In his Second Life of St. Francis, Thomas
of Celano writes, “In beautiful things,
he [Francis of Assisi] discerns Beauty; all
good things cry out to him: ‘The One
who made us is the Best.’ Following
the footprints imprinted on creatures,
he follows his Beloved everywhere; out
of them all he makes for himself a ladder
by which he might reach the
Throne [of God]” (Chapter 124).
Francis did not always feel that way.
The wealthy young man who loved to
host lavish parties for his friends later
expanded his vision to see, for example,
the sun, the moon, people ready to
forgive and even death itself as Sister or
When Francis kissed a man suffering
from leprosy, a spiritual revolution
began. “They” became “we.” Francis
realized that all people were valuable in
themselves and not simply for how
they might benefit him.
Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, composed
when he was almost blind, celebrates
God’s generosity and goodness
as reflected in all creation. Most people
see Francis as an appropriate patron of
ecology. Perhaps that’s why many non-Christians find Assisi more welcoming
than other Christian sites.
Dominion or Domination?
Part of Francis’ conversion included his
rejecting domination over creation,
including other people. In the Bernardone
cloth shop, he once threw out a
poor man seeking food. Francis later
found the man and gave him something
to eat. Years later Francis quoted
Proverbs 17:5, “Those who mock the
poor insult their Maker” (RSV).
It’s easy to fool ourselves about how
much we can truly own things. Because
we purchase them, insure them and
eventually dispose of them, we are
tempted to consider our ownership
absolute or apart from God’s sovereign
ownership of all creation.
A car accident, a fatal illness, a stroke
or the death of a loved one can help us
see ownership more realistically. It is a
relative, not an absolute right, not
something to be pursued at all costs.
Francis was horrified at the thought of “appropriating” what truly belongs to
In the Garden of Eden, God gave
Adam and Eve dominion over all creation,
but instead they sought domination,
the right to determine all the
consequences of their actions, the right
to use things apart from God’s intention
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” they
might have said about eating the forbidden
fruit, precisely because they
didn’t want it to matter, because their
life would be easier if it didn’t matter.
But it did.
God Connects Everything
Our planet is in ecological danger not
because God’s creation is defective in
any way but because we have not
always used our freedom wisely, in ways
that reflect our God-given dignity.
We have asserted our freedom to
consume without accepting responsibility
for how those decisions impact
the lives of other people. They too are
men, women and children created in
the image and likeness of God.
That perspective puts a new light on
seemingly ordinary daily choices—whether we recycle, how we travel, the
packaging that we accept as normal
for our purchases, how big a “carbon
footprint” we leave on this earth each
day. Everything matters because everything
is connected and will ultimately
return to God, the source of all life.
Celebrating the God of Life
People who have only a sentimental
view of St. Francis see him as a 13th-century
Dr. Dolittle, a charming man
who could communicate with animals.
Francis’ faith in God enabled him to do
things like that.
Unfortunately, there is a ready audience
for a Francis stripped of his faith
in God as Creator and redeemer. This,
however, is an artificial Francis, someone
who can safely be admired from
afar, someone whose virtues could
never prompt us to question our lives
radically and make changes as needed.
Francis was profoundly grateful to
the God of all life. Although sin was a
clear reality for Francis, he stressed even
more the importance of God’s generous
creation and Jesus as the firstborn of all
creation (see Colossians 1:15). Blessed
John Duns Scotus, a follower of Francis,
later described the Incarnation of Jesus
as God’s greatest work.
Yes, ours is a sinful world, and the
wanton destruction of our environment
is a sin. Francis reminds us that
God has generously created all life. In
this perspective, every sin is a failed
attempt to seek new life and freedom
apart from God’s plan.
Individual members of each species
are uniquely loved by God precisely
for what they already are, for their
Living in harmony with God’s creation
is not a zero-sum equation, a limited
situation within which each
person’s dignity threatens everyone
else’s. Living more respectfully of God’s
creation, including other human
beings, enriches each of us.
Last July, in a sermon at the church
where St. Bonaventure is buried in
Lyon, France, Father Andre Cirino,
O.F.M., quoted Bonaventure’s saying,
“Justice makes beautiful what was
deformed” (Conferences on the Six Days
of Creation). We owe justice to the environment
as well as to people.
In each case, the deformity arises
from the human heart, from an abuse
of freedom. We have a good deal of
eco-justice work to do, but the Lord of
Life energizes all such work.—P.M.