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Selections From The Ark Number 196 - Spring 2004
A RESTORED HARMONY IN CREATION
Franciscan Capuchin friar, Mark Elvins, gave this talk at the Ecumenical Retreat at Launde Abbey last July. It tells of the contribution of St Francis to our understanding of creation, redemption, and the Eucharist.
By Fr Mark Elvins OFM Cap
The beauty of creation, its order and harmony, bespeaks a divine Creator. Creation is not therefore just a backdrop for human activity, it is a sacramental sign of the presence of God. The meaning and purpose of God is the outpouring of his love and a sign of his prodigal generosity. The lesson of creation is the glory of God, for creation glorifies God by its very existence. St Bonaventure taught that creation was relational. Just as the Trinity ‘is a community of relationships it is out of this community that creation emerges’.1 Thus ‘all of creation – rocks, trees, stars, plants, animals and humans – are in some way related to the Trinity’.2
Bonaventure used two images for creation, a mirror and a book. As a mirror, creation reflects the glory of God but, as a book, creation can be found to contain a vestige, an image and likeness of God.
The vestige is shared by all creation from ‘every grain of sand, every star (and) every earthworm’. This was manifested by St Francis of Assisi in his love for all of God’s creation. ‘Every creature is an aspect of God’s self-expression in the world, and since every creature has its foundation in the Word, each is equally close to God.’3
In this way Bonaventure views creation as sacramental and all created things as signs of God’s presence. The world and all creation can in this way be understood ‘as a means of God’s self revelation, so that, like a mirror’ it can reflect God’s glory and lead humans to love and praise the Creator. This Franciscan view of the world is echoed by St Angela of Foligno, who proclaimed that the world was ‘pregnant with God’.
This book of creation was understood by Bonaventure to be a book of divine wisdom, made visible to all. However, because of sin after the Fall, humanity no longer discerned God’s wisdom in creation. In Eastern Christian thought the Fall brought spiritual blindness whereas, before, Adam and Eve had a continuous vision of God and the whole of creation reflected his glory. Hence the Christian goal as the beatific vision will provide a restoration of spiritual sight, accompanied by the glorified vision of all creation.
The book of creation has consequently remained incomprehensible to many who do not understand its language. The summit of creation is the Incarnation, the raising up of fallen humanity in the person of Christ who, by taking human nature, enfleshed the divine. Thus God was made visible as part of creation. In this way God’s uncreated nature became united to created nature in Christ, and revealed the hidden language of creation in his divinised humanity. To know Christ is to rediscover the language of creation. In this way St Francis saw the truth of every created thing in relation to God.
Francis’ renewed vision enabled him to see the whole of creation appear with ‘the brightness of the first day of creation’.4 He could read the language of creation, but only as a result of his life of prayer and penance which enabled him to reach an anticipated state of redemption, signified by the stigmata; in this way original vision was restored and he saw the glory of God in all created things.
An example is given in the Eastern Christian understanding of the Transfiguration. In the Christian East, Christ is understood to have continuously radiated the glory of God but, because of human sin, people saw only a man. At the Transfiguration, however, it was the sight of Peter, James and John that was transfigured. The icons show the light radiating from Christ and touching the eyes of Peter, James and John, who thus see Christ as he truly is, with the whole of creation reflecting his glory.
In his Speculum Perfectionis, Bonaventure explains that Francis’s renewed vision was born of being completely absorbed in the love of God, in which he saw the goodness of God ‘in all created things’, he therefore had an especial and profound love for (all) God’s creatures. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) confirms the means by which this spiritual vision is restored: he claimed that by penance and purification God can be seen in creation. This is evidenced in the life of Francis who contemplated nature in admiration of its beauty, but later ‘discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart’.5 ‘He saw divine Beauty in the beautiful things of creation because he saw the beauty first in Christ.’6 It was ‘through his relationship with Christ, that he identified each and every creature as a brother and sister because he recognized that they had the same primordial source as himself’.7 This ability or grace to see everything in relation to God Bonaventure calls ‘contuition’, the consciousness of God’s presence with all creation, be it a tree, a cow or an earthworm.
Francis, as his biographer, Thomas of Celano, relates, ‘saw behind things pleasant to behold their life-giving and cause’.8 He ‘was thus able to apprehend the real depths of creation because he had entered deeply into the word incarnate’ through whom every creature has its origin and in whom humanity has a language to read the book of creation. It was through this understanding relationship with Christ the Word and agent of creation, that Francis discovered him at the centre of his being and at the centre of all creation. Through ‘contuition’ he experienced a transformation of consciousness and of the created world, so that the book of nature glowed with legibility and every aspect communicated to him the prodigal love of God in the open-handed generosity of what he created.
For Francis the whole panorama of the heavens and the countryside and every living creature, the sick, the sinner, the ugly and the leper, were all held in the wide sweep of the Saviour’s loving embrace. Creation as an outward sign of a hidden eternal reality is thus revelatory, and what is revealed is what gives creation meaning. Christ gives meaning to what has been created, as the Word which has taken on created nature and unites what is created to that which is uncreated. The goal of creation is thus achieved through the agency of human nature inaugurated in Christ and sustained by those, like St Francis, who are conformed to Christ as co-operators in redemption.
The way to God is through Christ, the Way the Truth and the Life. St Francis, in acknowledging the signs of God in creation, offered creation back to the Father, a tribute of earth to heaven. The bread and wine, as fruits of the earth, are offered in the Eucharist back to the God who made them, but in this mystical exchange are changed to become Christ’s Body and Blood, and are so offered back to humanity as the food of redemption. Creation is the stage for redemption and in this divine-human exchange humanity is the agency thus graced to co-operate by leading creation back to its source, by lives conformed to Christ. This progress of hidden growth is the kingdom growing secretly, passing from one degree of glory to another until redemption is complete and the transfigured cosmos is offered back to God.
