When I was a lad, I used to read Phantom comics. It was my Dad, actually, who introduced me to the Phantom. Dad had many sayings that came from the Ghost Who Walks, and held that a close reading of the Phantom revealed many theological truths. I’m not entirely sure about that, but was reminded this week that the Phantom had a secret holiday spot in the jungle, an island in the middle of a great river which he had named Eden. Clearly the Phantom knew his Bible, because on Eden were all the animals he had ever rescued, great lions and tigers as well as antelopes and zebras and monkeys, all living peacefully together. The island, as I recall, was guarded by fierce piranha fish who knew better than to have a bite of the Phantom whenever he swam over on his horse Hero, and all the inhabitants of the island were vegetarians except that the great cats had been trained by the Phantom to catch the occasional fish. Whenever the Phantom came to Eden for a bit of time out he would talk to the animals, and naturally the animals talked back.
Clearly the Phantom, as well as being the nemesis of evil-doers and pirates, was also a closet Franciscan. Francis, come to that, also bore a passing resemblance to the Phantom, at least according to his official biographer, St Bonaventure. In one famous episode Francis saves the day in fine Phantom style, when a fierce wolf has been terrorising the little Italian village of Gubbio, stealing sheep and attacking humans. Real actual wolves, as no doubt you know, are exceedingly scary. But Francis walks out into the forest to have a little chat with the offender, who when Francis addresses him as ‘brother’, instantly makes friends. The wolf nods his head to show he understands when Francis tells him his behaviour has been unacceptable, looks contrite by rolling over and playing dead, and agrees to a deal whereby he will stop eating both sheep and villagers so long as the humans agree to feed him. The wolf shakes paws to cement the deal and all sides live happily ever after.
Only problem with all this is that the picture most of us have of St Francis today, is a fairytale image of this otherworldly saint, a hippie seven hundred years before hippies were invented, making daisy chains and talking to the birds. Charming, but not very useful for 21st century Christians trying to live in the real world.
The real Francis was less romantic. He’s also a lot more helpful to 21st century Christians who wonder what all this stuff about climate change and ecology has got to do with God.
Certainly Francis talked to the animals – and the grass and the flowers and the earthworm – addressing them as brother and sister and exhorting them to praise God by running and jumping, and stretching and flying, and growing and chewing towards the Sun, praising God in their own way as we human beings do in ours. Francis also practised a fairly extreme version of voluntary poverty, living amongst lepers and the poorest of the poor, and seeing a connection between going without in his own life and the practise of compassion towards others. The spirituality of Francis is not a spirituality of withdrawal or renunciation, but a spirituality of relationship, not a spirituality of solitary contemplation, but a spirituality of joyful immersion in the everyday, of celebrating creation as a kaleidoscope of possibilities, or a stained glass window that refracts the light of God into a myriad of images.
Francis died young, and in considerable pain from the multiple illnesses that plagued the lower classes of his day. He lost control of the Order he had founded, and even before he died his friars started the great squabble over his legacy that would eventually lead to that strange medieval device for solving disputes, the burning of those you don’t agree with at the stake. But in the last year of his life, virtually blind and in pain, Francis composed the great poem that more than anything sums up his theology, the Canticle of Creation. The poem expresses Francis’ awareness of kinship, of experiencing a family relationship with all things, because all things, all living things and even matter itself, are expressions of the overflowing love of God.
The great Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure, gives theological structure to what Francis saw intuitively – the Word of God, God’s self-expression, is both what creates something out of nothing and what takes on human flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. The Word as God’s self-communication is literally God giving Godself away in the act of creation, which means the material universe is not something separate from God, but the external expression of God – not just a bewildering array of stars and planets, rocks and mud and bacteria that have the good or bad fortune to evolve – but an expanding, evolving expression of the infinitely self-expressive Word of God. If our understanding of God as a Trinity means that God’s own life is a flow of creative love and self-giving communication, then it stands to reason that creation itself must also be dynamic, evolving and growing in complexity - and that created things must also be designed to find their true identity in self-giving relationships of love.
Francis, I think, got that. He got that the only real way to perceive the world we live in is through the filter of the Word of God – and that the only way to know the Word of God is through reading the Book of Creation. He got that, and he also understood that because creation, the material world of human and animal bodies, bread and wine and wood and rock – all substances, incidentally, that have a common origin in the cast-off rubble of exploding stars – because Jesus the Word of God takes on our flesh, our common inheritance of stardust, then we are physically related to God, to one another and to every living and non-living created thing. As a more contemporary theologian puts it, the physical substance of our lives – our bodies, but also the physical things we need to stay alive, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the houses we live in – all that physicality is a kind of shared space, a space in which our lives get intermingled and swapped around with everybody and everything else. Whether we like it or not we can’t keep ourselves separate from one another – and so in the Eucharist we acknowledge that by sharing a piece of bread and a cup of wine just as, for example, we constantly breathe and re-breathe the same air, and in doing that we recognise that our lives are interconnected. By being re-connected to our divine origin in Christ, we find ourselves connected to all of creation as brothers and sisters, and at the same time start to tune in to the fact that creation is speaking to us of Christ. Bonaventure said all this in fancy theological language; Francis got it at a kind of gut-level. Because he sees creation as a sacramental expression of God’s self-giving love, then he understands that he himself is connected in a family relationship to everything that is. Nothing exists separately; everything is interconnected and derives its identity from its relationship to everything else. At the most fundamental level, what we call our “self” is made up of the sum of our relationships.
That last bit, of course, isn’t just theology, it’s also science. It’s certainly how ecologists see reality, and it’s also what the impenetrable language of quantum physics tells us. It’s also what psychology and Christian spirituality tell us – when human beings try to live without recognising or attending to our relationships with others, or our connection to our physical environment, we make ourselves deeply unhappy and generally sick. Bonaventure uses the word piety to describe Francis’ sense of relatedness to all of creation. Literally, the Latin word pietas means “blood-related” – the word piety means literally an attitude of respect towards those for whom we have a family obligation. People who live in piety live lives that are intentionally interconnected with others, consciously attending to their relationships because they understand the source of all inter-relationship.
Well, so what? If we do start seeing ourselves, not as spending time down here on earth waiting to meet God in heaven, but as interwoven and inextricably connected with a creation that in every breath exudes the Spirit of God, then so what? What difference does it make to how we live?
It makes a difference because our attitude towards creation becomes one of piety. We begin to realise that it’s not just short-sighted to pump greenhouse gases into the air, to fail to take action while waterways die and species are driven to extinction, it’s not just that failing to take action to prevent rising global temperatures and sea-levels puts future generations at risk – all the true things that climate change scientists are telling us – but that to live in a way that imperils God’s creation is impious. To allow species to become extinct at a faster rate than ever before in the life of our planet is an act of impiety, because every created thing is a unique self-expression of God. For every species that vanishes there is a loss of divine possibility, forever.
It makes a difference because if we follow the theology of St Francis we see the value of ecosystems, rivers and wetlands, forests and wilderness areas and all living things not just in terms of how useful they are to human industry, tourism, or even medical science – not as resources on which we can place a dollar value, but as unique moments of the creative self-expression of God. Our attitude becomes one of piety, of seeing ourselves as fundamentally related to all created things, a physical connection that in the Old Testament is the basis for raham, the compassion that God feels for God’s people, literally, ‘in the womb’. And we begin to see ourselves as a bridge, as a connection between creation and God – as catalysts for what St Paul sees as the great work of the whole universe, growing and yearning towards its fulfilment in Christ.