While my Jesuit friends will likely wish to claim the concept “find God in all things” as the insight of Ignatius Loyola (his community, the Society of Jesus, certainly popularized the slogan), perhaps the greatest exemplar of that slogan-in-practice was none other than St. Francis of Assisi, who, of course, was one of Ignatius’s inspirations. From the most famous writing of Francis of Assisi – The Canticle of the Creatures — to his lived example presented by his earliest biographers, Francis’s way of viewing the world was centered on seeing the world as it really was. This meant that he could see all of creation as something more than the empirical collection of material things and instead recognize the presence of the God who lovingly brought all of creation into being. St. Bonaventure describes this dimension of God’s presence in the world by calling all of creation a vestige of God — literally, all of creation bears the “footprint” or signature of the Creator to whom all of creation points.
There is a great little passage in Bonaventure’s Legenda Maior (“The Major Legend of Saint Francis”) in which Francis is remembered for his recognition of the songs of a flock of birds being the form of praise these lowly creatures offered to God. So moved by the experience of recognizing these little animals’ praise of the Lord, Francis calls his brothers to praise God in prayer immediately.
Another time when he was walking with a brother through the marshes of Venice, he came upon a large flock of birds singing among the reeds. When he saw them, he said to his companion: “Our Sister Birds are praising their Creator; so we should go in among them and chant the Lord’s praises and the canonical hours.” When they had entered among them, the birds did not move from the place; and on account of the voice the birds were making, they could not hear each other saying the hours. The saint turned to the birds and said: “Sister Birds, stop singing until we have done our duty of praising God!” At once they were silent and remained in silence as long as it took the brothers to say the hours at length and finish their praises. Then the holy man of God gave them permission to sing again. When the man of God gave them permission, they immediately resumed singing in their usual way (Legenda Maior VIII:9)
Francis is so often depicted in the birdbath of many home gardens and people generally think this is some sort of generic allusion to the Saint’s “love of animals.” There is no doubt that Francis “loved animals,” but it wasn’t in an overly romanticized way. His love of animals — like his love of all creation, including stones and trees and worms — stemmed from his ability to recognize and praise God in all things.
He didn’t love birds as an end in themselves, but instead recognized the inherent dignity of God’s creation in even the birds’ ability to offer praise back to their Creator in the way most fitting for birds.
Francis also reminds human beings of the way we are created to offer praise back to our Creator in the way most fitting for us: by loving and forgiving. This is made abundantly clear in the closing verses of Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, when he finally gets around to mentioning the proper way human beings praise their Lord.
May we follow more closely the example of Francis of Assisi (taking to heart what the Jesuit tradition has so aptly adopted) and recognize and praise God in all things. Where will you see God where you haven’t before?