‘Franciscan’ Before Francis of Assisi
In a way that I found pleasantly surprising, Basil of Caesarea’s Sermon IX on creation bears an eerie resemblance to some of the writings of Francis of Assisi on the same subject. What’s particularly interesting is placing Basil’s text alongside some of his contemporaries (such as Gregory of Nyssa) only to discover that Basil’s particular insights in this homily seem pretty unique. The most striking similarity comes in two parts where Basil is talking about humanity and the rest of the created order. There is a sense in which Basil appears to say that the rest of creation intuitively and correctly praises or serves God by virtue of those things simply being themselves. In one part he says:
“Let the earth bring forth living creatures.” This command remains in the earth and the earth does not cease serving the Creator (no. 2).
The reflection on the line from Genesis 1:24 serves as the antiphonal thread that ties each of the subthemes of his reflection. In this case there appears to be an acknowledgement of the earth’s complicity in serving God in and through the exercise of the command God gave in the creative act.
What can, in some ways, appear like Basil’s granting a kind of agency to the earth reminds me of the general presupposition of Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of the Creatures in which elements of the created order are identified for their inherent “serving” (to use Basil’s term) or “praising” of God in and through the exercise of the Divine command to be what it is they were created to be (Sun to give light, fire to give warmth, etc.).
When it comes to human persons, Francis of Assisi follows the same pattern he outlines for the rest of the created order:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy are those who endure in peace,
By You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Just as the wind blows and the fire warms, human persons give glory and praise to God by granting pardon, enduring trial patiently, and persisting in (and promoting) peace.
However, unlike the rest of the created order, human persons often do not do these things and therefore do not live out who and what they were created to be. In his Admonition V, Francis picks this theme up again in a more explicit way, exhorting his brothers to look at the rest of creation as a model for how to live rightly as intended by God.
And all creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you.
This sentiment, it seems to me, reflects what Basil writes a little later in Sermon IX when he similarly points to the rest of creation and the way in which it follows God’s command in right relationship far better than his listeners are likely to be living.
If we consider how much care, natural and inborn, these brute beasts take of their lives, either we shall be roused to watch over ourselves and to have forethought for the salvation of our souls, or we shall be absolutely condemned, when we are found to be failing even in the imitation of irrational animals (no. 3).
These similarities are wonderful. It’s unclear to me whether or not Francis could have been directly or indirectly influenced by this Cappadocian thought, but regardless of the actual formation of a clear connection, the insight both great thinkers offer is well worth reflection.
How is it that we live out God’s command to be in right relationship with ourselves, with other human persons, with the rest of creation, and with God? Do we ever stop to think about the so-called “natural” order and consider how authentically different parts of the created world praise God simply by being themselves? What is it that we need to do to fit in with the rest of creation, to “be ourselves,” and therefore praise and serve God?