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Listening to Creation
Listening to Creation

An Ongoing Conversation 

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan.Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God 1.9 

Father Richard locates his deep respect for the natural world in his Franciscan tradition.   

Stories of the life of Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) describe him talking to animals and natural elements. He doesn’t speak to them just as birds or wolves, but as mutual spiritual beings who are worthy of being addressed. He was always telling them who they are, why they should be happy, and why they make him happy. One of his early biographers wrote, “We who were with him saw him always in such joy, inwardly and outwardly, over all creatures, touching and looking at them, so that it seemed his spirit was no longer on earth but in heaven.” [1] That may sound sentimental to our modern ears, but perhaps that’s what a saint looks like—completely attuned to God’s presence everywhere and at all times. [2] 

Francis talked to or about larks, lambs, rabbits, pheasants, falcons, cicadas, waterfowl, bees, the famous wolf of Gubbio, pigs, and hooked fish that he threw back into the water whenever possible. He addresses inanimate creation too, as if it were indeed ensouled, which we know because his Canticle of the Creatures includes fire, wind, water, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and, of course, “our Sister Mother Earth” herself. [3] 

So-called “nature mysticism” was in fact a worthy first path for Francis, and also for Bonaventure, the scholar who brought the vision of Francis and Clare to the level of theology, philosophy, and worldview. Bonaventure saw all things as likenesses of God (vestigia Dei), fingerprints and footprints that reveal the divine DNA underlying all the links in the Great Chain of Being. Both Francis and Bonaventure laid the foundation for what John Duns Scotus would later identify as the univocity (one voice) of all being, and what Dawn Nothwehr, a Franciscan sister, calls “cosmic mutuality.” [4] 

Creation itself—not ritual or spaces constructed by human hands—was Francis’ primary cathedral. His love for creation drove him back into the needs of the city, a pattern very similar to Jesus’ own movement between desert solitude (contemplation) and small-town healing ministry (action). The gospel transforms us by putting us in touch with that which is much more constant and satisfying, literally the “ground of our being,” which has much more “reality” to it, rather than theological concepts or ritualization of reality. Daily cosmic events in the sky and on the earth are the Reality above our heads and beneath our feet every minute of our lives: a continuous sacrament, signs of God’s universal presence in all things. [5] 

[1] The Assisi Compilation 88. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 192. 

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, In the Footsteps of Francis: Awakening to Creation (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2010), webcast. Available as MP3 audio download.

[3] Francis, The Canticle of the Creatures. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saint (New York: New City Press, 1999), 113–114. 

[4] Dawn M. Nothwehr, preface to Ecological Footprints: An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), xx. 

[5] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2014), 46–47. 

Image credit and inspiration: Benjamin Yazza, Untitled (detail), New Mexico, 2023, photo, used with permission. Click here to enlarge image. Awe is as close as the way a butterfly alights on a flower in the yard outside.  

Story from Our Community:  

Many years ago, I needed serious surgery while working as an English teacher in China. I spent weeks recovering and I was alone except for one clergy member who left meals at my door. My mother, 87, called me each day from her retirement community. She always ended her call with one question: “Do you hear the birds?” At first, I softly laughed, and ignored her question. Finally, after one of our calls, I cracked the window open by my bed. And I was shocked to find—I could hear the birds singing brightly outside. I felt soothed and comforted by the sound. It even made me feel less alone. For those weeks of recovery, my mother and I ended our calls by affirming that we both heard the birds outside. Today, when my children are discouraged, I ask, “Do you hear the birds?” For our family, it has become a way of reminding ourselves that Nature’s healing presence is always just outside.  
—Donnalee B. 

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