Eco-philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

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,   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,

          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.


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.

  (“God’s Grandeur”)


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. 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.

 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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