The high middle ages may seem an odd place to look for wisdom in our current environmental crisis. St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), however, is renowned for his love of the natural world. So much so that in the Catholic Church he is actually the patron saint of both animals and the environment. What is remarkable is he is also the founder of what was originally an incredibly austere and rigorous monastic order, with its members committed to total poverty. St. Francis refused to allow them to accept money, and so they got by through begging and day labour. This stemmed from his deep and abiding love for “Lady Poverty.”
Toward the end of his life, St. Francis composed a hymn entitled, “The Canticle of the Sun.” It is remarkable for being both the earliest example of Italian poetry and for its naturalist impulses:
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord
To you alone belong praise and glory
Honour, and blessing.
No man is worthy to breathe your name.
Be praised, my Lord, for all your creatures.
In the first place for the blessed Brother Sun
who gives us the day and enlightens us through you.
He is beautiful and radiant with his great splendour,
Giving witness of you, most Omnipotent One.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars
Formed by you so bright, precious, and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind
And the airy skies, so cloudy and serene;
For every weather, be praised, for it is life-giving.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water
So necessary yet so humble, precious, and chaste.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
Who lights up the night,
He is beautiful and carefree, robust and fierce.
Be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Mother Earth,
who nourishes and watches us
While bringing forth abundant fruits with coloured flowers
Praise and bless the Lord.
Render him thanks.
Serve him with great humility. Amen.
It is said that St. Francis was so enthralled with his song that he ran around singing it to friends, composing his own melody for it. But the really touching part of the story is that, on his deathbed in a bare-earthed cell, he called in two brothers to sing to him this song of earth for a final time:
They obeyed. With voices ready to break down and sob, they intoned one of the most beautiful songs of joy that ever arose from human lips. Did they realize that they were filling the cell with the whole cosmos? Fire and water, earth and air, the four elements, joined with the stars, the moon, the sun, flowers, and grass, not to mention the perpetual and magnificent change of scenery brought on by the clouds, all of this in a grand assembly of all the beauty in the universe. (Julien Green, “God’s Fool,” 268.)