Saint Francis: The First Environmentalist?

In 13th century Europe, life was harsh and brutal for the common person. The average life expectancy was only the mid-thirties (and only slightly longer for the upper 1% who were royalty, wealthy merchants and the aristocracy within the Catholic Church). People lived in small towns and villages and the vast majority of time was spent making sure there was sufficient food. Tending crops and livestock, that was life. People tended to live in small huts, everyone in one room, and in sever weather, livestock might also be brought into one’s ‘home’. In larger settlements, a church or chapel was built and all spirituality revolved around the church. Life was only slightly better in the larger cities. Largely gone were the pagans, druids and other ‘nature worshiping’ peoples. The Catholic Church was at the height of power in Europe.

animal communication Nature was view with awe and great distrust (if not outright fear). Out in the ‘wilds’ there were killer beasts, perhaps demons or spirits, perhaps witches or worse. All the hazards of life were ‘out there’. Then, as now, there were no doubt those who loved and appreciated nature, but these type of individuals had to avoid any appearance of ‘nature worship’ or advocating any type of spirituality within nature. It was likely that people felt that the further one ventured and remained in ‘the wild’ the more they lost any sort of spirituality and humanity. After all, it was those who lived on the fringes of civilization who became bandits and stocked their prey on the roads between settlements. It was as if the deeper you entered nature, the more one lost one’s immortal soul. Nature was something to be battled against, not embraced. The natural environment that surrounded humanity was considered inferior, dangerous, devoid of spirituality when compared to the human created environment people had built around themselves.

Enter Saint Francis – Nature Lover

Saint Francis of Assisi stood in contrast to the typical 13th century people. When one examines Life and Spirituality of Saint Francis you begin to see a man guided by visions and dreams who loved nature and often seemed to prefer the company of nature and natural environments over that of the city and large crowds. Besides abandoning wealth and the pursuit of wealth and seeking to return to the fundamentals of Christ’s teachings that love of one’s fellow man is primary, Saint Francis also took the unusual step to include nature and nature’s creatures in that sphere of love. This is what Saint Francis perhaps the first environmentalist. Especially given that environmentalism has been defined as, "advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment". To fully understand why St. Francis could be considered an environmentalist, let’s take a close look and some of the stories and legends that surround Saint Francis and relationship to nature.

Preaching To The Birds

Many stories and legends arose after Saint Francis’ death. There is little doubt stories told about him had some historical bases. Saint Francis was very at home in nature. In fact, it was said he could commune with nature in an extraordinary manner. One story told is how while walking with companions Saint Francis noted numerous birds in the trees ahead of the group. Suddenly, Francis asked the group to stop and wait while he went ahead to "preach to my sisters the birds". A befuddled group watched dumbfounded as Saint Francis approached the birds and they seemed to surround him. And, as he began to speak, none appeared to leave. This scene is said to happened more than once.

The Wolf of Gubbio

While Saint Francis preaching near the town of Gubbio he heard there had bee a wolf terrorizing the people in and around town. It was said this wolf was killing people as well as livestock. With a few of his follower Saint Francis went into the hills to confront this wolf. The further into the wilderness they went, and the closer to the wolf, more afraid his companions became until finally they turned back and left Saint Francis to proceed alone. When he finally came face to face with the wolf it is said he made the sign of the cross and told the wolf he wasn’t to harm anyone else. And, he told the wolf that he must come with him. The wolf came towards Saint Francis and laid at his feet.

Saint Francis told the wolf he had done great harm and the surrounding people cursed him. What Francis wanted was peace between the wolf and the town’s people. You can image the shock of the people of Gubbio when Saint Francis arrived in the town with the wolf at his side. Addressing the citizens, Saint Francis told the them the wolf had done what he had out of hunger, not evil. There was to be a pact between the town and the wolf: The town’s people were to feed the wolf regularly and the wolf would no longer attack them or their livestock. But that was not all – it came to light the dogs living in and around the town had been harassing the wolf. So Saint Francis made the wolf and dogs agree to a pact. The dogs would not bother the wolf and the wolf would not bother the dogs nor those whom the dogs protected. Miraculously, the pact held just as Saint Francis had arranged. The town’s people reported the wolf lived for two more years and visit residents for food. When the wolf died people in the town were actually sad and said they would miss the wolf who taught them about peace.

Several stories of Saint Francis and his relationship with nature and animals were collected towards the end of the 13th century in a book called The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Other stories and legends were recorded by other witnesses and authors researching the life of St. Francis. There is even a legend of how while on his deathbed, Saint Francis thanked his donkey for carrying him throughout his life.

Nature, Spirituality And Saint Francis

It would seem Saint Francis saw nature as a mirror to God, and he made no pretense of feeling otherwise. He felt that nature, just as man, had a spiritual path to follow … and took this concept seriously. It was why Saint Francis preached to the birds, fish and beast as well as all the men and women who would listen to him. Remember, a definition of environmentalist is the "advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment". For Saint Francis this restoration and improvement lie in a spiritual direction. More, Saint Francis correctly saw that humanities relationship with nature was a reflection of mankind’s spiritual state. This he expressed in the statement, "If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men".

The idea that humanity and nature itself are in a state of spiritual development is an important one for it rightly ties mankind’s spiritual growth with that of nature. Where environmentalism has largely be dominated by scientific considerations perhaps it is time to examine spiritual considerations. There may be no scientific reason for man to live in harmony with nature, but isn’t it worth discussing the spiritual concept of living lovingly with nature as opposed to living in an adversarial relationship. Saint Francis himself expressed in Biblical terms how man was given dominion over the earth and that meant man should be a good steward of nature and the world, not that mankind could disregard all living things and do as he pleased like a spoiled child.

Perhaps how Saint Francis experienced nature and it’s importance is something that many considered ’emotional’ and ‘romantic’.

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However, science is now revealing that how Saint Francis viewed and experienced nature was actually more accurate, more in tune with the reality of nature. Birds are indeed intelligent creatures who do talk to one another (and who can talk to us if we care to listen); dogs also know how to communicate with us if we listen; everything in nature is intricately connected in ways we are only beginning to understand; the same DNA that makes up our physcial body is share by nearly every other creature on earth; whales know how to sing; all the water on earth is shared and cannot be replaced; and we all share the same moon, sky and stars. Yet, with all the scientific discoveries humanity seems to continue to be at odds with nature and also continues to be very destructive. Why? Could it be the scientific discoveries mean little without a spiritual component: Love.

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