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Introduction to Ecology Booklet III

The spirituality of Francis and Clare is a strong motivation for the Francisclarian family to become thoroughly involved in efforts to deal with the current environmental crisis.  This booklet helps us to understand the situation in which we live.  Our spirituality reminds us of the moral imperative to address the crisis that threatens our planet and all its inhabitants.

The Francisclarian tradition highlights a special concern and responsibility for our mother Earth and for all of Creation, arising from our desire to follow in the footsteps of Francis and Clare.  Francis was named patron of the environment by John Paul II in 1979 for a reason.  He did not confront the same questions that we do, and the environment in his time did not face the same global threats. But his approach to the world and his relationship to nature point us in the right direction.

St. Francis of Assisi

Unlike the common spirituality of his time, Francis did not separate the spiritual world from the material world, and he certainly did not devalue the material world as godless. He viewed the world, the earth, and everything in nature as God’s creation and a place of incarnation – the presence of God.  Referring to everything around us as creation adds a sacred dimension to our reflection on the environment. Francis related to all created things – living or not – with great respect and sought to be subject to them. This attitude was different from a spirituality that sees human beings as rulers of the earth. Francis did not see human beings as above or outside of the rest of nature.  He saw them as co-creatures of God, as sisters and brothers of all creatures. He expressed his spirituality uniquely and poetically in the Canticle of the Creatures (see http:/www.appleseeds.org/canticle.htm) at the end of his life. The canticle does not praise God for creation. Francis did not stand next to nature to thank God for nature. Rather, he stood in line with the community of creatures and – as part of that community – praised God as the source of all life and of all creation. The creatures’ praise of God consists in their being what they are – that they become what they were created to be.

That is what differentiates Francis’s spirituality from a concern for the environment which only relates to the future of humankind. For Francis, environmental protection comes from a deep respect for and consciousness of interior solidarity with everything that God has created. He knew about the unity of the entire cosmos. St. Paul said that the community of Christians forms the body of Christ, that the joys and sufferings of each individual member contribute to the well-being and suffering of the entire body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-31; Col 1:18; 2:18-20; Eph. 1:22-23; 3:19; 4:13).  For Francis, the same truth applies to the entire cosmos. Today we can see the confirmation of the truth of his insight in scientific reports. Destruction in one part of the world is leading to suffering in the entire world.

The respect and solidarity of Francis toward creatures are manifest in interior and practical attitudes of obedience.  Through the vow of obedience a religious hands him or herself over completely to God through the mediation of another person.  Francis extends this concept to include subjection to every human being and to all animals, whether wild or tame.  He offers a theological reason for this subjection: obeying the creatures, one obeys the Creator from whom they come forth and who allows each one to be, to act and to express its own needs.

Francis also values and loves creatures because they respond positively to the divine will written into nature itself, faithfully fulfilling the tasks entrusted to them.  In this way, the relationship that men and women have with individual members of the universal “community of life” helps them to be more “human,” in the sense that they are urged by the creatures to carry out the specific human vocation which they have received, just as the creatures carry out their own vocation.

For this reason, Francis tries to see life from the perspective of these creatures, to understand their vital needs.  His attitude is one of deep empathy, which prompts him to look for suitable ways to defend or reconstruct the environment according to the developmental needs of each living being.  We see here a concern not only for individual creatures, but an invitation to care for the habitat, to protect the integrity of the ecosystem, thus guaranteeing the interrelationships that ensure survival.

Rivalry and the attempt to abuse and to dominate do not make sense.  Human beings and other creatures are made to care for and help one another, thus realizing the good for which God has created them.  Without creatures we would not be able to live, says Francis.

Where there is no perception of threat, there is no fear.  We see that the creatures obey Francis because he comes before them unarmed, not looking to profit from his dealings with them.  He looks rather to further their life, and is willing to pay for their promotion and liberation with his own flesh.  This is what happens, in different ways, with the wolf of Gubbio and with the lambs in the Marches.  Francis demonstrates relations that promote reconciliation and that bring all together in mutual obedience.  These relations allow all to be themselves and to praise God.  Friendship, even tenderness, always wins out, as in the case of “brother fire.”  It was used to cauterize Francis’ eyes, but did not bring pain.

