Eco-philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
The 193 nation Copenhagen summit in 2009, considered the most important meeting in the history of the world to combat global warming, nearly came to a total collapse on 19 December 2009, as their talks merely took note of an accord, which was a non-binding deal for combating global warming. The plan does not specify greenhouse gas cuts required to achieve 2 Celsius goal, to ward off more floods, droughts, mudslides, sandstorms and rising seas. UN sealed the climate deal by agreeing to limit global warming to two degrees till 2050 without having set any target for carbon cuts. The global effort to save Planet earth ended in a whimper with a face saver proposal by US led group of five countries including China, India, Brazil and South Africa.
Ecologists are alarmed by the “awareness that we have reached the age of environmental limits, a time when consequences of human actions are damaging the planet’s basic life support systems…Either we change our ways or we face global catastrophe, destroying much of beauty and exterminating countless fellow species in our headlong race to apocalypse” ( Glotfelty, 1996, p. xx). We are continually challenged by various green movements with their plea to save planet earth.
Considering “The World as Sanctuary,” Eco-philosophy sees humanity as one with nature, carrying the universe onward from inanimate matter of life, to consciousness, and ultimately to the Divine. This new worldview emphasizes the unique precious and sacred nature of our planet. The five key tenets of eco-philosophy are: 1) The world is a Sanctuary. 2) Reverence for life in our guiding value. 3) Frugality is a precondition for inner happiness. 4) Spirituality and rationality do not exclude each other, but complement each other. 5) In order to heal the planet, we must heal ourselves (Skolimowski, home.cogeco.ca). It is Arne Naess who defined eco-philosophy as “a philosophy of ecological harmony or equilibrium. A philosophy as a kind of sofia (or) wisdom, is openly normative, it contains both norms, rules, postulates, value priority announcements and hypotheses concerning the state of affairs in our universe” (qtd. Drengson & Y. Inoue, 1995, p. 8.).
Hence, in the realm of ideology we can speak of the need for Ecological Humanism which points towards social relationships based on the idea of sharing, and stewardship. It sees world as a Sanctuary in which we temporarily dwell, and of which we must take the utmost care. It speaks of human life having a transcendent dimension, with its eschatology, concerned with the ultimate end and meaning of life. Ecological humanism calls for ecological spirituality that takes the Cosmos to its creator (Skolimowski, home.cogeco.ca).
Recently I happened to read “Circle of Life,” an eco-poem, which draws our attention to the fact that we are part the cycle of life being one with the cosmos and all the elements of nature.
For all that can be, really is round.
Sun, Earth, & Moon rotate around
with Water & Air cylinders spouting down
true too of the rhythmic beat of sound
and the distant lights of a city or town
where animals graze from the ground
above where you too shall be found
fuel for the soil upon now drowned
as the Circle of Life keeps going round (DarnRick.http://www.healthandfitness.com).
We form part of today’s ecological crisis and are conscious of our environmental responsibility to protect the earth and its resources. Various ecological positions keep surfacing giving vent to man’s response to the environment. Various eco-philososphies confront us with their diversified and some times radical approaches. Those who subscribe to the different approaches seek to solve the environmental crisis in their own ways, some being very subversive and revolutionary. These include Deep Ecology, Social Ecology, Earth First!, Greenpeace, Ecocriticism, Anthropocentrism, Ecofeminism, Ecosophy, Friends of the Earth, etc. As William Rueckert opines:
The problem…is to find ways of keeping the human community from destroying the natural community, and with it the human community. This is what ecologists like to call the self-destructive or suicidal motive that is inherent in our prevailing and paradoxical attitude toward nature. The conceptual and practical problem is to find the grounds upon which the two communities – the human, the natural – can coexist, cooperate, and flourish in the biosphere (Rueckert, 1996, P. 107).
In the context of global warming and the subsequent environmental crisis facing mankind, a reading of the eco-philosophical vision of St. Francis of Assisi based on his love of all creatures being part of God’s sacred creation, make us visualize the universe in a different light.
Ecocritic like Lynn White points out that St. Francis believed in the “virtue of humility – not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures… His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator…” (White, Lynn, 1996, p.13).
