Pope Francis’ much anticipated encyclical on the environment, entitled “Praised Be” (“Laudato Si’”) after the opening line of St. Francis’ canticle, starts by personifying our planet, calling her our sister and mother, and lamenting the violence we have visited on her, with whom we are one, who lives in us and who sustains us:
““Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.1Already the above, opening paragraphs of this encyclical are worth pausing over, and before even proceeding with reflecting on its remaining 183 pages, I would like to pick up on the idea that the earth ought to be thought of as another person, instead of “just” as some inanimate matter that is alien to the human race. In fact, Pope Francis decries such an attitude towards our planet later on in Laudato si’ by quoting Romano Guardini (§115):
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
“[T]he technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference.”To get a sense of the origin and nature of St. Francis’ broad use of personification when addressing not only the Earth as sister and mother, but all of creation too, let us take a look at the circumstances of his writing the Canticle of Brother Sun that Pope Francis quotes. In a profound analysis of the Canticle, Ilia Delio, O.S.F. recounts the circumstances of its writing in the spring or summer of 1225 (some 6-10 months after St. Francis received the stigmata), quoting from the Legenda perugina:
“He could no longer see in the daytime the light of day, nor at night the light of the fire, but always remained in the house and in the little cell in darkness. Moreover, he had great pain in his eyes day and night so that at hight he could scarcely rest or sleep, which was very bad for him and greatly aggravated the sickness of his eyes and his other infirmities.”St. Francis was at a low point in the midst of this suffering and he cried out to God for help: “Lord, come to my help and look on my infirmities so that I may bear them patiently.” He then heard a voice promising him eternal happiness in the kingdom of heaven, expressed via an image in which the earth transformed into gold (still in the Legenda perugina):
“Tell me brother: if anyone were to give you for your infirmities and tribulations such a great and precious treasure that, if the whole earth were pure gold, all stones were precious stones, and all water were balsam, yet you would consider all this as nothing, and these substances as earth, stones, and water in comparison with the great and precious treasure given to you, surely you would rejoice greatly?”To this St. Francis replied:
“That would be a great treasure, Lord, and worth seeking, truly precious and greatly to be loved and desired.”The voice then said to him:
“Therefore, brother, rejoice, and rather be glad in your infirmities and tribulations, since henceforth you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom.”The next morning, St. Francis awoke, wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun and sent his fellow friars out to sing it “as minstrels of the Lord.”
What seems particularly significant to me here is that the Canticle was not the result of some euphoric lyricising, but instead the response to having received consolation from God in response to St. Francis placing his trust in Him in the midst of suffering and distress.
Beyond the circumstances of its writing, it is important to note what St. Francis’ disciple, St. Bonaventure though of the motives behind Francis’ personification of the created. The following are passages Delio quotes from Bonaventure’s Legenda maior:
“When he considered the primordial source of all things, he was filled with even more abundant piety, calling creatures, no matter how small, by the name of brother or sister, because he knew they had the same source as himself.St. Francis called the Earth sister and mother because both she and he share the one origin: God. Since we and all of creation share the one Father, we are all siblings - not only among members of the human race, but also in relation to all of creation, from the simplest forms of inanimate matter to lifeforms most similar to us: a worldview also highly consistent with that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Pope Francis also refers to in Laudato Si’ (§83).
With a feeling of unprecedented devotion he savored in each and every creature - as in so many rivulets - that Goodness which is their fountain source ... and like the prophet David sweetly exhorted them to praise the Lord.”
St. Francis tracing brotherhood and sisterhood with the Earth and with all of creation to a shared source in God is also very closely related to the intellectual visions of the Servant of God, Chiara Lubich, who in 1949 experienced insights into the life of the Trinity. There, Lubich saw the following image of how all creation proceeds from God:
“When God created, He created all things from nothing because He created them from Himself: from nothing signifies that they did not pre-exist because He alone pre-existed (but this way of speaking is inexact as in God there is no before and after). He drew them out from Himself because in creating them He died (of love), He died in love, He loved and therefore He created.All of creation is a projection of the Word (words within the Word) “outside” of the Father, where these words (ideas) are the models, laws or forms of things, as Dr. Callan Slipper explains in an analysis of Lubich’s visions of creation. While all of creation is viewed in the above terms, consonant with St. Francis, Lubich also sees differences between the relationship that humans have with the Word (Jesus) and the relationship that the rest of creation has:
As the Word, who is the Idea of the Father, is God, analogously the ideas of things, that “ab aeterno” are in the word, are not abstract, but they are real: word within the Word.
The Father projects them — as with divergent rays — “outside Himself,” that is, in a different and new, created dimension, in which he gives to them “the Order that is Life and Love and Truth.” Therefore, in them there is the stamp of the Uncreated, of the Trinity.”
“At the end of time (and already now for God) the model of each pine tree, that is beneath each pine tree, will come into light and both the particular and the universal will be seen contemporaneously. Now the head is on High, and together with the other models, in the Word of God. [...]While every created entity has its source in God, human beings each are both particular instances of a word-idea and the whole of the Word (Jesus); the rest of creation too has its source in the Word, but in a way that only partly expresses Him. Instead of suggesting superiority, the relationships between God (Word), human beings (particular instances of the whole Word) and the rest of creation (particular instances of the partial Word), place human beings in a position of containing the rest of creation (being “mirrors of the Universe”) by being instances of the Word that is their source and destination. This particular nature of humanity is also addressed in Laudato si’, where Pope Francis highlights both the need for treating all living beings responsibly and the greater dignity of the human person that is particularly, and most perversely, violated by other humans:
The plants that we see now, for instance the pine trees, are “members” of the model pine tree [that is, various forms of the model pine tree, Lubich explains] that is in the Word and thus destined to be Word. Here too is the mystery of the Mystical Body in nature. [...]
Human beings, instead, because they are immortal, will return into the Word: son in the Son, but they will also be distinct from the Son as another son of God. Having however in themselves the whole of the Word they too will be a mirror of the Universe that is in the Word. [...]
[I]n each human being [Jesus] sees the Human Being, that is Himself, the model of humanity, likewise He already sees beneath other creatures (as the pine tree for example) the Idea, the Word, that is then part (= the whole) of Himself. The human being (made in the image of God) is the whole of Himself; the plant is part of Himself (but = to Himself and it says: humanity—its God—is greater than me).”
“At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure. Certainly, we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others.” (§90)I believe that the personification of creation that St. Francis used as a means for acknowledging that all of creation has the same Father as each one of us, that Chiara Lubich’s vision of the life of the Trinity clarified with even greater nuance, and that Pope Francis placed at the basis of his call for a new culture of relating to each other and to nature is a perspective that immediately brings with it a deep sense of clarity. Thinking of nature as a sibling rather than as the “mere given” that Pope Francis criticized is a great token for investing it with a whole architecture of care and affection that other mental models would struggle to bring about. And it is a perspective that was easily accessible even to my 7 and 12 year old sons, who understood what it meant as soon as I told them about it and who immediately saw that it makes sense.
1 Just because of its beauty, here is the original in St. Francis’ own, Umbrian words: «Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra, la quale ne sustenta et governa, et produce diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.»