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A Publication of


From The Ark, No. 187 Spring 2001

St Francis, Creation and Original Innocence

Fr Mark Elvins is a Fransiscan Capuchin friar working with homeless people in Chester.* Here he talks about the original innocence of nature in Eden, and of how St Francis sought to relive that God-given state.

By Fr Mark Elvins, OFM.Cap

St Francis did not speak of nature; instead he talked of the 'heavens', the 'earth' and the 'creatures under the heavens'.  His vocabulary was not derived from any of the scientific notions that condition our modern thinking, but rather from the literature of the Bible.  The literature of the Bible is full of poetic whimsy such as 'Why leap ye so, ye high hills?' (in Ps 68), 'the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn, that they shall laugh and sing.' (Ps 65) [Coverdale trans].  The scriptures abound with mythical beasts such as unicorns and basilisks and the great sea monsters Leviathon and Beomoth (but alas, more recent translating seem to have excised many of these whimsicalities).  There is something magical about descriptions of nature in which vegetation rejoices and the world is full of innumerable creeping creatures.

Medieval man's idea of creation was like a book which lay open and wherein could be read the great works of God.  God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, pillars of cloud and fire led the Israelites through the wilderness, and Christ was crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem.  Looking into this book of creation, St Basil the Great said that of all the fruits of the earth the sweetest was the fruit of tranquility.  In this we see nature has a balm for the senses, and Basil adds that the contemplation of nature 'banishes all insecurity and presumption'.

The conflict in nature

In the Book of the Apocalypse we read that there was war in heaven and Michael and his angels fought with the devil and his angels.  The result was that the devil or Satan was thrust out of heaven with all his demonic hordes to wander the earth for the ruination of souls.  This has resulted in the conflict that pervades creation.

We read in the Gospels that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Thus the wilderness regions or deserts came to be understood as the traditional dwelling place of Satan and his attendant demons.  The desert by definition is a barren and inhospitable place, the abode of wild animals, a place of testing for the human spirit where life itself is found in its starkest form.  In the religious context it is a place of testing where the Israelites had their faith forged in 40 years of wandering.  John the Baptist came out of the desert to recall Israel to its days of faith and the Desert Fathers went into the desert to contend with demons.   In this we see that the desert is the battleground of spiritual warfare.  The curse of Eden when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden included a continuing war with Satan summed up in the curse 'you shall bruise his head, and he shall bruise your heel' (Gen 3:15).

Paradise lost and regained

When Adam and Eve dwelt in the paradise garden all creation rejoiced in harmonious accord.  Adam had dominion over all the animals who recognised in him the authority of original innocence.  This rural idyll was shattered by sin and Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden.  The sin was intellectual pride in wanting to be like God by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which they had been forbidden to eat.   Satan had fallen in the same way.  This great original sin unleashed a reign of discord that endures to this day in a consequently disordered universe.

The Fall of humanity has disrupted creation therefore, and left the paradise garden a nostalgic memory with an endemic desire for restoration.  We see nature red in tooth and claw as a result of the Fall, and some in the mediaeval world saw demons in everything from toads, cats, dogs, apes, swine and even the beauty of women!  This gloomy dualism had a fixation on the transitoriness of life and the illusoriness and corruptibility of all earthly beauty.

Even Francis, with his positive approach to creation, occasioned to experience a certain demonic element in creation, such as when he was tormented by mice.  He was living in a cell near San Damiano and could not sleep or relax for swarms of mice which even disrupted his attempts to eat.  He concluded that this was a temptation of the devil, and a similar experience with the braying of a donkey which prevented him praying seemed like demonic interference.  It is also said that Francis contended with the devil in the craggy fastness of La Verna, high above Assisi, and on another occasion was miraculously received into the rock to avoid the devil who stood before him and a sheer precipice.

