Francis and the Animals
A Sacramental Universe
Wednesday, October 6, 2021
Richard shares how Francis responded to the rising tide of “consumer” culture, which Francis’ father was fully engaged in as a wealthy merchant.
Francis refused to be a “user” of reality—buying and selling it to personal advantage (the I-it relationship). In fact, that is what he vigorously reacted against, and why he granted personal subjectivity to sun, moon, wind, animals, and even death, by addressing them as brother, sister, friend, and mother. Maybe his seeing, which was both personal and contemplative, is what forced him out and beyond the production-consumption economy where most people find themselves trapped today. Francis grants all of reality, even elements and animals, an intimate I-Thou relationship. This could be a definition of what it means to be a contemplative, which is to look at reality with much wider eyes than mere usability, functionality, or self-interest—with inherent enjoyment for a thing in itself as itself. Remember, as soon as any giving wants or needs a reward in return, we have backed away from love, which is why even our common notion of “heaven” can keep us from the pure love of God or neighbor! A pure act of love is its own reward and needs nothing in return.
Scholars say that the Franciscan movement following St. Francis himself was not really known for any deep connection with the sacramentality of nature, except for some of the stories and sayings surrounding Anthony of Padua (1195–1231) and Giles of Assisi (1190–1262). The first, short-lived generation of Franciscans dwelt in caves (carceri) and hermitages apart from the city, in nature, but we soon became gentrified and proper. I can remember my novice master telling us we should not waste or consume or kill unnecessarily; but such teachings were about private virtue and not presented as a social value or a necessity for the good of others and the planet. This was still 1961. I never heard any direct teaching on sustainability or the sacramentality of nature itself in any of my thirteen years in formation. We were trying to be Franciscans in the most developed, capitalized, and industrialized country in the world. “Sacraments” happened in church buildings, but not in the garden or the woods. Once we lost regular contact with primal creation, I believe the Franciscan enterprise largely started to reflect whatever ethnic culture it inhabited, and that was no longer nature or the universe.
With the exception of Indigenous peoples, the sacramental meaning of the world was largely lost until its more recent rediscovery by seers and seekers like Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Sallie McFague, Ilia Delio, Bill Plotkin, Mary Oliver, and Brian Swimme, to name a few luminaries. We Catholics ended up limiting “sacramentals” to things like religious medals, blessed candles, and holy water, instead of honoring the inherent holiness of the earth’s ores, beeswax, and H2O that actually formed them.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 242–243, 48–50.
Story from Our Community:
We all share God’s bounty in this wonderful creation we call Earth. Although I have always treated animals as gifts from God, it wasn’t until Father Richard’s course on the Franciscan Way that my eyes were open to seeing the trees and flowers as our brothers and sisters, as well as the pebble I still kick down the street and the slug in my bird fountain. I am truly blessed to be one of God’s children. —Russell C.
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