Thursday, September 27, 2007

The whole family of Creation

Friar Jack Wintz OFM has a wonderful article, St Francis and the Birds, in which he recounts St Bonaventure's story of Francis'

...deep personal dilemma: Should he retire from the world and devote himself entirely to prayer or should he continue traveling about as a preacher of the gospel? To answer this question, St. Francis sends brothers to seek the advice of two of his most trusted colleagues: Brother Sylvester and the holy virgin Clare and her sisters.

The word comes back very quickly from both Sylvester and Clare that it is their clear judgment that God wants Francis to keep proclaiming the good news of God’s saving love. No sooner does Francis hear their response than he immediately stands up, and in the words of St. Bonaventure, "without the slightest delay he takes to the roads, to carry out the divine command with great fervor..."

The typical reader at this juncture, I believe, would expect St. Bonaventure to portray St. Francis as rushing off to the nearest village or marketplace to begin preaching the gospel to the people gathered there. But where does Francis actually go? Francis’ very next stop, according to Bonaventure, is this:

"He came to a spot where a large flock of birds of various kinds had come together. When God’s saint saw them, he quickly ran to the spot and greeted them as if they were endowed with reason….

"He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively..."

Bonaventure’s story of Francis preaching to birds was a minor shock to me and perhaps to you also. Had Francis not just learned from his special advisors Brother Sylvester and Lady Clare that God wanted him to continue his preaching ministry? And should we not assume that the primary audience of his preaching should be other human beings—and not bunches of birds? I believe that Bonaventure is trying to shock us into widening our horizons, and into learning with St. Francis that the whole family of creation deserves more respect and ought to be invited to praise God along with us human beings. Maybe just as Francis accused himself of negligence for not inviting the birds—and other animals, reptiles, and so forth—to praise God with him, so we need to admit the same kind of negligence, too.

The more St. Francis grew in wisdom and in his understanding that God’s saving love goes out to all creatures, the more he began to see that all creatures make up one family. The most important key to Francis’ understanding that all creatures form one family is the Incarnation. Francis had a great fascination for the feast of Christmas. He was deeply aware of that one moment in history in which God entered creation and the Word became flesh. In his mind, this awesome event sent shockwaves through the whole fabric of creation. The Divine Word not only became human. The Word of God became flesh, entering not only the family of humanity but the whole family of creation, becoming one in a sense with the very dust out of which all things were made...

As if this were not enough, Friar Jack goes on to address the the thought that was immediately coming up in my own mind - how is it that, given such insight into God's mercy for all of creation, there are still many Christians teaching their children that animals have no "souls" and therefore cannot be expected to have eternal life. (That always seems a little Manichean to me, as though spirit were good, and flesh somehow base and suspect - which makes God's motives in the Incarnation seem a bit odd, to say the least.) He says:

Will we see our pets and other creatures in the next life? Only God can answer a question like this. But because of his preaching to the birds and his growing respect for other creatures, St. Francis seemed to be developing the insight that God’s plan of salvation is perhaps larger than most of us have imagined. Near the end of his life, Francis composed his Canticle of the Creatures in which he invites all creatures to praise God - Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, and our Sister Mother Earth and so forth. He seems to see more clearly than ever that all creatures make up one family of creation. And this leads to the question: If we, like Francis, are expected to invite all creatures to praise God with us during our life here on earth, shouldn’t they also be invited to praise God in heaven, as well?

In an article in St Anthony Messenger Magazine, Friar Jack gives us some words I'll borrow to sum up, words which show him truly to be my brother, and a man after my own heart:

...from all the evidence... I believe we can make a good case for the hope embedded deep in each human heart, namely, that the whole family of creation will someday share in the fullness of salvation won by Jesus Christ.

The more we see the full implications of our belief in the resurrection of the body and understand the biblical vision of God's inclusive love, the easier it is for us to give a hopeful answer to our children's question.

In the final analysis, how many of us are truly satisfied with a vision of heaven that does not include the whole family of creation? We take comfort, therefore, in St. Paul's words that "all creation is groaning" for its freedom and redemption (Romans 8:22). More than that, we embrace the great apostle's "hope that creation itself would... share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

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