St. Francis: beyond the garden statues

At a Franciscan Transitus ceremony at my parish this evening, it struck me that St. Francis—the patron of ecology and animals, as well as people who promote ecology—is not quite the romantic figure that is portrayed in so many backyard shrines. Those loveable garden statues and birdfeeders tell us little of the man and the interior and exterior struggles he fought during his journey to the Triune God.

And so as we celebrate the feast of this great saint and Doctor of the Church—one to whom I give thanks for helping me in my road back to the Church some twelve years ago—we should know him for who he truly was, as best we can.

Let us begin at the end, at an account of his death from a text by Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure:

St. Francis spent the last few days before his death in praising the Lord and teaching his companions whom he loved so much to praise Christ with him. He himself, in as far as he was able, broke out with the Psalm: I cry to the Lord with my voice; to the Lord I make loud supplication. He likewise invited all creatures to praise God and, with the words he had composed earlier, he exhorted them to love God. Even death itself, considered by all to be so terrible and hateful, was exhorted to give praise, while he himself, going joyfully to meet it, invited it to make its abode with him. "Welcome," he said, "my sister death."
When the hour of his death approached, Francis asked that all of the brothers living with him be called to his death bed and softening his departure with consoling words, he encouraged them with fatherly affection to love God. He spoke of patience and poverty and of being faithful to the Holy Roman Church, giving precedence to the Holy Gospels before all else. He then stretched his hands over the brothers in the form of a cross, a symbol that he loved so much, and gave his blessings to all followers, both present and absent, in the power and in the name of the Crucified. Then he added: "Remain, my sons, in the fear of the Lord and be with him always. And as temptations and trials beset you, blessed are those who persevere to the end in the life they have chosen. I am on my way to God and I commend you all to His favor."

These words greatly affected me when I heard them read this evening. I will be giving a talk tomorrow on St. Francis and ecology for my diocese. I’ve been asked to speak about carbon footprints, using my local environmental regulatory background to teach listeners about local and global ecological issues. But with the experience of the Transitus still stirring within as I left my church this evening, I confessed to one of the lay Franciscan organizers that I doubt I could speak merely of science and about romantic notions of St. Francis. I will have to speak also of sin and the Cross, of sacrifice and Christ. How else could I speak of what it means to be an admirer of St. Francis and a lover of creation?

Francis’ growth from a rowdy young man to an itinerant preacher, beggar, and lover of Christ and His Church all occurred with much turmoil, rejection, suffering and doubt. His choice to live as Christ did was bold and, at first, unappreciated. But in time, that he lived by choice in radical poverty and self-denial attracted many in his day and still does in ours. Indeed, his example, and that of his nascent order, truly helped rebuild Christ’s Church. Whereas some would later appeal to the Gospels and to Church fathers to flee the Church and found others, Francis sought to repair the damages of sin within Holy Mother Church, and he did so through utter humility.

In reflecting on the many examples of Francis’ radical poverty, one might be tempted to find in him an unorthodox dualism—a desire to see creation as evil and, thus, something to reject. But Francis did quite the opposite.

Francis saw God within all creation. He followed a long line of Catholic thought that taught that knowledge of God can be found (if imperfectly) in knowledge of—or, in Francis’ case, love for—the created order. Where scholastics would baptize the world of the intellect, Francis (and those who came after him, like Bonaventure) found in the beauty and majesty of nature the answers to many of the theological arguments of their day, and those to follow.

Francis is known famously for his Canticle of Brother Sun. While this title may flame the hearts of naturalists, pagans or new-agers, one learns quickly by the opening words what Francis held to be most important:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Yes, for Francis, God comes first. For Francis, who received the stigmata praying at Mount Alverna, the crosses of this world are not to be rejected. Like the leper that a young Francis passed by then hugged, giving him all his belongings, we too are called to give radically to those in need, to hug the wounded and diseased.

Giotto's Stigmata, courtesy of Slices of Light Images.

If we are to revere Francis, then we—those who seek to promote ecology—must consider anew what sacrifices and what love we can offer the world, its people, and its Creator.

If we can do anything, we should bring back the Friday fast. By reducing our consumption of what-have-you by close to 14% (1 day out of 7), we Catholics—and those who wish to join us—would reduce the gluttonous use of our planet’s resources. Reducing our intake of meat and poultry alone (as did the Church for many a century until recently) would have a profound impact on the world’s ecology.

Beyond that, of course, we must acknowledge that our use of electricity, automobiles, lawnmowers, snow blowers and many other creature comforts—when added up globally—really do significant damage to our land, water and air. Like Francis, then, let us try slowly to reduce our creature comforts, to live more simply, to love silence more readily.

And lastly, as the days shorten here in the northern hemisphere, let us consider Francis’ love of Christmas. Legend has it that Francis brought to the Church the popular devotion of the Crèche, for, as we read in the Gospel of John, the Word becoming flesh was quite the momentous occasion in salvation history (although, perhaps it would be better if our celebration of the Annunciation was just as grand a celebration of Christ's entrance into humanity). At Christmas, we see an infinite, humble mingling of divinity and the created world. In the Incarnation we see the very being of God’s self-giving grace. Let us then consider an authentic rekindling of Francis’ devotion to Christmas by spending less on material goods and diverting our treasures, time and talents to the good of others and to ecological protection. Whether through supporting local farmers, funding local environmental groups, or teaching others about something as simple as organic gardening, the great good we might do at Christmas could radically alter the way the world sees this great event. And we’d be helping “Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

(I just realized something as I’m typing. Note the words that Francis uses in his Canticle: that the earth, “governs us.” This intersection of ecological awareness and human nature is exactly what Benedict XVI has been talking about throughout his pontificate.)

In closing, because I must close eventually, let us remember the real life of Francis, the suffering, joyful mystic. Let us give thanks to God for the man who did his part to change the world and his Church, not by seeking fame or power, but by doing what all Christians are called to do: to live as Christ did, so that in dying we may be born to eternal life.

Photo: Flicker/sarowen

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.