St. Francis: Taking Care of the EarthPosted: August 14, 2011
While we were visiting Rome we took a two 1/2 hour side trip Northeast into Umbria to the town of Assisi the home of St. Francis. The Italian countryside is beautiful, and Francis is one of the most attractive Saints of the Church. He grew up a couple of decades after the Waldensians had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Italy, and he was inspired by some of the same ferment. The Church had grown rich and powerful, sort of an oxymoron, when we think about Jesus and his message. Jesus, the King without a crown or an army, who didn’t have two shekels to rub together and had to be buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus, who embraced the way of poverty, enjoined his followers to sell all of their possessions and share with the poor.
Francis was the spoiled child of a well to do cloth merchant. As a young person he partied a lot, and he aspired to be a knight. His father bought him armor and weapons, and he went off to fight in a war with the neighboring town of Perugia. He wasn’t a very good knight. He was captured and held a year for ransom. His father finally paid for his release. Once again, Francis joined the army of Assisi and went forth to do battle but he returned a short time later confused and dejected. A statue in Assisi celebrates this moment of Francis’ awakening.
He wandered the fields of Assisi and one day he stopped in the little church of San Damiano, where he knelt to pray before a crucifix. As he was praying he heard God’s voice say to him: “Rebuild my church.” Francis took a look around and said, “you’re right this little church needs refurbishing.”
So Francis began working to clean and repair the little church of San Damiano. As a Friar we met said, “he got the message half right.” It was only after repairing the church that he realized he was being called to a much larger and more difficult task. The church had grown rich and powerful and no longer cared for the poor. Francis in a symbolic act went to his parents and gave them back all of his clothes. His father believing he had gone mad imprisoned him for three days, hoping he would come to his senses. But his mother finally let him out, and he went down into the valley and began living in the woods.
St. Francis is noted for his humility, his concern and care for the poor and his concern and care for the environment. We had an opportunity to visit with a Franciscan Brother in Assisi, Brother James, who was originally from West Haven, Connecticut. Brother James informed us that Franciscans tend to be somewhat impious and love humor. So he shared with us a Franciscan joke about poverty. A Jesuit, a Dominican and a Franciscan were walking along a road, debating the greatness of their orders. Suddenly, an apparition of the Holy Family appeared in front of them, with Jesus in a manger and Mary and Joseph praying over him. The Franciscan fell on his face, over come with awe at the sight of God born in such poverty. The Dominican fell to his knees, adoring the beautiful reflection of the Trinity and the Holy Family. The Jesuit walked up to Joseph, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “So, where ya thinking of sending the kid for school?”
Brother James felt called to the Franciscan Order because of their informality, and their more fraternal relationship with one another. He initially decided to try it for a year, and figured he would get over it. But he has now been a friar for over 30 years. He finds that people are called to the Franciscans in many ways. Sometimes it is just the experience of being around other Franciscans and experiencing their sense of community and fraternity. Young people seem to be attracted to Francis’ humility, and authenticity, “now there’s a real Christian.” Young people are also drawn to his love and care for the environment. And this morning I would like to talk about St. Francis’ love and care for the environment.
St. Francis and his followers lived out of doors most of the time. He loved nature. Looking at the beauty of the Valley of Assisi I can understand his love of nature. He and his followers lived in a very rude shelter that has since had a big beautiful church built around it. I think St. Francis would be embarrassed by how ornate the church is that was constructed to honor him. He might be positively angry to find out they charge 80 cents to use the restroom.
St. Francis loved nature, and he even seemed to have an affinity for communicating with animals. He is credited for preaching to the birds and taming a wolf that was terrorizing the village of Gubbio. The secret of St. Francis’ love and care for the environment was his humility. Francis realized that he was a part of nature just like the birds, the flowers, the plants, the wolf. He did not indulge in the conceit that because he was human he was more important than other parts of nature. All things, including the insects in his path he would remove rather than step on them, were precious parts of God’s creation.
