The new pope has explained why he chose the name Francis: St Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) was “the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation – and in this moment we don’t have such a great relationship with creation.”
“Not such a great relationship with the environment” is surely an understatement. The pontiff takes the name of this saint at a time when the world faces the threat of environmental destruction and climate change, and he will no doubt be inspired by the vision of Francis of Assisi.
Apart from St Francis of Assisi’s love for poverty and peaceful dialogue, his ecological spirituality is what made this saint unique and well ahead of his time (early 13th century).
This is something I wrote for The Herald in 2009:
Francis of Assisi and ecological spirituality
All of a sudden it has become fashionable to talk about ‘green technology’, ‘renewable energy’ and ‘organic food’. Of late, we are seeing more and more articles in the mainstream media on these subjects. Does that mean our mindsets have now begun to change?
Not quite. We are prepared to use these buzzwords as long as it doesn’t affect our consumerist, materialistic life-styles (though a growing number of people are beginning to realise that change has to start now)..
On the whole, we still haven’t cultivated that sensitivity that we should have as stewards of Creation. That is why we allow corporations to rape the environment and materialistic capitalism to increasingly narrow our biodiversity. Large plantation firms, logging companies and property developers think nothing of flattening and clearing the land for their projects. Our manufacturing firms and commercial and private vehicles pollute our environment.
There’s a native American proverb which goes: Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
The native Americans of yore – and the inhabitants of the rainforests today – our own Orang Asli and Orang Asal know instinctively the value of our natural heritage and they have a deep bonding with the land. It is something that many urban folks – let alone, the plantation firms and corporate developers and manufacturing sector – can barely fathom.
By now we are all aware of the threat of climate chaos or climate destruction. But raw data on pollution and environmental degradation is not enough to spur the public to change their lifestyles.
What is needed is a sensitive, abiding love for Creation – its natural beauty – and an awareness of the delicate ecological balance. In short, an ecological spirituality.
Actually, ecological spirituality is nothing new.
Jesus himself lived a Spartan life-style that was very much in tune with nature and the environment. Today, they would say his “carbon footprint” was essentially close to zero. His sermons were peppered with examples from nature.
One Jesuit has described St Francis of Assisi as the greatest holy man in Christendom after Jesus. Francis shunned the lavish life-style and the worldly power and stature of church-leaders at that time.
The contrast between his simple lifestyle and the decadence, pomp and splendour of the church then couldn’t haven’t been wider. Francis is believed to have had a vision in which he heard Jesus saying, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Francis thought it meant repairing damaged churches. But it could just as easily have meant rescuing the church from its decadence.
It was some astute thinking that eventually prompted the Church to co-opt Francis’ movement into the mainstream.
Perhaps in the process some of Francis’ raw ecological spirituality may have been diluted and Francis later came to be viewed as a quaint and perhaps eccentric but lovable saint, the stuff of children’s tales. It’s the same way that Christmas today is celebrated as a season of sentimentality and festivity and cows and sheep in the manger, without any awareness of what it meant for Jesus to be born in absolute poverty on the fringes of the powerful Roman Empire.
Not only did Francis attempt a rapprochement with the Muslim world, clad in rough garment, walking barefoot without a staff, he articulated a spiritual ecology that has many lessons for us today.
(But first take a look at this video!)
His famous sermon to the birds went something like this:
My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in every place give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you… you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.
Now, his message was probably aimed not just for the birds – but for the rest of us. How timely this message would be in this age of ecological destruction when hills are being cut down and forests destroyed.
Francis’ mysticism was perhaps best summed around the year 1224 in his famous Canticle of the Sun, which could rival anything in the Psalms for its sheer beauty – and sensitivity to the environment:
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honour, and all blessing. To you alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my Lord, Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water: she is very useful, and humble, and precious and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, powerful and strong.
Be praised my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs….
Thus the mysticism and spirituality of Francis has a renewed relevance for our age – provided we don’t romanticise or reduce it to sentimentality.
Far more powerful than Francis’ words – which were stirring enough – his lifestyle like that of Jesus’ was a renunciation of the worldly materialism of his time.
In this, his “zero-carbon lifestyle” (to use today’s jargon) closely followed in the footsteps of Jesus, who shunned the trappings of wealth, power, position and privilege and instead chose the countryside, the old hamlets and villages, the hills, the fringes of lily fields, the lake-shore as his mission grounds.
More than that, Francis shows us that our faith should not just be about the relationship between human beings and God. Rather, his spirituality challenges us to look at the inter-communion of all living beings, non-living things and nature infused by the breath of the Spirit.