Francis of Assisi: From Radical Monk to Garden Ornament
The real-estate supplement of the Taos News this week carried an article titled “Five Must-Haves for a Beautiful Backyard.” Oddly enough, four of the five items* were available at the store owned by a person interviewed for the story.
“Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is one of our most popular statues,” said Char Austin, who works at Camino Real Imports. “People like the air of serenity that he brings in, more so when the statue is surrounded by trees, and birds can nest around. El San Francisco definitely contributes to create a peaceful environment.”
The real St. Francis of Assisi was anything but serene. He was more like “Occupy Rome” AD 1204 — an upper middle class young man angry at the establishment, demanding radical change in the Roman Catholic Church. But history has turned him into a bird bath — and perhaps that metamorphosis was inevitable.
Growing up as a Forest Service brat, with an agnostic father and a devoutly Christian mother, I noticed that Christianity seemed to end at the edge of town. Relations with the other-than-human world were not discussed in church. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contained a prayer for rain, as I recall, and that was about all.
For the rest, I was offered the secular gospel of conservation: scientific forestry, soil and water conservation, state-regulated hunting. At least that was better than what had gone before: cut-and-run timber cutting, market-hunting that wiped out species, the Dust Bowl . . .
His Franciscan order grew to where it too was a bureaucratic organization, and some of the monks who clung too hard to Francis’ peace-and-poverty ideals (the “Spirituals”) ended up condemned as heretics. (The conflict between hard-core Franciscans and the Vatican appears briefly at the beginning of The Name of the Rose. Most viewers probably don’t get it.)
Yes, he wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” in which all creation, including animals, the Sun and Moon, etc., is invited to praise God and is depicted as manifesting the divine. And he supposedly preached to birds — but he preferred to preach to people, even to the Muslim sultan of Egypt, who was enough of a sporting gent to let him live. In the story of the “wolf of Gubbio,” he saves the wolf from persecution by the local pastoralists, but at the price of giving up its wolf-ness. There is nothing in the canticle about the ecological role of predators.
Fast forward to 1967, when the journal Science published an essay by the historian Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (PDF), still widely read and anthologized today. In it, White blamed the crisis on the dualistic creator/created thinking fostered by the monotheistic religions, among which he included Communism, given the environmental crises created by Communist Party policies in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe:
Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.
Casting about for an alternative to the “domination” model within the Christian tradition, White settled (rather half-heartedly, I always thought) on Francis, even though Francis’ view of non-human nature was thoroughly Catholic. To quote the Wikipedia entry, Francis taught “that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man.” Contrary to the slide show linked above, this is not particularly “closer to Eastern philosophy.”
With the environmental movement growing, religious officialdom had to respond. Some Protestant Christians started talking “eco-justice,” while in 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis “patron of ecology,” urging Catholics to be like Francis and take care of nature. Francis, said the pope, “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation” — as long as we understand that it is human-centric and required to praise God the creator, who is outside of creation, for letting it exist.
Of the hundreds of officially canonized saints, Francis was the only candidate for patron of ecology, even though the Vatican had squeezed all the radical ideas out of the Franciscan order within a century of his death.
Maybe as a medievalist Lynn White, Jr., was unaware of how nature, parallel to scripture, has served as source of spiritual value in America.
We could see Bird Bath Francis as an attempt to bridge these traditions, to consecrate a safe, protected, and cultivated nature — if not the self-organizing wolf-ridden wilderness. Followers of what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion,” which may not be at all theistic, might not be so easily persuaded by the monk of Assisi, were they to meet him on the path.