The Franciscan view of nature

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The Franciscan view of nature flows out of the nature mysticism of their founder, Saint Francis of Assisi. As Western civilization entered the Middle Ages, a new prosperity created capitalism and a middle class. There was also a universal call for reform within the Catholic Church. A significant mode of that reform came in the person of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and his founding of the Franciscan Order. The order was approved by edict of Pope Innocent III on April 16, 1209.

With the Benedictines, very little is known about the personality of Saint Benedict. It is his written rule that has shaped the order. With Francis, his personality and charism dominate and it was hard to capture in a written rule. The Franciscans became the first of a different type of order. They are friars and mendicants, not monks. Like the monks, they have a distinctive habit (robe) and chant the psalms and canticles of the Bible in common. But unlike the monks, they have a strong emphasis on apostolic work, on preaching and serving people in a variety of ways. They move easily from place to place and are not bound to a particular monastery.

Francis”™ father was a wealthy cloth merchant who also bought up small farms and expelled the tenants. Francis reacted dramatically to his father”™s life style and attitude. He saw power, prestige and possessions as leading to violence and so he embraced humility, poverty and the cross. Much of his life was spent alone in nature like the Desert Fathers and the Celtic hermits. In this liminal position, he had a direct and mystical experience of God in creation.

What is unique to Francis is that he is the first known person within the Christian tradition to exhibit a nature mysticism. Previous ascetics were ambivalent. They saw the natural world too much as the realm of demonic powers. For Francis, his union with nature became a mode of God”™s communication of himself to humanity and humanity”™s union with God through a perceived presence in the physical world.

There is a charming fresco by Giotto in the Basilica at Assisi. Here, Francis is seen preaching to birds. The famous incident illustrates the Saint”™s sense of the interdependence he saw in creation, an interdependence that called for respect and obedience. The birds praise God with their song. They each have autonomous worth and beauty and yet are brothers and sisters performing their divinely allotted function. The birds respect Francis because he is also a servant of God. Their response encouraged him to sustain his new perspective and they encourage him to carry his preaching to people.

By implicitly humanizing creation through affective links, Francis made it easier for others to share his bond with creation. It was Francis and the early Franciscans who introduced the use of the crèche, the manger scenes that dramatize the Christmas event.

The legend of the wolf of Gubbio tells of a hungry wolf that was terrorizing a town. Francis went out and preached to the wolf and then preached penance and peace to the villagers. He was thus able to convince the people that the wolf was simply hungry and needed food. He forged a covenant wherein the people agreed to respect the wolf and provide him with food.

Like the monks before him, the psalms and canticles from the Bible shaped Francis”™ expressions. But unique to Francis, is the influence of the songs and lyrics of the troubadours. The troubadours were wandering musicians who composed and sang love songs. Here, Francis spiritualizes the mistral”™s interplay of natural setting and human experience, an interplay that elicits love and joy.

Francis embraced and expressed the chivalric values of beneficent magnanimity and deference to all.

Like the ascetics before him, Francis also saw nature as allegorical. He had a particular affection for worms because there is a passage in the New Testament where Christ says, “œI am a worm and no man.” So Francis would carefully pick worms up off the road and place them in safer places. He saw Christ in the worms. The sun is like God because it is beautiful in itself and it gives light.

The clearest illustration of the Franciscan view of creation can be found in Francis”™ Canticle to Creation. The hymn praises the four elements; fire, air, water, and earth, which were seen as the components of all life forms. In the Canticle, he expresses the intrinsic goodness of the created world, the interdependence of all life, and his passion for beauty and peace.

Because we call God “œFather,” creation becomes our brothers and sisters. He calls for a fraternal model, rather than a model of stewardship. We are to be detached from creatures in order not to possess them. He goes so far, at times, to say that we should even obey animals.

The Franciscans were a dynamic argument against the Cathars; a heretical group at the time who held that “œthe spiritual” had been created by a beneficent divine power and the natural world by an evil one.

Francis forbade his followers to cut down a whole tree. Part needed to be left intact so that new sprouts could bud. Until recently, a Franciscan needed permission from the provincial before cutting down a tree. Francis spent the last years of his life in the wilderness.

Saint Francis represents a watershed in the development of Christian views of nature. Some spiritualities after him flow from him. Others, such as the Rheinland mystics, continue a Neoplatonic tradition.

The saint of Assisi fulfills Arne Naess”™ definition of a deep ecologist because he emphasized the diversity and intrinsic value of creation and because he addresses the reform of behaviors that threaten to destroy entire ecosystems.

On Easter Sunday, 1980, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi the patron saint of ecology, following the suggestion 13 years earlier by Lynn White, Jr. in his seminal article in Science.

Today, Franciscan men and women continue their founder”™s work by focusing on the changes of hearts and minds needed to live in balance. Franciscan Keith Warner trained in geography and worked for a reforestation cooperative in the Pacific Northwest that planted over 600,000 trees. He is on the steering committee of the California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and has lobbied with The Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation. Warner also campaigns against what he calls “œBirdbath Franciscanism,” a superficial and romantic view of Francis depicted in flower garden statuary. He sees his founder as much more ecologically radical.

Father Richard Rohr, also a Franciscan, founded and is director of The Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The center”™s aim is to seek a balanced life by bringing together the worlds of spirituality, psychology, social action and environmental concerns.

Former Franciscan Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian and a major figure of liberation theology. In Ecology and Liberation (1995) and Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (1997), he brings together poverty, ecological degradation and liberation. For Boff, the fate of the rain forest and the fate of Amazonian Indians are inseparably linked.

Franciscan sisters run Michaela Farm in Oldenburg, Indiana, where their aim is to seek and teach skills in organic food production and foster a simple lifestyle in harmony with the earth. Sister Rita Wienken has similar objectives with her Franciscan Earth Literacy Action Center on 500 acres in Tiffin, Ohio.

Copyright, Bron Taylor and Jeffrey Kaplan, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (London: Continuum, forthcoming 2004).

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