One year ago, in the fall 2015 edition of EARTHletter, the newsletter of the Earth Ministry in Seattle Washington, Dr. Kevin O’Brien published this article titled,”Finding Hope Outside.” It is too good a column to not share, so I do so without express permission. The Feast of St. Francis seems an especially appropriate day to share it.
We are only beginning to understand all that Pope Francis was signaling when he chose to name himself after a medieval friar. This name, never used by a previous Pope, suggests that he is pulling the church outside – outside of the merely-human world into God’s whole creation, outside of its gilded image to the poor within its midst, and outside of any barriers that separate human beings from one another.
St. Francis is most famous today because of his love for the natural world. One story tells of the cricket that kept him awake one night by singing outside his room. Francis opened his window and sang along rather than sleep that night. Another story tells us that when Francis took a 40-day retreat on Mount Alverno, a falcon came to visit him every morning at exactly the same time so he could maintain his rigorous monastic prayer schedule. Francis called every creature “sister” or “brother,” and had a deep sense of his connection to all: brother sun, sister moon, brother bear, sister wolf, sister ant, even brother mosquito. He prayed for and with every creature.
This love for nature changed the way the Saint worshiped. As a teenager, while praying alone in a dilapidated Assisi Church, he heard a voice say, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” He immediately began to gather stones and build up the church around him, and that church still stands in Assisi today.
But, as time went by, St. Francis begin to wonder if the “ruined” house of God was not a physical structure, but the Christian community itself: a community that focused more on itself than service to others, more on ornate structures than feeding the poor or praising God with all creatures. He spent his life not constructing church buildings but going outside them with a wandering religious community. They lived outside, along with God’s sun and moon and ants and mosquitoes. Francis synthesize the spiritual and the natural; his love of nature and his love of God were two notes in perfect harmony.
Many of us draw hope from St. Francis for our world: if a holy man one thousand years ago could learn to love God’s world so deeply, then perhaps more of us can learn to love it, too. Perhaps we can use that love to save it from the ravages of climate change, of extinction, of pollution. If he could build a new kind of faith outside the walls of churches, perhaps we can build a new kind of life that celebrates God’s creation rather than degrading it.
We live in troubled times, and it often seems like human beings are waging war on the rest of the planet. Francis offers the hope that we can step outside of that conflict by meeting God’s other creatures and recognizing our kinship with them.
The hope Francis found outside church walls was not just about the natural world, though. By bringing his friars outside the walls of traditional monastic life, he brought them into conversation with the people who were living there without choosing it: the homeless, the sick, the marginalized. Francis’ connection to nature was inherently also a connection to the poor. And, just as he did with the natural world, he found hope and love in his connection to them.
This may be the deepest lesson that Pope Francis’ Laudato Si asks us to learn from St. Francis: to love the earth is to love the poor, and to love the poor is to love the earth. As the encyclical puts it, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment” (§49).
It can be easy to live our lives within our own social class. Those who are economically comfortable all too often create enclaves where we never encounter the less fortunate. The saint and the pope both remind us that if we love God and love God’s earth we must move outside, encountering God’s people who are poor, learning from them, and empowering them.
We must also learn to overcome other boundaries we put up between one another, the other walls that separate humanity. St. Francis model this during the 5th Crusade, deciding he was needed when he heard that Christians were battling Muslims in Egypt. He walked across enemy lines and requested a meeting with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, and spoke honestly with the Sultan about his faith. This is the first time we know of in the history of the Crusades that a Christian and a Muslim leader sat down together to talk about their faith in God. Francis was allowed to go in peace and given an escort to visit Jerusalem as a Christian pilgrim. While other forces kept the war raging, Francis offered a model of stepping outside one’s narrow allegiances to recognize common ground.
Earth Ministry offered another example of stepping outside narrow allegiances during the effort to move Washington State beyond coal a few years ago. By working not only with environmentalists but also with workers and management at the states’ only coal plant, Earth Ministry helped to shepherd a plan agreed to by both the industry and the environmental community in 2011, a plan that will end the industrial burning of coal in our state by 2025. Because Earth Ministry talked to all sides and kept communication open, the deal serves as another model for people coming together and talking rather than fighting across from familiar battle lines.
Pope Francis also crossed boundaries in Laudato Si, insisting that he writes not only for Catholics but for all people of good will. The encyclical tells us that the only way to solve the problems of war, poverty, and climate change are for human beings to come together in universal solidarity, to understand that all people – all creatures – are sisters and brothers in God’s family, sharing one world and one future.
The assertion that moved me more than any other comes near the encyclical’s conclusion: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (§233). Here Pope Francis expresses his faith – the universe is unfolding in God and calls people to make faith real by finding beauty and meaning in the creation … a leaf, a trail, a dewdrop – in our neighbors – in the faces of the poor.
The Pope’s message resonates with the Saint’s, and both promise that we will find hope in our world when we move outside the structures we have built into the natural world. We will find hope when remove outside the limits we have placed on ourselves and into the full family of humanity.
Hope is right outside.
Dr. Kevin J. O’Brien is the treasurer of Earth Ministry’s Board of Directors and the co-author of An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, and Ethics.