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Franciscan Ecological Wisdom
Franciscan Ecological Wisdom

Cultivation Not Domination

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Franciscan Ecological Wisdom

Cultivation Not Domination
Tuesday, May 19, 2020

St. Bonaventure (1221–1274) taught that “Christ, as a human being, shares with all creatures; indeed he possesses being with rocks, lives among the plants, senses with animals, and understands with angels.” [1] In saying this, Bonaventure wanted to give theological weight to the deep experience of St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), who as far as we know, was the first recorded Christian to call animals and elements and even the forces of nature by familial names: “Sister Mother Earth,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” and “Brother Fire.”

We cannot jump over this world, or its woundedness, and still try to love God. We must love God through, in, with, and even because of this world. This is the message Christianity was supposed to initiate, proclaim, and encourage, and what Jesus modeled. We were made to love and trust this world, “to cultivate it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15), but for some sad reason we preferred to emphasize the statement earlier in Genesis, which seems to say that we should “dominate” the earth (1:28).

Although God “empties himself” into creation (Philippians 2:7), we humans have spent most of history creating systems to control and subdue that creation for our own purposes and profit, reversing the divine pattern.  As Paul Swanson, co-host of my podcast Another Name for Every Thing, puts it, “The [Franciscan mystics] are known for their celebrated connection to being a part of nature and this world as a mirror to which we pass over to God. There’s such a naturalness to this perspective, yet the bulk of Christianity has seemed to pay no mind to this at all with the theology of domination over the planet.” [2]

Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio writes that Francis modeled a way of relating to creation with inherent dignity and equality rather than domination:

[Francis] 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 all of creation. [3] . . . He found God in all creatures and identified with them as brother and sister . . . “because he knew they shared with him the same beginning.” [4] By surrendering himself and daring everything for love’s sake, the earth became his home and all creatures his brothers and sisters. That led him to love and respect the world around him and made him truly a man of peace.

Only prayer, the Spirit of God breathing in us, dwelling in our hearts and joining us to Christ, can lead us, like Francis, to the contemplative vision of God’s goodness in every creature and in every living thing. . . . The God within us is the God who permeates every aspect of our world—the One who is the source and goal of creation. [5]

[1] Bonaventure, Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, part 12. See Works of St. Bonaventure: The Sunday Sermons of St Bonaventure, ed. Timothy J. Johnson (Franciscan Institute Publications: 2008), 217.

[2] From Richard Rohr, with Brie Stoner and Paul Swanson, “Environmental Awareness Rooted in Franciscan Spirituality,” Another Name for Every Thing, season 3, episode 7 (April 4, 2020), audio podcast.

[3] See Timothy Vining, “A Theology of Creation Based on the Life of Francis of Assisi,” The Cord, vol. 40, no. 4 (April 1990), 105.

[4] Bonaventure, The Major Legend of Saint Francis, 8.6. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2 (New City Press: 2000), 590.

[5] Ilia Delio, Franciscan Prayer (Franciscan Media: 2004), 170–171, 182.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 112–113.

Image credit: Legend of St. Francis: 15. Sermon to the Birds (fresco detail), artist unknown, formerly attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1297–1299, Upper Basilica of San Francesco d′Assisi, Assisi, Italy.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Saint Francis was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. —Pope Francis
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