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Saint Francis & Nature

Was Saint Francis the First Environmentalist?

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.

Francis' 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 liked nature.

PREMISE ONE : 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.

St 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.

PREMISE TWO : 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 respected. EDITOR’S NOTE: What exactly do we mean by ‘creation’? Creation is not the same as ‘nature’; neither is it properly a scientific or philosophical term. Creation is a thoroughly religious concept. Creation means that to understand everything that exists at its deepest level, it must be seen in its relationship to God. [cf. contuition]. Creation is concerned not only with beginnings but with every single moment of existence.” (Michael D Guinan, OFM, 2006, The Franciscan Vision and the Gospel of John, Volume Four, The Franciscan Heritage Series, page 32, emphasis added)

PREMISE THREE : 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

Some 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 sins.

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 action.

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 planet.

Franciscans International

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 pristine forest.

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 Earthwise Centre.

SunsetIn 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.