I first became familiar with St. Francis in college studying medieval history. When I heard the anecdote of him stopping on a path to pick up a worm…“Brother worm” to him…and removing it to the side of the path so that it would not be stepped on, I privately guffawed, thinking, “Oh my Lord. That guy was nuts.” And though I have matured and understand him much better and am even very sympathetic to his teachings, I still think he had, clinically speaking, “boundary problems.” His “boundary problem” was that he did not see clearly and distinctly between himself and others and even clearly and distinctly between himself and the earth. But now at this point in my life I’ve even gone further “down hill” and don’t see my diagnosis of “boundary problems” as being as valid as I once thought. St. Francis was just a very sensitive soul who saw the inter-relatedness of all things, of the whole world, and recognized that we are not separate and distinct from the world in the way we think we are. We are, after all “dust of the earth.”
Now, I might add that some people do have “boundary problems” and failing to draw clear boundaries can pose major problems in one’s life. However, someone with this “problem” can be a gifted person who has something to teach us and I think St. Francis was one of those. Furthermore, one of his contemporary devotees, Richard Rohr who is a Franciscan Monk, is one of those gifted individuals and his teachings have had a profound influence on my in the past few years. Here is his blog from today:
When I first joined the Franciscan order in 1961, my novice master told me we could not cut down a tree without permission of the Provincial (the major religious superior). It seemed a bit extreme, but then I realized that a little bit of Francis of Assisi had lasted 800 years! We still had his awareness that wilderness is not just “wilderness.” Nature is not just here for our consumption and profit. The natural is of itself also the supernatural. Both natural elements and animals are not just objects for our plunder. Francis granted true dignity and subjectivity to nature by calling it Brother Sun, Sister Fire, Brother Wind, and Sister Water. No wonder he is the patron saint of ecology and care for creation.
Once you grant subjectivity to the natural world, everything changes. It’s no longer an object with you as the separated and superior subject, but you share subjectivity with it. You address it with a title of respect, and allow it to speak back to you! For so long creation has been a mere commodity at best, a useless or profitable wilderness depending on who owned it. With the contemplative mind, questions of creation are different than those of consumption and capitalism, and they move us to appreciate creation for its own sake, not because of what it does for me or how much money it can make me. For those with spiritual eyes, the world itself has to be somehow the very “Body of God.” What else could it be for one who believes in “creationism”? As Paul puts it, “From the beginning until now, the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22), so it is not only an evolutionary body but an eternally pregnant body besides. God’s creation is so perfect that it continues to create itself from within. The Franciscans were not wrong in not cutting down ordinary trees without a very good reason.
One of the common problems of our world today is that we don’t “grant subjectivity” to our world and even to other people. We assume other people see the world just as we do and often tyrannize our young children into doing so. And when we have tyrannized a young child into forgoing their own subjective view of the world, we have taken their soul from them.