Everything around us forms our environment and our lives depend on keeping its vital systems intact. We depend on nature and it is imperative for us to protect the earth’s environmental resources for our survival. We need to understand that the environmental problems are human or social problems such as pollution, conservation and sustainable use resources, preservation of endangered species etc. All these call for the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems on which all life on earth depends.
Francis’ love for his brothers and sisters as other Christs is a known fact. It is recounted that once a poor man annoyingly kept begging from him. When a friar treated the beggar roughly, Francis ordered him to lay aside his habit and fall at the feet of the beggar, to seek his forgiveness: “My brother, when thou seest a poor man, behold in him a mirror of the Lord and His poor Mother. In the sick, in like manner, consider that He bore our sicknesses” (Bonaventure, 1988, p. 66).
Francis manifested great tenderness for all things, believing in the common origin of all creatures. It is said that he often saved lambs that were being led to the slaughter house, being reminded of Jesus the Lamb of God. while in Rome, he used to keep a lamb with him in reverence for Christ the Lamb of God. Later he kept the lamb in the care of a noble lady whom the lamb accompanied to the church as though it had been trained in spirituality by the saint ( Ibidem, p. 68). At Grecio, once, a hare was brought to the man of God. He placed it on the ground for it to fly to safety, however, the bird leaped into his bosom. He held it with tender affection and let it fly off into the sky ( Ibidem, p. 69). While passing beside the Lake of Rieti close to the hermitage of Grecio, a fisherman brought him a water-fowl, which he accepted and allowed it to fly away. Finding the bird refusing to fly, the saint raised his eyes to heaven in prayer and commanded the fowl to fly away. It did obey instantly and flew to freedom. (Ibidem, p.69). From the same lake someone brought as fish for Francis who addressing it as his brother, set it free into the lake waters. But the fish kept leaping around his boat in great affection until he blessed it to depart (Ibidem, p.69-70).
While walking near the Lagunes of Venice, he noticed a multitude of chirping birds on a tree. Taking the cue from the birds, he told his companion, “Our sisters, the birds, praise their Creator; let us therefore go into the midst of them, and sing the Canonical Hours to the Lord” (Ibidem, p.70). At St. Mary of the Angels, Francis was constantly reminded of prayer by a chirping grasshopper. Being inspired by such an insignificant creature about God, he asked the grasshopper, “Sing , my sister grasshopper; rejoice and praise the Lord thy Creator” (Ibidem 70). When Francis was sick at Siena, a nobleman sent him a pheasant. The bird always remained with him and refused to be separated from his presence. Whenever the friars took it out to the vineyard, it flew back to the saint (Ibidem, p.71). All kinds of birds came chirping melodiously around his cell, when he was at the hermitage of Alvernia. He declared, “I perceive, brother, that it is the Will of God that we should abide here awhile, seeing that our sisters, the birds, thus rejoice at our presence” (Ibidem, p.71). A falcon is said to have built its nest where Francis lived. It became so friendly, it began to cry every night to wake him up for the Divine Office (Ibidem, 71).
When the holy man lived at the hermitage of Grecio, the inhabitants were threatened by a pack of ravenous wolves that devoured people and animals, besides destroying their corn and vines. He asked the people to make amends for their evil lives and repent. When they did penance seeking the mercy of God, Francis asked the wolves to be off from the village (Ibidem, p.72-3).
Once when he was on his way to Bevagna, he found a multitude of birds of all kinds assembled together. As they flocked to welcome the saint, he admonished them: “Oh, my brother birds, you are bound greatly to praise your creator, Who has clothed you with feathers, and given you wings wherewith to fly; Who has given you the pure air for your dwelling-place, and governs and cares for you without any care of your own” (Ibidem, p. 102). Hearing his exhortation, the birds spread their wings and expressed their great joy, swelling their throats and opening their beaks. The saint covered them with his tunic and blessed them. On another occasion when he came to preach to people at Alviano, he found some swallows building their nests, making a great deal of noice. When he couldn’t be audible, Francis bid them, “My sisters, the swallows, it is now time that I should also speak, for you have spoken more than enough. Listen to the word of God, and keep silence until the preaching is ended” (Ibidem, p. 103). The message was taken with great reverence by the birds who remained still in obedience.