Francis in many ways typified the solitary hermits of the Egyptian desert who, by their prayers and penances, set out to conquer for Christ the demon-infested wilderness.   This was, in a sense, the way back to the paradise garden, for the loss of original innocence caused the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden could only be reclaimed by the restoration of innocence.  The characteristics of this original innocence were familiarity with God and dominion over all creatures.  Francis, by his long hours of prayer and penance, was assured of the forgiveness of all his sins and, like a number of penitential saints, his original innocence was restored.

Original innocence and dominion over Animals

In the first paradise that lies behind the memory of the world there was no hurt or cruelty, and thus the prophet Isaiah looks forward to its restoration in the words:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together. and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (11:6-9)

This vision of original harmony was restored for certain saints in a long cavalcade stretching back to the Desert Fathers.  There was the famous case of St Macanus of Egypt who persuaded a hyaena to give up killing; St Pachome of Tabenne who tamed crocodiles, and St Jerome who took a thorn from a lion's paw and the beast in gratitude stayed to be his servant.  There was also the case of a bear who took compassion on a lonely hermit and so went to live with him to keep him company.   Another hermit, St Colman, from Ireland, shared his cave with a cockerel, a goat and a fly.  The cockerel would act as his alarm clock by crowing in the early morning, the goat would prod him awake if he fell asleep during his long prayers, and the fly would keep his place on the page of his prayer book!  One of the more famous examples was St Brendan and the sea monster.  This account explains that on Brendan's missionary journeys across the sea this monster would appear and terrify his disciples, but Brendan explained that he only wanted to join them to sing the divine office.   Thus each day the monster would join them at prayer time singing in a rich baritone voice.

All these examples took place long before St Francis, but all these holy men showed that they had returned to the same original innocence by having this authority over creation.  Francis's most famous case was the taming of the wolf of Gubbio.   This creature had been terrifying the citizens of Gubbio and devouring their sheep.   Francis gave the wolf a good talking to and he became a reformed character, settling down at Gubbio to become a model citizen. [The town's citizens also undertook to feed the wolf daily.]

Other stories relating to Francis and animals include one about a cricket who, during the winter season, came each evening to the Portiuncula [Francis's tiny chapel] to sing the night office with the saint, and with a lamb Francis had befriended who always made a double genuflexion when passing the Blessed Sacrament.

Communion with Creation

Francis, by his reclamation of original innocence, had close relations with the whole created order. This relationship was characterised by gentleness and courtesy as he possessed a profound respect for everything God had created which were all for him signs of God's open-handed generosity.

For Francis creation with its order and beauty spoke of a divine rationality, an outward sign of a hidden Creator who makes himself known through what he has created.   In this, for Francis, nature takes on a sacramental character, revealing God behind every aspect of what he has created.  The restoration of original innocence was accompanied by a new vision, and so Francis saw nature with the pristine beauty of the paradisal garden.  All that was lowly, humble, beneficent and gentle spoke of God's presence as a living symbol.  Lambs, lilies and sweet-smelling herbs reminded him of Christ the paschal lamb.  Swallows with outstretched wings for him made the sign of the cross in the sky and the branches of trees recalled the wood of Calvary.

Francis declared of the element of water - Sister water 'which is very useful and humble and precious and modest.'  However, of all unreasoning creatures he loved fire most ardently, because of its beauty and usefulness.  In his Canticle of the Creatures moreover he sought to rouse the whole of creation to sing God's praises.   The solidarity he had with creation enabled him to call even the most insignificant creatures his brothers and sisters.

Above all the Eucharist was for Francis the focus of all creation, as the summit and fullness of God's presence, in that He was present in a lesser way under the sign of all other created things. Thus every created thing indicated for him the Creator and had a share in some measure of the sign value of the real presence, but only in the Blessed Sacrament did the sign become the reality of God.

