St. Francis and the “universal house”

 This post by board member (and past president) Sylvia Neely first appeared on the Creation Corner page of  the Episcopal Church in Central Pennsylvania’s website.1913244_10106188579394174_2017794221_o

Some years ago, I was a member of a group at my church that got together to discuss environmental issues.  We read and discussed a book that somebody had recommended that I truly disliked.  Environmental questions were presented as cultural questions that required us to rethink the way we lived and that especially extolled eastern and Native American spiritual values.  I kept protesting to the group that we surely had strong Christian traditions that would help guide us to a better way of living in God’s creation.  Several years later, another group at the same church read a book that exemplified what I was looking for.

CareForCreationcoverThe book is entitled Care for Creation:  A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth.  Two of the authors are steeped in Franciscan learning.  Ilia Delio, O.S.F., is a professor and author.  Keith Douglass Warner, O.F.M., teaches in an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Institute.  The third author, Pamela Wood, is a retreat facilitator whose expertise provides a strong practical side to the book.  So the book, though challenging at times, balanced a strong understanding of science with a wonderful expression of Franciscan spirituality and the way to incorporate it into one’s life.

For me, one of the most important concepts discussed in the book was that the word “ecology” comes from the same Greek root as “economy” and “ecumenical.”  The authors write:  “Oikos mean ‘house,’ so these three words mean, respectively, ‘study of the house,’ ‘management of the house’ and ‘universal house.’” (p. 25)  By thinking of this earth as our home and understanding the way the processes on earth are interconnected, we come to a realization that we live in a finite system with limits that must be respected if we are to care for creation.  Economy meant originally the maintenance of the home.  Unfortunately, too often nowadays we think of economic matters as somehow separate from sustaining our home and its resources, and this attitude is ultimately destructive of God’s creation

For St. Francis, the concept of “house” was central to his theology.  After a somewhat aimless youth, Francis became a soldier.  As he recovered from his wounds, he began a process of conversion that culminated when he was praying in a run-down church in San Damiano near Assisi and heard the words:  “Francis, go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.” (p. 40)  Francis at first believed that his commission from God was to rebuild the dilapidated church building.  But he soon realized that his commission was larger.  He saw that the house of God was all of creation in which God dwells.  The Franciscan tradition emphasizes that creation is a book in which God’s presence is revealed.  It is also crucial to the Christian story, because of the centrality of the Incarnation.  Jesus came to dwell among us here on this earth.  The authors explain:  “The Incarnation of God opened up the eyes of Francis to the inner truth of creation as the very place where God is revealed – or concealed when humans fail to see God humbly present in the magnificent diversity of creation.” (p. 41)

This insight transforms the way we relate to God and to creation.  They write:  “If God is alive in us, as he was in Francis, then we are alive to the world of God’s good creation.  However, if God is dead in us, then we are dead to the deeper meaning of creation as well.  Francis realized that God humbly bends low in love and hides in simple, ordinary, fragile beings.  So too we must realize that God is in our midst.  Only when we can recognize creatures for what they are – expressions of God’s overflowing love – can we recognize the source of our own lives as well.  The love that gave birth to all creatures is the same love that has brought us into existence.”  (p. 52)

Bald Eagle State Forest, PA, Joe McDonald  image source
Bald Eagle State Forest, PA, Joe McDonald image source

In a previous Creation Corner piece I asked what Central Pennsylvania meant to us.  It is our home, a place that we love and feel a strong connection to.  St. Francis teaches us that God’s love extends to all of creation, not just to human beings.  By becoming more aware of God’s love and of the way it is revealed in all of creation, we can respond with love for all of God’s creatures, just as St. Francis did.   How has connecting with God’s creation helped you on your spiritual journey?  What insights from St. Francis do you find most important?  Please use the PA IPL Facebook page to share your comments and ideas.