Francis believed in the universal brotherhood of all creation. He found a unique relationship between men, animals, birds, plants and the universe. He took great joy in beholding the sun, the moon and the stars. He was delighted to contemplate the beauty of flowers and was mesmerized by their fragrance (Englebert, 1979, p. 135). When he walked over stones, he did it with reverence, remembering Jesus the rock. He even avoided trampling over water out of sheer respect. He never let smoking firebrands be tossed aside as he respected it as ‘brother fire.’ He forbade his friars from chopping down trees exhorting that every thing should be allowed to grow (Ibidem, 135). He never trampled upon worms, instead would pick them up to prevent them from being crushed underfoot. During winter he used to give warm wine and honey to the bees. He built nests for doves to lay eggs and multiply (Ibidem, p. 135-6). The legend of the wolf of Gubbio vouches for his love mfor a ferocious creature. That particular ferocious wolf attacked and devoured men and animals. Francis went out to meet the demonic creature. With the sign of the cross he ordered the beast, “Come here, brother wolf!… In Christ’s name, I forbid you to be wicked” (Ibidem, p. 137). The wolf obeyed and surrendered at his feet. He exhorted the beast, “Brother wolf…I am very sorry to hear of the dreadful crimes you have committed in these parts, going even so far as to kill creatures created in God’s image… But I want you to reconcile you with them…If you agree to make peace, brother wolf, I will tell the people to feed you as long as you live” (Ibidem, p. 137). The wolf bowed in agreement and sealed the pact by placing its paw in the saint’s hand and wagging its tail.
It was in the midst of ill health, blindness and the stigmata he suffered, that the saint sang his Canticle of Brother Sun.
Most High Almighty Good Lord,
Yours are praise, glory, honour and all blessing.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong,
And no man is worthy to mention You.
Be praised, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is daylight, and by him You shed light on us.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor.
Of You, Most High, he is a symbol.
Be praised, my Lord for Sister Moon and the Stars.
In heaven You have formed them clear and bright and fair.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind
And for air and cloud and clear and all weather,
By which You give Your creatures nourishment.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,
For she is very useful, humble, precious and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
By whom You light up the night,
For he is fair and merry and mighty and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Mother Earth,
Who sustains and rules us
And produces varied fruits with many-colored flowers and plants.
Praise and bless my Lord
And give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility (Ibidem, p.251-2).
Francis speaks of a vibrant relationship of interdependence in the universe by which the various elements contribute to sustain the cycle of life. He addressed brother Sun as the symbol of a life-giver. As Ian Bradley has very aptly said:
The sacramental approach to nature of Teilhard de Chardin… new insights gained from quantum physics and process of philosophy; the increasing sense of awe and wonder with which scientists gaze on the universe; recovering traditional Christian themes like the great chain of being, the dance of creation and the music of the spheres: all of these may help us to see… that God is engaged in a continuous and reciprocal relationship with all his creation ( Bradley, Ian, 1990, p.50).
Man cannot stay apart from creation as an onlooker, exploiting its resources since he came from its dust and shall return to that very dust of the earth (Genesis 3:19).
I find an excellent parallel to the Canticle of Brother Sun in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” where the poet projects his sacramental vision of nature. It gives further insights into the chain of being and the music of creation which St. Francis portrayed. The natural world glorifies God constantly. But it is only man, the apex of God’s creation, that can render Him glory consciously. He can render God glory seeing nature in a sacramental way. He can attain union with God through creation, which is the sacrament of God’s presence. Hopkins is concerned about the two modes of the divine impact on mankind, beginning with the grandeur of storm and ending with the reassuring beauties of sunrise.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not wreck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared, with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
The grandeur of God is manifested in the universe, and the energy and beauty in it reveals the face of God. We come across the poet’s reference to all things charged with God’s grandeur: ” All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.” (Devlin, Christopher, 1959, p.195). The presence of God in the world is like the electric power. Sometimes it flashes out brilliantly’ like shining from shook foil’. The image of the foil brings out the message powerfully.