St. Clare of Assisi

Clare also offers perspective and encouragement, thanks to her sensitivity and to her relationship of faith with “the most high and good Lord” and “with all the creatures.”  She walked the same path as Francis.  Who is Clare, if not the “little plant of the most blessed father Francis”?  She defines herself in this way, and sees Francis both as the farmer who planted and cultivated her – thanks to whom she was able to find her life-giving environment – and as the root through which she is nourished.   For Clare, there was no problem to compare herself to a vegetable!  In the same spirit Francis recognized himself in the chicken that dreamed, and his friars in the chicks that surrounded him.

When Clare gazes upon creation, it is not from on high to that which is down below.  Rather, it is the gaze of a “sister,” of esteem, sympathy and solidarity.  It presumes a way of interacting which respects and promotes the other.  Clare invites her sisters to gaze upon that which lives all around them.  They should see that they are in a vital relationship with the trees, with human beings and with all other creatures.  This relationship is a mutual giving and receiving, and provides that which is necessary for existence.  All participate together in the gift of life, allowing each creature to be authentic, to be seen and accepted in its uniqueness.  There should be no question of trying to take control, therefore, but rather a glorious celebration of life.  This attitude guarantees the integrity of each living being in its own seasonal rhythms, which are characterized by flowers, leaves and fruit, by the passage of months, of years.  There should be no strains or violence against nature in its cycles of life.  We need to pay attention to these cycles, to see them and to hear them, learning to synchronize our breathing and the beating of our heart, so as to maintain the harmony of the universal community.

Clare speaks of praise as a suitable means for creating right relations with other creatures.  It is an explicit praise that joins with the praise which exists in every living being by the simple fact of its existence, of having received the creative breath.  The beautiful and the good are in each one.  And praise, “the ecological principle of divinity” (W. Wink), bears each one to the light.  Aware of her own place in the cosmos, and grateful for it, Clare is content that the tree is a tree, that a human being is a human being, that each creature is that which it is!

Clare lived for 42 years in the monastery of San Damiano, but fought until the end of her days for the “Privilege of poverty,” for not being forced to accept possessions from which the community would receive an income for its support.  Today we would classify her relationship with the earth as “sustainable.”  In her Testament she recommends that the sisters not acquire or accept land “except for the smallest parcel needed for a garden to cultivate vegetables.”  The earth is the sister and mother which sustains us and feeds us; so it should not be exploited for ends determined by human egocentrism.  For this reason Clare declares that if the land which protects the isolation of the monastery is greater than that necessary for a garden, the part not needed for the garden should not be cultivated.  She is not interested in maximizing economic benefit, but rather in guaranteeing the common life of all the creatures called, each according to its own species, to praise the Creator.

As the Ministers General of the Franciscan Family recalled in their letter on the occasion of The Spirit of Assisi, “The relationship between humankind and nature, according to the design of God, and rediscovered and proclaimed by Francis (and, we would like to add, by Clare) is a relationship of use and not ownership, respect and not exploitation.”

In 1989 John Paul II invited the youth gathered in Germany to say yes to life, to all living things and to nature, noting that such an attitude would unite us with all people of good will in the care and protection of the environment and all natural values.  We have a common destiny and find in God completion and our final end as ‘a new heavens and a new earth’.   When we live in a way that respects all creatures and that is conscious of the unity of all creation, we cannot remain indifferent to the environmental footprint that we leave behind.

The biblical story of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 can provide encouragement as we confront our present crisis.  The disciples looked at the large crowd of people much like we look at the environmental situation today.  How can so many be satisfied with so little?  What can be done?  It was for this reason that the disciples wanted to send the crowd away.  But Jesus did not release them from their responsibility. He asked what they had available, and highlighted what they were able to do.  Only then was the miraculous feeding possible. The same miracle can occur in response to this ecological challenge. We must understand the situation and start with that which is possible.  We must encourage others to do the same.  This will allow us to build momentum toward societal solutions to the crisis.  Persistence and faithfulness in the task will lead to success.

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