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.

St. Francis as a bird bath with the wolf of Gubbio.

St. Francis as a bird bath, with the wolf of Gubbio.

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 . . .

Pope Innocent III has a dream of St. Francis of Assisi supporting the tilting church (attributed to Giotto).  Francis was more concerned with church reform than with nature itself. (Wikipedia.)

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.

Christianity (and its parallel faiths) did not just end at the edge of town, it ended at a strip mine. Here is an interesting slide-show summary of the essay.

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.

*Wood carvings of saints, giant metal flowers, concrete animals, small water fountain, and ceramic Sun and Moon faces

The Historical Jesus and the Grizzly Bears

When it comes to who Jesus of Nazareth was, I tend to think that there is somebody behind the stories, a real person, not, for example, a mushroom. (Although that would make for great video.)

As Craig Keener argues in this column, it remains the simplest explanation at its counter-intuitive core:

Scholars’ confidence [in the historical Jesus] has nothing to do with theology but much to do with historiographic common sense. What movement would make up a recent leader, executed by a Roman governor for treason, and then declare, “We’re his followers”? If they wanted to commit suicide, there were simpler ways to do it.

On the other hand, there are people in some esoteric circles who think that the Jesus of the New Testament was a composite character, made of perhaps three individuals’ stories.

It works with grizzly bears.

Last month, on my birthday, M. and I made a sort of pilgrimage to the haunts of Old Mose, the last grizzly bear killed in central Colorado, on 30 April 1904. (The last known grizzly killed in Colorado died in 1979.)

When I lived in that county, I heard and read all the stories about how Old Mose was this terrible bear, killer of several humans and countless livestock, et cetera et cetera, who lived to be at least forty years old.

But a Colorado historian who dug into the story and conducted some elementary scientific research made a good case that Old Mose’s legend conflated the lives of at least three bears between the early 1880s and 1904. The big male grizzly killed in 1904 was simply too young to have done all that.

And this in an era of (by 1904) telephones, telegraphs, electric lights, railroads, and newspapers, not an antiquity of oral wonder stories and hand-copied manuscripts.

If it happens with bears, I wondered at the time, could it happen with prophets?

Still, I lean towards the single-Jesus theory. And if I could choose between bringing a messianic Jewish wonder-worker or a big grizzly bear back to walk this earth, I know which one I would pick.

Were the Gods Angry with Japan?

Adrian Ivakhiv blogs on religious responses to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

All of this resonates with an immanence-based process-relational perspective: nature does what it does, it includes the “good” and the “bad” (which are relative to their perceivers), we are part of it and sometimes we get struck down in it. (Careful readers will know that when I say that good and bad are “relative to their perceivers,” this doesn’t mean that “everything is relative, anything goes, and whatever you think or do is as good as anything else.” The world is layered and folded: perceivers share their perceptual situations with other perceivers, so my “good” is closer to your “good” than it is to the good of an amoeba, a viral bacteria or cancer cell, or an asteroid whipping through the solar system. Hitler’s actions may have seemed “right” to him, but in a human context they come off as psychotic and grotesque. And as for “nature,” if it includes everything, becoming a fairly meaningless term, so be it. It corresponds to what, in an East Asian context, is thought of as “the way,” ziran, an active and unfolding “suchness,” or what Gregory Bateson called “the pattern that connects.”)

There is lots more with interesting links. Apparently even the mayor of Toyko took a “the gods are angry with us” line, although he later backed away from it.

Sometimes, the nonhuman world is not All About Us Humans.

You May Think that You Have a ‘Self’

But maybe you are just the talking part of a large collection of bacteria.

We continue to be colonized every day of our lives. “Surrounding us and infusing us is this cloud of microbes,” said Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University. We end up with different species, but those species generally carry out the same essential chemistry that we need to survive. One of those tasks is breaking down complex plant molecules. “We have a pathetic number of enzymes encoded in the human genome, whereas microbes have a large arsenal,” said Dr. Gordon.

Don’t miss the part about the fecal transplants. All these health nuts giving themselves high colonics may be going at it backwards, so to speak.

Gallimaufry with Grosbeaks

Black-headed grosbeak, evening grosbeak, downy woodpecker. Photo by Chas S.  Clifton

First black-headed grosbeak of the season (left).