Creation as the stage for the drama of Redemption

In St Paul's letter to the Romans (8:22-23) we read that 'the whole of creation has been groaning in travail together until now ... as we await for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.'  This implies that sin has brought conflict into nature, which accounts for the groaning of creation until humanity is redeemed.  Upon the anticipated redemption of saints like Francis nature seemed to recover its paradisal harmony.  Creation is the stage of God's plan for humanity's redemption and creation seems to interact in the process of redemption.  Thus nature becomes tamed in the presence of those who, by their holiness of life, seem to have anticipated redemption.   Redemption was wrought by Christ in his human nature and in this Francis developed a devotion to the humanity of Christ and sought to embody in himself this incarnate life of Christ.  Christ's suffering had won redemption as an initial achievement awaiting completion.  His crucifixion paid the price for humanity's sin as an inaugural sacrifice but, like Paul, the saints sought to make up the sufferings of Christ in their own bodies.  Thus Francis sought to share Christ's passion to the point of miraculously receiving his wounds in his hands, feet and side.  In this way Francis was a co-operator in redemption and he saw the whole of suffering creation participating in this redemptive process.

When he embraced a leper, for instance, he was said to have seen Christ.  He therefore not only saw the divine in the lowly earthworm and the sun in splendour, but in all the sick and suffering,- the outcast, the leper, the ugly and the sinful.  Thus all creation fell under the shadow of the cross in the great drama of redemption that turned nature back to God

The poverty of the Kingdom

Where does poverty fit in this broad survey of Francis and creation?  Nature was poor, nature was naked, but Christ had invested poverty with the Kingdom.  Nature was shorn of status and worldly ambition and Christ was poor, for 'the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'   Nature was vulnerable and dependent on divine providence and Francis chose to share this vulnerability and dependence.  It was as if Francis in this way lived in solidarity with creation.

At Christ's birth in a stable, exposed to nature in an ox's stall, he was accompanied not only by Mary and Joseph but, in the mind of Francis, also by the beasts of the field.  Here again we find the theme of poverty and nature.  This poverty for Francis was personified in the figure of Lady Poverty, a type of the gospel life.   In a work written after Francis's death (Sacrum Commerciam), an allegory, or a story with a symbolical application, Lady Poverty is described as original poverty or the poverty of nature.  Thus such poverty, for Francis, laid claim to original innocence, and so he wooed Lady Poverty with a will.

This figure of the gospel life became the object of Francis's romantic attachment and in this, poverty or nakedness became the marriage garment.  When Christ hung naked upon the cross to win back the human race the poet Dante describes Lady Poverty as embracing him, in the same pose that Francis is often depicted.  Christ's was the zenith of this poverty - naked, scourged and nailed to the cross, and this Francis embraced with the abandon of a lover and received Christ's wounds in his own body.   Through eyes purified by redemption Francis was to see nature as on the first day of creation, reflecting the glory of God in the simplicity and poverty of the Kingdom, for the world was crucified to him and him to the world.

The joy of creation

Francis's joy in the Lord communicated to all; his life was like a paean of praise in which all creation seemed to rejoice. Mediaeval philosophers spoke of natura naturans or nature naturing, which was nature following its own God-given instincts. All creation glorified God by doing what God intended, but perhaps for Francis the birds, above all, praised God in their singing.

One day when Francis was making a trip through the Spoleto valley he came across a great number of birds of various kinds, namely doves, crows, jackdaws and others all congregated in a tree.  Upon seeing them Francis ran eagerly towards them and the birds waited expectantly for him.  Francis greeted them in his customary manner and they were not the least disturbed by his presence.  Francis then with great joy humbly begged the birds to listen to the word of God.  He addressed them as follows:

My brothers, birds, you should praise your creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you.  God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air: though you neither sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.

The birds then began rejoicing, in a wonderful way according to their nature and they stretched their necks, extended their wings and gazed at Francis, who went close and touched them.  He then blessed them and gave them permission to fly away.   Francis's companions noticed how the birds had listened to the word of God with such reverence and Francis from that day forward solicitously admonished all birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator.

* Fr Mark Elvins is to be the retreat master at the ecumencial retreat in July, 2001

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Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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