Again, the grandeur of God, though great and impressive, begins to show itself in little ways and ‘it gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / crushed’. The world is full of Divine power, love and beauty, but the industrial man has utterly lost touch with nature. The poet is puzzled when man does not become subservient to God’s supreme authority. He is convinced of man’s ultimate destiny in God. His life is to give glory to God. But sinful man does not acknowledge the Maker of the universe. Hence, the poet laments about the evils of Industrialism as ‘all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’. Nature has been disfigured and ‘the soil / Is bare now’. But man cannot destroy the essence of God, which is expressed by the inscape of each thing in nature.
Man withers and burns everything in his greed; unlike nature, which ‘flames out’ God’s glory. For the ‘dearest’ gift by which nature itself, as well as man, is kept from becoming bankrupt is to be found in Christ’s Redemption, literally, his buying-back-again of man and nature with his life (Mariani, Paul, 1970, pp. 96-7).
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings. (“God’s Grandeur”)
Despite the insensitive destruction of the beauty of nature, ‘nature is never spent’, as there is constant renewal and growth in it. The poet believes in the renewal of life, just like the way sunset and darkness of the night brings in the day‑break every morning. The final couplet strengthens the poet’s hope for the world. In the Holy Spirit, there is re‑generation and life for the warped world in sin. The Spirit of God hovers over the world ‑ hence ‘ broods with warm breast and with ah ! bright wings’. The lines evoke reference to Genesis 1:2: ‘…and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters’ and Luke 13:34: ‘How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood.’ Increasingly Hopkins was drawn to acknowledge shapes of natural force as vessels of God’s finger – the Holy Ghost sustaining the universe…(Heuser, Allen, 1958, p.36). Hopkins celebrates the world of nature with its varieties manifested in manifold ways, like St. Francis.
Francis’ eco-philosophy is based on Biblical principles. Bible being basically an ecological book, several parallels between ecology and Bible can be drawn: a) Both view the world in a long-range time frame. b) Both see the natural world as one interconnected whole. c) Both focus on the significance of land. d) Both present us with an awareness of limits. e) Both see the natural order as subject to decay. Both show that all behaviour has consequences (Snyder 1983: 45-51). Bible refers to all of creation – the heaven and earth, the constellations, and nature beaming with life in all its splendor.
In the book of genesis we read: “‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). “And God said ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation…And it was so” (Gen 1:11). “The earth brought forth vegetation…And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12). “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens’ ”(Gen 1:20). “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind: cattle and creeping things…” (Gen 1:24). “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ “ (Gen 126-28). Man is thus made the apex of God’s creation and given authority and dominion over the earth and God found everything he had made “very good” ((Gen 1:31). “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 1:15). He was thus given power to sustain the earth. But man broke the harmony of nature by his disobedience to God.
The kingdom of God is the central theme running through the New Testament which has significant ecological implications. The kingdom entails the renewal of all creation, human and natural. This expectation is holistic as it affirms the spiritual-physical unity of the person; it relates personal and social renewal; it links human and cosmic aspects of redemption; it affirms the interconnectedness of the spiritual and material dimensions of life; and it means the ultimate unity of all things, including heaven and earth, so that God is all in all. The kingdom unites creation and redemption—redemption as recreation focuses back on the original creation. Both are expressions of God’s lordship leading to a redeemed earth. The kingdom is a new order of salvation and relationships. Hence Christians are led to care for creation and stop all its degradation as faithful stewards (Zerbe, Gordon. http://www.directionjournal.org). As Wendell Berry writes, “The first principle of the Kingdom of God is that it includes everything… everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and everything else that is in it” (Berry 1987:44).) St. Paul speaks of the importance of the ‘the new creation’ in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), redeeming both the human and the non-human. ‘Nature is God’s tool of reward and punishment, and its beneficence depends on human morality’ (Kay 1998:214). In an article “ A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship” the editors focus attention to 1) Theological and ethical foundations of stewardship, 2) The marvels of human achievement, 3) How economic and environmental trends relate, 4) Some human and environmental concerns for present and future, and 5) Environmental market virtues. Summing up they state, ‘On the basis of a biblical worldview and ethics, as well as of sound science, economics, and public policy principles, we believe sound environmental stewardship celebrates and promotes human life, freedom, and economic development as compatible, even essential for, the good of the whole environment.
