Philip Rhardie


When [St Francis] considered the primordial source of all things, he was filled with even more abundant piety, calling creatures no matter how small, by the name of brother and sister because he knew they had the same source as himself.1

At first sight, the life of Saint Francis of Assisi presents us with a paradox. On the one hand, Francis is one of the most popular and venerated saints within Christendom. His love and care for creation has become legendary. When Pope John Paul II in 1980 declared Francis Patron Saint of Ecology he was doing nothing less than acknowledging the universal appeal of his powerful creation-friendly example. Yet, on the other hand, the Christian tradition which canonized him, and which now venerates, lauds and champions him, is the same tradition which—not without justification— has itself been charged with a distinct lack of care for creation, even to the point of being directly responsible for current environmental crises. Understanding this paradox may provide the key both to the life of St Francis and its contemporary eco-relevance.

Although soon swallowed up in legend, basic details of Francis' life are still recoverable. He was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Peter Bernardone. As a young man, Francis obtained a reputation as a profligate and a squanderer. In 1204, he was ill for a prolonged period which put an end to his military career. A series of encounters and experiences then drastically changed his life. At the end of 1204 or early 1205, Francis apparently received his first visionary experience. During that same year, he was brought face to face with poverty and suffering through chance encounters with paupers. But it was his meeting with a leper, the most despised and feared of all medieval outcasts, which apparently changed his life.

Much to his father's chagrin, he renounced his early military and commercial ambitions, sold his possessions, and embraced a life of poverty. Charged with having brought humiliation on his father's house, he was brought before the episcopal tribunal in 1206, but Bishop Guido II of Assisi befriended him. At San Damiano in about 1206, Francis experienced his famous vision in which a voice called upon him to rebuild the Church. From 1206 to 1208, he restored the chapels of San Pietro and Santa Maria degli Angeli at the Portiuncular while living as a hermit. Around 1209/10 Francis compiled his Rule and sought papal approval. Eager to secure reform of the Church, Pope Innocent III granted Francis an audience and subsequently authorized Francis and his followers as an itinerant preaching order within the Catholic Church. 'The friars' zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel, their highly acclaimed ministry of preaching, their rejection of material possession in imitation of Jesus Christ and their itinerant lifestyle recommended them to Innocent III.'2 The community grew and expanded over the following ten years and became an instrument of papal reform of the Church culminating in the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

From the start, we can see that Francis' work was a licensed reform experiment within the Catholic Church. Although Francis was impeccably loyal to the Church, and especially to the papacy which endorsed him, his unusual status granted him free rein to preach the Gospel in all its radical simplicity as he saw it. It is said that Francis' life was decisively transformed when he attended Mass at the Portiuncular in February 1208 and heard 'the Gospel passage in which the apostles were commissioned to preach'.3 From the standpoint of ecological theology, there are four aspects of his ministry which deserve particular attention.

The first concerns simplicity. As we have seen, Francis caused scandal by his rejection of his father's wealth and by dressing in a threadbare tunic and sandals. This was not affectation. It was an attempt to imitate Jesus in his identification with the poor and outcast. In doing so, Francis lived the notion deeply rooted in the Gospels that material wealth is a handicap to spiritual progress. Unlike most other Christians of his day— including it must be said bishops and priests—who saw no difficulty in the accumulation of riches, Francis saw simplicity of life as a moral requirement of the Gospel. Accordingly, his Rule forbade his friars from eating luxurious food,4 wearing expensive garments or accumulating money. Simplicity required living as the poorest of the poor and sharing all things in common.

The second concerns kinship. Francis took literally the claim that the Gospel should be preached to 'all creation'. As the above lines from his biographer, St Bonaventure, show, Francis celebrated the kinship of all creatures created by the same God and whose Gospel of love extended to the smallest thing, both animate and inanimate, within creation. Fellow creatures are our 'brothers' and 'sisters'. Although such a notion of kinship or cosmic fellowship is implicit in the Gospels, and arguably required by a doctrine of God the Creator, Francis' high regard for creation was—in terms of conventional theology—highly eccentric. Medieval theology saw sharp distinctions between humans and animals and was deeply dualistic in its thinking, making contrasts (as most of the tradition has done) between things earthly and things spiritual. Francis' sense of friendship and kinship with other creatures, while wholly orthodox, was nevertheless deeply counter-cultural.

The third concerns generosity. Francis did not just perceive an ontological bond between all creatures by virtue of their common Creator, he sought to manifest that unity through acts of moral generosity. 'He overflowed with the spirit of charity', writes early biographer Thomas of Celano, 'pitying not only men who were suffering need, but even the dumb brutes, reptiles, birds, and other creatures without sensation.'5 The key to understanding Francis at this point is to be found in his profound sense that humans were called to imitate Christ, hence they were to reflect a Christlike generosity even and especially to the least of all. Innumerable stories of Francis testify to his filial relations with other creatures. He loved even the worm not solely because it reminded him of the saying that 'I am a worm and no man', but primarily because—as Celano put it—'he glowed with exceeding love.. .wherefore he used to pick them up in the way and put them in a safe place, that they might not be crushed by the feet of the passers-by'.6

In order to appreciate the radicality of this approach, one has only to contrast it with the thought of Francis' near contemporary, St Thomas Aquinas. For St Thomas, there was an absolute distinction between animals and humans, and humans could have 'no fellowship' with animals because they were non-rational. Although both were canonized saints and celebrated figures within the Catholic Church, the difference between them is almost total. While Francis accepted that humans had dominion over animals, he interpreted this power Christologically, that is, in terms of service. As Paul Santmire notes, the saint displayed 'a concrete Christocentric devotion [to others] of radical proportions...He became the Christ-like servant of nature'.7

