Only Our Sense of the Sacred Will Save Us: St. Francis and the Christian Church

Only Our Sense of the Sacred Will Save Us: St. Francis and the Christian Church

Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us. – Thomas Berry

Friday, October 3rd was the Feast of St. Francis for the Christian church. St. Francis is most widely known as the patron saint of animals and the environment, and founder of the Franciscan order. And while this is appropriate for him, it is also true that St. Francis was known for his solidarity with the poor, something being clearly illustrated in the actions of Pope Francis in our day. St. Francis and his feast call our attention to something uniquely important to our day and our time — our troubled relationship with the wider community of God’s creation and its impact on the poor. Perhaps this combination has never been so acute. But for all the poignancy of that combination, the Feast of St. Francis is most commonly celebrated in the church as an event primarily for children and pets and our general aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of natural things. How can we move this feast and for what it stands onto the larger church calendar of salvation, redemption, holiness and justice? How can we advance the church’s appreciation for St. Francis past simply children’s programming and a nice annual feast about nature, forward to where it plays a vital role in informing true worship, engaged mission and right justice?

The New Poor

In our day the church is being challenged to expand its circle of awareness and concern to what some call “the new poor.” These include those made poor through our society’s pervasive and insatiable appetite for cheap goods, no matter the methods of producing them. These include those made poor by our tolerance for corporations shifting the true costs of production onto the backs of natural communities, poor human communities, larger society and the next generation; all who are then left to bear the suffering and clean up the mess, as long as the prices on the shelves and at the pump remain low, profits remain high and the resultant suffering remains mostly out of site for the privileged and the powerful. And the new poor also include those non-human communities that bear the suffering of displacement, disease, starvation and extinction as we destroy their habitat and the systems that sustain them, while writing them off as “the cost of doing business.”

Now, I don’t want to waste this article wagging a green finger at the church and calling us to shame, for that is neither Gospel nor helpful. The place of healing and recognition to which we need arrive is neither shame or fear, but rather joy, hope and love. For I believe what the Senegalese poet and naturalist, Baba Dioum said is true:

In the end, we will protect only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.

Others have adapted this to say, We will not save what we do not love, and we cannot love what we do not know. In other words, the heart of our task is to “familiarize” (make family) not just our human kin, but the whole family of God’s created order. This lovemaking, then, cannot be the fruit of protest politics or self-denial of certain conveniences (as important as those are in our day). It is, rather, the work of inclusion and drawing near. And to do that, as the church, we need to let God’s good creation more fully into our assembly and fellowship, which are the places where we learn to love each other. How do we begin? Here are some ways.

First: End the false competition between valuing people and valuing nature

It is time to end the false divisions that often frame these issues: tree huggers verses people lovers, wilderness lovers verses urban lovers, the economy verses the community or human needs verses animal needs. It is especially time to end associating false and misapplied theological divisions such as flesh verses spirit, eternal things verses earthly things or paganism verses Christian salvation. We must not allow a separation of people from nature or environment from people. Those false dichotomies are the weapons of political maneuvering and dishonest debate. It is certainly not in the biblical witness to make a division of life on God’s created earth into a sacred human enterprise on the one hand and a profane and secular earthly existence on the other. The biblical witness, when taken as a whole, affirms the value of all God’s good creation from beginning to end – the land, the trees, the animals, the stars and the human community, all as one worshipping and suffering community, groaning together and looking together for the salvation of God, the redemption of all bodies and the renewal of the earth.

In particular, the Christian church must work to end the false separations we have created and sustain in our language and prayer, music and practice; by speaking and acting as if God is solely concerned with the human enterprise while the rest of creation is but a stage and backdrop for our human drama. We must begin to include in our speech, prayers and praise, the presence and voice of our fellow congregants: the four-footed, the finned, the rooted, the winged and all life that surrounds us and fills our lives. We must begin to more fully pray for them, and with them, and allow them to pray, in their own voices, with us. And this cannot be done as only cute lessons for children or occasional accommodations to nature lovers or environmental activists; but as the right engagement in God’s full gospel of salvation, which, as Paul writes in Colossians Chapter 1, “was proclaimed to every creature under heaven” and who, as he writes in Romans 8, like us, “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  In other words, we are all in this together.

Second: Expand our thinking beyond good stewardship of material things to include right relationship with holy things.

Wendell Berry describes the issue this way:

Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy.  

Wendell is not using the word “blasphemy” lightly here. It is a religious term with transcendent meaning. It indicates a violation of the sacred. It points to an affront to God. It means that the wrongness of this situation is beyond the human level and beyond our human scope and timeline. And what he is putting his finger upon points a way forward for placing these issues into heart and center of the Christian church, which is the worship of God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

The “destruction of nature” to which Wendell refers can indeed serve as a call to stewardship and justice, but it must also serve as a mirror reflecting the spiritual disconnects between the world’s behavior and God’s intention for life on earth. Naming these destructions as blasphemy extends to the church an invitation to not just advocacy for a cause, but also to repentance and a restoration of some vital missing elements of Christian holiness, discipleship and gospel salvation.  In this is a role for the voice of our religious faith, by reclaiming the earth as sacred and all God’s creatures as holy.

Third: Place self-control, kindness and contentment as centerpieces of our faith practice.

I think particular seasons and times in life do call for particular strengths from us. The church has done this before. In times of war or great conflict, the church has needed to be a people who simply embodied that British mandate of WWII – “Be calm, and carry on.” But then, in times of great struggle for justice, the church has needed to reach deep and find her strength in compassion and demonstrate her willingness to walk in the shoes of the stranger or the oppressed. And now, in this time of overwhelming technological power, runaway consumption and a disregard for our impact upon God’s whole beloved community of life, the challenge for the church is to embody the values of contentment, gentleness and self-control. Perhaps as much as anything, the church could model the love of Christ for the world through restoring to the center of its life together the historical practices of simplicity, contentment, gentleness and kindness. For in this, the church has not been counter-cultural at all, but rather has stepped fully into the rat race of consuming, competing and complaining. Perhaps what the planet most needs from the church in our day is to embody the life of a people of God who, in the name of Christ, choose simplicity, gentleness and contentment as the hallmarks of their lives. What a powerful witness that would be. How counter cultural that would be. How healing that would be.

Last: Find joy and love in the beauty of the earth and the inclusion of all living things.  

In the end, as we have said, we will save only what we love. And the converse of that is also true: We will be saved only by what we love. In the end, as Thomas Berry has said, “Only our sense of the sacred will save us.” So, in the end, this challenge is really is not about a heroic church sent out to rescue an environment “out there” or about mobilizing a passionate religious response to “save the planet.” In the end, it is not just the planet that needs saving – it is we ourselves that need saving. And it is not just our place on the planet that needs rescuing, it is also our souls and communities, lost on an endless treadmill of running, grasping and getting, that need saving. The environmental crisis without is but a mirror image to the spiritual crisis within. By letting the rest of creation into our worship, prayer and family life, and by letting them into our hearts, our own hearts will be saved. Because as we let them in, we will in turn learn to love them. And as we learn to love them, we will recognize their holiness and worth. And as we recognize their holiness, we will then come to recognize our own holiness and worth. And in that knowing, we too will be saved. For that is, after all, the Gospel of salvation.

photo credit

The Rev. Jerry Cappel is the Environmental Network Coordinator for Province IV of the Episcopal Church. Learn more about Jerry at his website and blog.

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