Sermon from 2007 Annual Service

by Brother Samuel from the Society of St Francis

I wonder if any of you saw last Saturday the programme presented by Bill Oddie entitled ‘One Hundred years of Wildlife Films’. It was a great trip down memory lane – with names like Hans and Lottie Hass, Armand and Michaela Denis, and, of course, Sir Peter Scott as well as some who were before even my childhood memory. What was fascinating was not just how the technology has changed so dramatically over the past century, from the flickering black and white images of 1907 to the amazing wildlife shots that are possible today, but how our relationship with the natural world has changed too. Some of the films from between the two world wars were pretty dreadful – with attention focussed more on photographer and presenter and their derring-do rather than on the animals themselves – and even some more recent programmes had a strong element of ‘animals for entertainment’ about them; seeing Johnny Morris again I wasn’t really very comfortable with his mimicry and ventriloquism that we found such fun in the ‘60s and ‘70s. On the other hand, I thank God for Sir David Attenborough and his wonderful filming, for his sense of excitement, for his awe and reverence before his subjects, and above all for his getting-out-of-the way so that ‘we can actually see the stickleback mating’.

What the programme reminded me of is the fundamental ambivalence of our human attitude to, and relationship with, the natural world around us. On the one hand we are fascinated with our natural environment, and we tour and view it as never before; yet on the other hand we live increasingly at a distance from it and our present way of life threatens the survival of many non-human species. We campaign with great vigour against the hunting of foxes with dogs, yet we seem to have comparatively little concern for animal welfare in the production of the cheap food which we expect to find on the supermarket shelves. Again, we lavish attention on our pets, yet their relationship with us can sometime be like an extension of our own personalities, or even that of a fashion accessory. There’s a firm in London called Flexpetz where you can hire a pet for a time, and, when it has given you what you want in the way of companionship or image, you can hand it back or exchange it for another – at a price no doubt!

This service today has been shaped around the life and spirituality of St Francis of Assisi. We’ve heard stories from his life and readings from his writings and the writings of those who followed in his footsteps. Francis’ relationship with the natural world is easy to sentimentalise or romanticise – statues of him with the birds abound – but in fact his life and spirituality can provide us with a profound wisdom about the natural world which is neither sentimental nor romantic, a wisdom which can lead us to a more appropriate way of living with animals and within creation today. I just want to point out to you, or perhaps remind you of, three aspects of this Franciscan wisdom.

The first is that Francis saw creation, every single part of it, as a gift flowing from the abundant goodness of God, the Blessed Trinity, and he saw it also as pointing us back towards that abundance. Thomas of Celano, his earliest biographer, wrote that ‘in every beautiful thing he saw the One who is beauty itself’. Avoiding pantheism and any sense that nature itself is divine, Francis saw that every creature is a little theophany, a manifestation of God, a word directing us to The Word. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth his handiwork’ declares the psalmist. Francis had an extraordinary acute perception of that vision. Whereas we might glimpse the glory of God in a sunset or in dolphins leaping through the sea, he would see it in a house-fly or an earth-worm. He didn’t just preach to the larks, he engaged in dialogue with a fierce wolf. Nothing was valueless, worthless, just there to be discarded; he had a huge reverence for everything that exists, a natural courtesy towards every creature, inanimate as well as animate. He told the gardener at the Friary to leave a corner for the weeds and wildflowers because they had a right to be there, and by being there they glorified God. What environmentalist today would disagree with that!

Only when we can recover, or discover, that sacramental reverence, that courtesy, that letting things be, towards all of creation and every creature, whether or not it’s useful, pretty, charming or friendly towards us, will life on earth (including our own) be safe from either our depredation or our sentimentality.

The second wisdom of St Francis from which we might learn concerns his sense of the fundamental inter-relatedness of all things. St Bonaventure, the leading Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer of the 13th century wrote that Francis ‘would call all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of “brother” or “sister” because he knew that they shared with him the same beginning.’ So for Francis it was ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’, ‘Brother Fire’ and ‘Sister Water’, and ‘Mother Earth’ from whom our brothers and sisters the plants, fishes, birds, reptiles and mammals received life. The view of Francis is that we are essentially one family, with Jesus our brother at its heart. It was said of Francis that he showed piety towards every creature. We tend to use the word ‘pious’ today of someone who is strict in religious practice, it can almost be a derogatory term, but the root meaning of the word is the duty owed towards someone in the blood relationship of a family. Used in this way, Francis’ piety, his ‘familiness’, extended to every creature, humans, animals and all inanimate things.

Sitting next to a leading geneticist at High Table, having just preached in one of the Cambridge College Chapels, I was told that ‘90% of our genes we share with a banana’. Now I’m no expert in this field (and it may have been the port speaking!) but scientific research, particularly in the fields of genetics and cosmology, is revealing to us both the complexity of creation and also the truth that Francis knew by faith and intuition, the inter-relatedness of all things together. The fact is that we are all intimately connected, creation is ‘joined at the hip’; we are all ‘star dust’. Therefore, how we are with each other, how we relate to the other parts of the family of creation, and how we respect and care for every creature has a profound effect on the whole. We cannot behave violently towards the natural world without that violence affecting our own inter-personal relationships; we cannot live unconcerned about the loss of wildlife habitat without that impinging harmfully upon our own way of life. It’s no surprise that St Francis, who lived so gently and kindly towards animals and every creature, was renowned as a peacemaker among his brothers and sisters of the human race. ‘The Lord give you peace’ was the greeting he shared with whoever he met as he went about his daily business.

Madeleine Bunting, writing in the Guardian at the end of July about ‘Crow Country’, Mark Cocker’s wonderful book on rooks, spoke of the growing genre of nature writing: ‘We need an attentiveness to nature to understand our humanity, and of how we fit, as just one species, into a vast reach of time and space.’ Animals have value within the family of creation, not principally because of their usefulness to us, not because they provide enjoyment or companionship, but because without a close relationship with other creatures we become something less than human – in fact our very existence is threatened.

The final wisdom of Francis I would share with you concerns his sense of purpose for creation. He believed that every creature, including the human, exists, not for its own sake, but in order to return praise and worship to the One who is the Source and Giver of all. Creation is not an end in itself but is there to glorify God. Two years before he died, when he was nearly blind and living in great pain, Francis composed what we know as the Canticle of the Creatures (the translation probably most familiar to us is the hymn ‘All Creatures of our God and King’). In this song, the first great poem in the Italian vernacular, Francis articulates the praise which all creatures offer to God by being what they truly are: the sun by shining, the moon in gleaming, the stars in glistening, Brother Fire in warming, Sister Water in wetting, the birds in singing, the plants in growing etc. Nothing is left out; even the pain and suffering that are a necessary part of life, even Sister Death, are included in this great hymn of praise. And we, the human brothers and sisters of St Francis, share the harmony.

Only when we can recognise our human vocation – not arrogantly to do our own thing, but to articulate the praise of all the creatures; only when we understand and acknowledge our partnership with every creature in offering back to God love and thanksgiving; only when we learn to sing in tune with all creation – will we find the peace, fulfilment and true joy that is God’s purpose for all that he has made.