spirituality: Sharing a Journey (Paulist Press, 1993), from which the above excerpt is posted with the author’s kind permission.
1. Bonaventure, Major Life, Omnibus IX:1, p. 698.
2. Psalm 42:7.
3. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis, IX:1, p. 263.
4. This stanza on “Sister Earth” bears repeating from Chapter I. The Canticle of Brother sun, Omnibus, pp. 130-131.
5. Celano, First Life, Omnibus, 86, p. 301.
6. Ibid., pp. 85-86, 300-301. Cf to the bleak portrait of Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, with a Preface by Alice Walker.
Walker states: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”
The book begins with a poem entitled “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, son of two runaway slaves. The last verse reads: “I know why the caged bird sings!”