St. Francis saw God in everything. If God is the great Creator, then everything in the created world is part of God. As part of God’s creation, St. Francis did not view humans as above any other form of creation but rather, in partnership with the rest of creation. Saint Francis preferred to see humans as living in harmony with the rest of creation rather than trying to dominate nature. With this in mind, St. Francis referred to everything in creation as Brothers and Sisters. In the Canticle of St. Francis he speaks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Water. If we feel that kind of kinship with the rest of creation, how can we trash our environment, or dump poison on mother earth? Now I know there are some folks who would just say that St. Francis was an eco-wacko. But unless we can begin to embrace a similar sense of a kinship with creation, we will not survive. Unless we can cultivate a humility like Francis, respecting the world around us, then we will come to a point when the world cannot sustain us.
Slowly sometimes painfully we have learned the need to take care of our agricultural land – contour plowing, rotation of crops, allowing ground to lie fallow. But we have so much more to learn becoming more sparing in our use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation. We are depleting the water in our aquifers faster than nature can replace it.
We are going to have to learn that we are all in this together. The earth is a community, and if we over use its resources, if we poison the air, the water, and the land, pretty soon none of us will be able to live. Recently someone was telling me how in Austin, Texas the water shortage is so severe, the City will give you a low flush toilet, if you will install it. In the coming years we will all need to learn to consume less, so there will be enough for all. And there will be people who will complain, “that’s socialism.” It’s not socialism, it’s just good sense, common decency, and following the way of Jesus. People used to tell me when I was a kid that following Jesus isn’t practical. People don’t want to love other people. People don’t want to share. We Americans are rugged individualists. Well we are coming to a time, when following Jesus may not be “practical,” in the ways of the world but it will be the only sane way to live. Love one another. Care for your neighbor. Share. And as unpopular as it may be at the moment, take care of the poor, and care for the earth. That was the message of both Jesus and St. Francis.
A couple of months ago we were talking about coincidence or synergy. And I don’t know if this was synergy, but my daughter Jennifer just took a group of college students on a back packing adventure to the Grand Tetons and Yellow Stone National Park. The students received credit for the course, because the study was designed to help them become more aware of their relationship to nature. Some of the comments the students wrote in their final projects I think are very important for beginning to understand how we might begin transmitting the faith to the millennial generation. Listen to some of the student’s comments.
“Just looking at animals scavenging around for food, or trees soaring 100 feet, or how magnificent the sunset can be, shows me nature is an amazing and awesome thing. How everything fit together in perfect harmony, no flaws. This, in my opinion, is evidence enough of a higher power. I have had religious experiences through nature, and nature has strengthened my beliefs. Just looking at the array of beautiful colors the sunset provides, or the awe-inspiring size of a mountain humbles my mind and soul…The humbleness I get from seeing these magnificent sights, I carry with me thought out my day and week. It has helped me to realize that I am a small part of a much larger picture and that if I plug myself into it, I feel like my mind is freed and that this is where I am suppose to be, in nature.”
Another student wrote: “I have never been a very religious person, but I use nature as a spiritual outlet. It is something I can see, touch and feel and impacts my life every day. Visiting Portland Oregon last year and hiking up Mount Hood was a humbling and emotional experience. It made me feel more blessed and fortunate than any Sunday morning mass ever has. The beauty of it all makes me sit back and think about just how lucky we all are to be here. Seeing the Grand Tetons up close during our Cascade Canyon hike was a very humbling experience. Times like that really enforce my belief that there has to be a greater power out there. Nature has truly taught me how fragile and special life is.”
Finally allow me to share a comment Jennifer made about her students: “Most of my students talked about the experience of being humbled in the presence of nature. Like no other experience I have ever had with students, being within these amazing environments did more to pull them out of their own selves and believe that there is something that is important beyond just them and worth paying attention to and learning about.”
I believe St. Francis can point the way to a more authentic faith caring for the poor and caring for the earth. I believe that authenticity of faith can connect with the younger generation, and helping them to experience nature, will bring them closer to God.