The fourth concerns celebration. Again in contrast to wholly instrumentalist views of creation as simply here for our use, Francis saw the world of creation as a place of celebration. He took seriously those verses in the Psalms which speak of creatures praising their Creator and saw in all things, even inanimate ones, a response to the love of God. His famous 'Canticle to Brother Sun' is a tremendous theophany of creation in praise of its Creator. Normally viewed as unconscious matter, he sees the sun, moon, wind, water, and fire as part of the divine cosmic consciousness. As one commentator observes, 'for Francis, what we refer to as "dumb nature" is far from dumb; it is eloquent in singing and testifying to the beauty of its creator'.8

The theological significance of Francis' life may be understood as a prefiguring of that state of peaceableness within creation which will finally be accomplished at the end of time. Such eschatological consciousness was prevalent in Francis' time and, as several writers suggest, the saint's anticipation of the immanent consummation of the Kingdom of God led him to live those laws of the coming kingdom—poverty, humility, selfless love, obedience—in this world. As Roger Sorrell explains, 'there is no doubt that Francis shared his hagiographers' conceptions [that].. .creatures' responses to him demonstrated their respect for God's servant and the beginning of the restoration of harmony between God, humanity, and the rest of creation'.9 The accounts of Celano and Bonaventure lend strong support to this view.

For example, Celano believed that when Francis was submitted to Brother Fire and was not injured, 'he had returned [the fire] to primitive innocence [ad innocentiamprimam], for whom, when he wished it, cruel things were made gentle'.10 Bonaventure similarly reports, 'so it was that by God's divine power the brute beasts felt drawn towards him and inanimate creation obeyed his will. It seemed as if he had returned to the state of primeval innocence, he was so good, so holy.'11 If such an eschatological motivation is accepted, Francis' writing and ministry, far from being romantic rhetoric or eccentric practice, is a manifestation in time and space of God's eternal purpose.

Perhaps inevitably, Francis' example has been eclipsed by the centuries of Christian thought and practice which followed. The sharply contrasting approach of St Thomas—in many ways the founding father of modern Roman Catholicism—has been vastly more influential and has ushered in centuries of neglect of, and even callousness towards, the non-human world. Francis is remembered and honoured, and even lip service is paid to his example, and yet he has had little effect on the development of scholastic theology. It must be said that still many Christians, even and especially Franciscans, play down the eco- and animal-friendly dimensions to his ministry.

But there are some signs that increasing dissatisfaction with the instrumentalist and utilitarian attitudes to creation embodied in historical theology are encouraging churchpeople and theologians to re-examine the tradition and rediscover genuine but neglected creation-friendly elements within it—and not least of all, Francis himself. 'St Francis is before us as an example of unalterable meekness and sincere love with regard to irrational beings who make up part of creation', maintained Pope John Paul II in his sermon at Assisi on 12 March 1982. 'We too are called to a similar attitude', he continued. 'Created in the image of God, we must make him present among creatures "as intelligent and noble masters and guardian of nature and not as heedless exploiters and destroyers".'12


1 St Bonaventure, in The Life of St Francis, ed. Ewert Cousins, New York: Paulist Press, pp. 254-5, 1978.

2 Michael Robson, St Francis of Assisi: The Legend and the Life, p. 90.

4 Francis' vegetarianism is disputed but it is clear that his community followed an ascetical, frugal diet which very rarely made use of flesh foods.

5 Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima 59, in H.Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature, p. 108.

6 Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima 59, in Roger Sorrell, St Francis of Assisi and Nature, p. 46.

8 David Kinsley, 'Christianity as Ecologically Responsible', in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, ed. Roger Gottlieb, London: Routledge, p. 123, 1996.

10 Thomas of Celano, Vita Secunda 166, in Sorrell, ibid., p. 52.

11 St Bonaventure, Legenda Minor 3:6, in Sorrell, ibid.

12 Pope John Paul II, Message on 'Reconciliation', L'Osservatore Romano, 29 March 1982, pp. 8-9. The final two lines are a quote from the previous encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, 15.

St Francis' major writings

The Writings of St Francis, in The Omnibus of Sources, ed. Marion Habig, O.F.M., Chicago, IL: The Franciscan Herald Press, 1973.

The Life of St Francis, ed. Ewert Cousins, The Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

The following are early biographies, all of which appear in Omnibus:

St Bonaventure, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (I Fioretti di San Francesco),

-Major Life of Francis (Legenda Maior).

-Minor Life of Francis (Legenda Minor).

Thomas of Celano, Treatise on the Miracles of Blessed Francis (Tractatus de Miraculis Beati Francisci).

-First Life of Francis (Vita Prima).

-Second Life of Francis (Vita Secunda).

Further reading

Armstrong, Edward, St Francis: Nature Mystic, The Derivation and Signifiance of the Nature Stories in the Franciscan Legend, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.

Cunningham, Lawrence, Saint Francis of Assist, New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

-Brother Francis: An Anthology of Writings by and about Saint Francis of

Assist, New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Linzey, Andrew and Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, After Noah: Animals and the Liberation of Theology, London: Mowbray, 1997.

Robson, Michael, St Francis of Assist: The Legend and the Life, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1997.

Santmire, H.Paul, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sorrell, Roger, St Francis of Assist and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes toward the Environment, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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