As per Biblical teaching it is man’s responsibility to protect the earth and sustain it as master of the earth. Several green groups have been trying to make us protect the environment and to ‘think globally and act locally.’(Bate:2000: 260). In 1979, proclaiming Francis of Assisi as patron saint of ecology, John Paul II declared:
Today world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of DUE RESPECT FOR NATURE due to widespread destruction of the environment as he offers a genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. He invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon, to give honor and praise to the Lord… The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples… Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of “fraternity” with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created. And my he remind us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over them with care, in light of that greater and higher fraternity that exists within the human family.(John Paul II. http://www.ncrlc.com).
In the backdrop of the growing global ecological concerns, an examination of St. Francis of Assisi makes great sense, having been declared patron of ecology. A re-reading of his life and works will inspire us to respect and love nature in all its bounty. As it has been observed by Jonathan Bate that Nature is a term that needs to be contested, not rejected. It is profoundly unhelpful to say ‘there is no nature’ at a time when our most urgent need is to address and redress the consequences of human civilization’s insatiable desire to consume the products of the earth. We are confronted for the first time in history with the possibility of there being no part of the earth left untouched by man.
Human civilization’ has always been in the business of altering the land, whether through deforestation or urbanization or mining or enclosure or even the artificial reimposition of ‘nature’ through landscaping… When there have been a few more accidents at nuclear power stations, when there are no more rainforests, and when every wilderness has been ravaged for its mineral resources, then let us say ‘There is no nature’ (Bate, 2000, P. 171).
How are we to save our fragile world from ecological disaster through global warming, pollution and deforestation? World over environmental awareness is created to make people live more eco-friendly and to bring about environmental conservation through protection of flora and fauna and by providing clean energy and sustainable development. Today world peace is threatened not only by warfare and conflicts, but also through lack of due respect for nature by its irresponsible and reckless exploitation and destruction.
Joseph W. Meeker in his book The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology writes:
Human beings are the earth’s only literary creatures…. If the creation of literature is an important characteristic of the human species, it should be examined carefully and honestly to discover its influence upon human behaviour and the natural environment – to determine what role, if any it plays in the welfare and survival of mankind and what insight it offers into human relationships with other species and with the world around us. It is an activity which adapts us better to the world or one which estranges us from it? (Meeker, 1997, P. 3-4).
St. Francis draws attention to Ecological Ethics with its various approaches to ecological ethics examined from anthropocentric, ecocentric and theocentric approaches. The anthropocentric approach places humans at the centre of concern. Conservation of nature is primarily for human benefit and that all species and natural resources should be utilized for human progress. The ecocentric approach claims that humans are of equal value to all other life forms. Rejecting the Christian worldview, the ecocentrics are usually pantheistic, ignoring man’s unique dignity within creation. The Theocentric approach claims God at the centre of value, continuously and dynamically involved in creation (Stassen & Gushee, 2003, p. 435).
It is imperative to make an assessment of the major ecological crises that we face today such as 1). Massive reduction in biodiversity caused by deforestation, poisons and poor farming methods; 2). Climatic changes caused by pollutants, including carbon monoxide and methane; 3) Pollution by industrial, chemical and post-consumer wastes; 4)and Soil erosion and desertification, caused by deforestation and poor farming methods (Northcott, 2001: 209). The crux of the problem lies in the deterioration of human values and the loss of the sense of the sacred in man’s reckless pursuit of wealth in a consumer society, spiraling unethical exploitation of nature. In the midst of present environmental crisis, the eco-philosophy propounded by St. Francis is a clarion call to respect all things animate and inanimate. His teachings will certainly help us to introspect on our bounden duty to safeguard creation as responsible stewards.
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