Yeah, yeah, I know: another Franciscan reflection on creation! It seems that Franciscans can’t get enough of talking about the earth, the environment, ecological issues, animals and the like. And while I think that is perhaps a sentiment that arises out of a rather common caricature of the Franciscan community, there is truth in the stereotype.
It is perfectly in line with the spiritual tradition of the Franciscan community to reflect on matters relating to creation and the environment, and while those themes don’t encompass the entirety of the rich and diverse Franciscan spiritual, theological and philosophical tradition, I think it’s a good thing for friars and others who are inspired by this way of life to pause now and then and think about the other parts of this family we call creation.
So today I offer for reflection a rarely examined text — at least it is not often discussed popularly, although Franciscan scholars are very aware of its existence and import — from the early Franciscan sources. What follows is an excerpt from the Mirror of Perfection in which we hear of Francis’s particular respect for and connection to creation.
Next to fire he had an especial love for water, because it symbolizes holy penitence and tribulation, and at Baptism the soul is cleansed from its stains and receives its first purification. So whenever he washed his hands he chose a place where the water would not be trodden underfoot as it fell to the ground. For the same reason, whenever he had to walk over rocks, he trod reverently and fearfully, out of love for Christ Who is called The Rock: so whenever he recited the psalm Thou wilt set me high upon a rock, he used to say with great reverence and devotion, ‘Thou hast set me up at the foot of the rock.’
He told the friar who cut and chapped the wood for the fire that he must never cut down the whole tree, but remove branches in such a way that part of the tree remained intact, out of love for Christ, Who willed to accomplish our salvation on the wood of the cross.
In the same way he told the friar who cared for the gardens not to cultivate all the ground for vegetables, but to set aside a plot to grow flowers to bloom in their season, out of love for Him Who is called The Rose on the plain and the lily on the mountain slopes. Indeed, he told the brother-gardener that he should always make a pleasant flower-garden, and cultivate every variety of fragrant herb and flowering plant, so that all who saw the herbs and flowers would be moved to praise God.
The way in which Francis is described in this passage might suggest to some readers that Francis was a bit nuts or foolish, but that is precisely what the Saint from Assisi would come to expect. Not in virtue of some sort of insanity or instability, but Francis appropriated the title “God’s fool” (idiota) in order to live up to what St. Paul teaches when it comes to the wisdom of God appearing as foolishness to the world.
I really don’t think that Francis cared all that much about what others thought of him, a disposition that is difficult to cultivate today in a world that is so concerned about image and appearance. Yet, the model of care for creation that the Franciscan tradition offers us challenges us to move away from our convenience and self-interest to be a little foolish for the sake of the earth, which is indeed more than a playground for our use.
Although you probably won’t find me picking up worms on the side of the road so as to prevent them from being trampled under foot, nor will I likely be venerating rocks to the same degree of enthusiasm as Francis, you can bet that the Franciscan tradition of which you and I are inheritors will continue to challenge me to be a better brother to the rest of creation.Note: This post was pre-written and scheduled to be published while I am away on a service trip to the Dominican Republic with students from Siena College. Regular daily posts will resume upon my return. While away I am unable to respond to comments posted here.