Animal creation in a special way indicates the suffering of creation, which St Paul outlines in his letter to the Romans chapter 8: ‘the whole of creation is groaning in travail until’ – until when? He then adds ‘the redemption of our bodies’, in other words, the redemption of humanity. It is the final redemption of humanity that is the catalyst which will complete the restoration of original harmony in creation, so long tainted by sin. Nature groans in conflict, seeming to lurk in fear and anxious anticipation, but with the coming of Francis, all living creatures approach him with trusting affection. Birds listened eagerly to his preaching and awaited his blessing. The crickets perched on his hand and at his bidding sang in joyful praise. River birds hid in his hands and refused to fly away. A captured fish, which he set free in the water, played and would not swim away until Francis gave his blessing. A wild hare jumped into his lap and would not leave him and, at his death, an ‘immense flock’ of swallows, which he had cared for, flew in salute over the house where he lay. Where Francis moved, a new kind of reality seemed to reign, a changed existence of restored relationships came into being. In his Legenda Major (8:11) Bonaventure writes: ‘that by God’s divine power the brute beasts felt drawn towards him and inanimate creation obeyed his will. It seemed as if he had returned to the state of primeval innocence.’
Christ inaugurated God’s great plan of redemption upon the cross, suffering for human sin to cancel the debt humanity owed to God. This is a debt of love paid by a loving Saviour with a loving sacrifice. He invites his followers to take up their cross and follow him and so share the work of redemption. The saints share in a special way as co-operators with the Redeemer. Hence, around Francis, creation was restored, but only as so far as his continued presence triggered this transformation. For only where Francis was, did the creatures respond to the loving power of original innocence. In this way the redeemed soul is like a magnet, drawing creation back to God. Although ‘creation continues to groan in travail’ until the redemption, in individual cases creation can experience a temporary reprieve from suffering in a brief restoration of harmony.
Almighty God by his creative word has caused the order and symmetry of creation in which primeval monsters are tamed and the waters of chaos are held in check. Thus it was, at the dawn of creation, that original innocence and harmony held sway – before the Fall. After the Fall creation became tainted by human sin and the chaos elements returned. One of the attributes of the Fall was the disruption of original harmony between humanity and animal creation. The dykes of creation’s ordered serenity were breached and the chaos elements returned.
Into this fallen world Christ was born. He took on fallen human nature to raise it up and restore its potential of original harmony. Because of the contagion of sin that had poisoned creation humanity deserved to die, but Christ took on the punishment for sin and thus cancelled the debt of guilt and inaugurated redemption.
Completed redemption will see creation handed back to God with the restored harmony of original innocence. Creation will once again glow with the reflected glory of God as the ‘transfigured cosmos’. Meanwhile the redemption of humanity progresses with the tidal effect of progress and regression. The quondam et futura, the once and future harmony of creation, as envisioned by Isaiah in chapter 11, speaks of the wolf lying down with the lamb and the lion eating straw like the ox with a little child to lead them. A vision of original harmony projected to a future restoration.
Every so often perhaps we see an example of restored harmony in animal creation as part of this tidal effect of redemption. For instance in April, 2002, at an animal sanctuary in Kent, a new-born lamb that had been abandoned by its mother was adopted by a St Bernard dog. The two creatures, which would have been natural enemies in the wild, had bonded, to the extent that the lamb, which was so young and vulnerable, would probably have died, but for the affectionate attention of the St Bernard.
Humanity must be understood as an essential part of the process of restored relationships. The writings of the 13th-century Joachim de Fiore have perhaps helped to sustain this vision of a restored harmony in creation. He was a Cistercian Abbot whose apocalyptic speculations have heightened the yearnings for a restored innocence in creation. He prophesied a saintly founder of a new religious order who would pioneer the restoration of this original harmony. He died in 1202 but many of the Franciscans saw his prophecy fulfilled in St Francis. St Bonaventure saw Francis as the Angel of the sixth seal in the Apocalypse, which shows the influence of de Fiore. However, Thomas of Celano, a contemporary of St Francis, vouches for St Francis as holding back the chaos elements.9
The responses of animals to Francis can be seen as the beginning of restored innocence, and the initiation of the progress of restoring the whole of creation. Francis’ understanding was derived from common Christian ascetical ideals. Creation was the stage for God’s plan of redemption and Christ has commissioned his Church to preach the gospel to every creature. Francis took this quest literally as a means of restoring original harmony by preaching even to animals. Creation initially gave him aesthetic pleasure but latterly, as Celano relates, he became more concerned for animals as he progressed in prayer and penance, loving them as brothers and sisters.
He acted as a means of unifying creation in the Creator, and so deep became his love for God, he loved all his creatures. Creation he saw as God’s gift to humanity as a sign of his love, and so in return he loved every creature, every hair and every feather, every petal, every leaf and every blade of grass. Because in each of these he received a constant murmur of the love of God.
1. Ilia Delio, Simply Bonaventure (New York: New City Press, 2001) p.57.
2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. p.61. 4. A.M. Allchin, Ed. Intro. Sacrament and Image (London: Fellowship of Ss Alban & Sergius, 1967) p.11. 5. Thomas of Celano’s first Life, 29:81. 6. Ilia Delio, op. cit., p.63. 7. Ibid. 8. II Celano 124:165. 9. Cf.Admonition 5.
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