Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of a saint near and dear to my soul: Francis of Assisi. He was someone I always felt a kinship with, even during the years I practiced Buddhism.
St. Francis has been described as a nature mystic, that is, someone who finds God in the beauty of nature and who sees in nature the gift of God’s creation. In everything in creation, Francis saw the love of God; the world and its beauty were gift from God. In the words of Ilia Delio
Trees, worms, lonely flowers by the side of the road—all were saints gazing up into the face of God. In this way, creation became the place to find God and, in finding God, [Francis] realized his intimate relationship to all of creation.
He did not consider himself at the top of a hierarchy of being nor did he declare himself superior to the non-human creation. Rather, Francis saw himself as part of creation. His spirituality overturned the spirituality of hierarchical ascent and replaced it with a spirituality of descending solidarity between humanity and creation. Instead of using creatures to ascend to God (from earth to heaven), he found God in all creatures and identified with them as brother and sister; that is, he found heaven on earth. By surrendering himself and daring everything for love’s sake, the earth became his home and all creatures his brothers and sisters.
As he continued to move more deeply into the mystery of God through his relationship with Christ, he came to realize his familial relationship to creation. He came to live in peaceful relationships with all creatures. To live in the justice of love is to live in peace. For Francis, justice and peace are related to poverty, compassion, contemplation and on-going conversion by which we realize our familial bonds with all living creatures, joining with them on the journey into God.
For Francis, all of nature was a sacrament. It is said that he could find himself in ecstasy “with eyes raised to heaven while holding a waterfowl I his hands. He could sometimes take this too far – one time refusing to put out the fire when his undergarments caught flame so as not to hurt the fire, and another time washing his hands without treading on the water. But, although extreme, he reminds us that, in Karen Armstrong’s words, nature speaks of God.
One of Francis’ most famous sermons was delivered to birds. He begged them to listen to God’s words. Here is an excerpt:
My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wins so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow not reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.
Thomas of Celano writes of this event that the birds stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them touching and blessing them.
Francis once even preached to the flowers, inviting them, as one of his biographers observes, to join him in his celebration of God!
For all of us who find God in the beauty of creation, Francis is an inspiration. Blessings on his day.