If it’s Beltane, why I am still splitting firewood? Usually I observe the rhythms of the “Celtic” year by turning off the furnace at Beltane and relighting it at Samhain, using just supplemental wood heat otherwise. Not this year.

But during a brief sunny interval yesterday morning, the first black-headed grosbeak of the season landed on a feeder, and I snapped a quick picture through the window. That’s a downy woodpecker on the shadowed side, and up above, facing the camera, a male evening grosbeak—they have been hanging around for a couple of months, an unusual “irruption,” as birders say.

Other stuff:

•  The Beltania music festival happens next weekend, just down the road. The weather still looks iffy. A friend on a Colorado Pagan email list said that spring weather is “manic depressive.”  My own mental image for Beltane is snow on lilac blossoms.

• I liked this quote from an interview with Lon Milo DuQuette at Patheos:

I have a new book coming out in November (from Llewellyn) titled Low Magick — It’s All in Your Head, You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is. It’s autobiographic and contains stories of magickal operations I’ve done over the years. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, facetiously using the term “Low Magick” to refer to any magickal operation one actual performs rather than those one just talks or argues about.

• Jonathan Ott, who gave us the world “entheogen,” had his home destroyed by fire, needs help.

• An article on depression and dreams offers this:

In the 1970s, psychologists noted that people suffering from depression also report more dreams than average. In fact, people who are clinically depressed may dream three or four times as much. The quality of REM dreams (also called “paradoxical sleep”) is different too: more intense emotions, more negative themes, more nightmares, and more unpleasant dreams, in general.

And consequently depressed people often sleep worse. It’s a vicious circle.  Processed food is also linked to depression—another vicious circle. Feel low -> eat worse, etc.

• The Pagan Newswire Collective has two new group blog projects: The Juggler, on the arts, and Warriors & Kin, about issues facing past and current Pagan military personnel. They will be added to my blogroll.

Thinking about ‘Nature Religion’ in the Snow

I spent about an hour today on the snow shovel after fifteen inches fell yesterday, laughing a bitter and sardonic laugh at people who associate flowers and bunny wabbits with the spring equinox. (At least the Sun is stronger now than in midwinter.)

Today’s preoccupation is the talk that I have to give tomorrow on nature religion to some Unitarians.

First off, it’s not an easy term to define. I can think of at least three definitions for “nature religion.”

1. One was developed by Catherine Albanese, historian of American religion: “a symbolic center and the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values that encircles it.” (Nature Religion in America, 7)

To Albanese, the term was a “scholarly construct” that made it possible to talk about various attitudes and activities under one heading, everything from “natural healing” to national parks to New Agey dietary fads.

I was present at an American Academy of Religion panel c. 1998 when Professor Albanese learned to her surprise that “nature religion” was also a term self-applied by many contemporary Pagans. Pagans had simply not been on her mental radar.

2. My own research, however, showed various Pagans using “earth religion” and “nature religion” to describe themselves (and to avoid loaded terms like Witch and Pagan) at least as long ago as 1970. And 1970 happens to be the year when the first Earth Day was observed.

3. Somewhat similar to Albanese, another religious studies professor, Bron Taylor, has a recent book called Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.

Not particularly theistic, Taylor defines “dark green religion” as “religion that considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care.” The “dark” suggests not just intensity but also nature religion’s propensity to “precipitate or exacerbate violence” (ix).

Once jokingly described to me as “the house intellectual of Earth First!” Taylor has had a long interest in studying ecotage and other environmental violence, along with more peaceful manifestations of nature religion as  surfing culture.

Consequently, where Albanese tends to be more interested in the nineteenth century, Taylor is more focused on contemporary environmentalism and politics.

Deep Snow, Deep Winter


I spent the last three days camping with friends up on the Arapaho National Forest.

I have done a little deep-winter camping before, but never before on skis with a sled.

I learned that my sleeping bag is not really warm enough for -18 F. (-27 C.) nights. Must remedy that.

Even after that short time, it is hard to make the transition back to the writing life. And things like Facebook–or even blogging–seem so trivial.

But I am developing some new blog posts, so check back after a couple of days.

Dark of the Moon

I tend to get into some bad places psychologically when it’s the dark of the Moon and work is not going well. “No one respects me, no one pays any attention to what I say”—that sort of thing.

The best cure is to take a dog (who may or may not pay any attention but who can be bribed) and go for a hike, interrupted with geocaching, as described at the other blog.