Kinship with Critters and Cretins

Did St. Francis share kinship with all of Creation or just the cute critters MoHotta18 / Flickr Creative Commons

Did St. Francis share kinship with all of Creation or just the cute critters?
MoHotta18 / Flickr Creative Commons

Don’t tell anyone, but I should have been a Franciscan. 1 Because of our mutual love for nature, I always found inspiration in St. Francis of Assisi. Even though my middle name was already Francis, I choose it as my confirmation name because of my devotion to this saint of the animals.  I remember being fascinated at the thought of a saint who preached to the birds and blessed animals. For someone like me who collected various “pets” such as snakes and salamanders, this was a cool saint. I mean, who didn’t love it when on St. Francis’s feast day you could bring your pets to church! After college, I had the pleasure of visiting Assisi in Italy, but have yet to visit the birthplace of St. Ignatius in Spain – a deficiency that could easily be remedied if my superior, ahem, would like to approve an international trip…

If you’re not up on Church history, you might not realize that the relationship between Jesuits and Franciscans may best be characterized as a kind of family feud – the Hatfields and McCoys of religious life, if you will.  When the Jesuits burst upon the stage of history in 1540, the older, more established Franciscan Order had more bishops and priests in Europe and the Americas; to say nothing of their missionary activity in the Americas and the East, which began long before St. Ignatius was in diapers.  So when the “upstart” Jesuits began their own missionary efforts, many of the Franciscan in the hierarchy and beyond were leery of the Jesuits’ successes in finding new missions and schools.  Instead of co-operating, the two orders competed fiercely with each other, often hampering efforts at evangelization, as was the case when the Franciscans sided against the Jesuits in the Chinese Rites Controversy.  And no Jesuit will never forget that it was the Franciscan Pope Clement XIV who suppressed the Society in 1773.

Despite this rocky relationship between Jesuits and Franciscans, I really like Franciscan spirituality (again, don’t tell the Jesuits).  I love what St. Francis says about being a brother and sister to all of Creation.  In his Canticle of the Creatures, Francis praises God “with all your creatures,” first through  Brother Sun, but he goes to praise God through Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth.2  It sounds so loving and utopian.  I feel connected in this web of life, which makes me want to run outside and hug Brother Tree and kiss Sister Flower and be with my big happy family of Creation.

Then I realize I’m a Jesuit.

Can you befriend “Tickles” the Tapeworm? / from Parasite Love Journal

Can you befriend “Tickles” the Tapeworm?
Parasite Love Journal

Not only am I a Jesuit, but I’m also a parasitologist.  If I take St. Francis seriously, then all of Creation is my kin.  So if I’m willing to hug a tree, then I also have to be willing to hug a tapeworm and the malaria parasite?  Can I kiss a mosquito?  Am I really ready to embrace parasites, which cause untold amounts of suffering, disease and death?  Reality sinks in: a web of life implies a web of death.  My utopian view of Franciscan spirituality suddenly seems saccharine and trite.  The realist, not to mention the scientist, can safely dismiss its idealistic perception of Creation as kin and family.  Right?

When Paul Thorn sings, “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love,” he describes some of his less-than-ideal relationships with friends and family.  And I’m sure we don’t have to look too far in our own families to find the black sheep and the skeletons in our closets.  We all know an Uncle Louie who no one wants to talk about or the Aunt Sally who spends more time talking to her ten cats than to her family.  The family life idealized by the Cleavers in Leave It To Beaver and the Huxtables in the Cosby Show, is rarely found in real life.  Instead, we find families rife with tensions and fights.  Even the Church is not free from family squabbles, thank you very much Jesuits and Franciscans; not to mention others…  So the metaphor of Creation as kin may better reflect reality than we thought. We find tension in the beauty and deadliness of Uncle Tiger and Cousin Black Bear.  Sister Wolf reminds us that family fights occur in the non-human world, especially over food and mates.  Uncle Disease and Aunt Predator act to regulate populations of Brother Deer.

The very word parasite in Greek means a person who eats at another’s table. The word came to describe those who exploit others, giving nothing back in return.  Again, I’m sure we know family members like that.  So maybe we need to give St. Francis more credit than a utopian and superficial view of history gives him.  My evidence? Take a look at the final lines of Francis’s famous Canticle of the Creatures:

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,

from whom no one living can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.

Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,

for the second death shall do them no harm.

 

Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks

and serve Him with great humility.

 

St. Francis includes Sister Death in his family of Creation.  He acknowledges that the web of life is also a web of death.  We may feel uncomfortable with recognizing our kinship with Sister Death.  But we are probably also uncomfortable with the thought of inviting Cousin Vinnie over for Christmas…that is, if he gets out on parole for the fifth time this year.  We may have to “die” to our comfort by inviting Cousin Vinnie, but let’s face it, it’s much easier than befriending Sister Death!

Authentic kinship with Creation does not imply a Tree Hugging Fest.  It means recognizing the reality that we do share kinship with all of Creation, not just the cute and charismatic mega-fauna.  Just as we cannot choose our family, we cannot choose which of God’s creatures with whom we share a kinship.  Brother Dolphin swims with Sister Shark while Cousin Hookworm infects our human family and friends.  We cannot isolate ourselves from God’s Creation anymore than we can run away to a deserted island to escape our families.  We need to negotiate our family relationships, especially the most problematic relationships.  To what extent can I isolate myself from all disease and parasites?  Can I find something redeeming in being ill?  Can I completely avoid talking to crazy Aunt Sue at Thanksgiving? Should I try to avoid her?  Does she need some support and consolation her loneliness?

Did St. Francis share kinship with all of Creation or just the cute critters?

St. Francis as a brother to all creation.
Andrea Danti / Shutterstock

This negotiation requires both a Franciscan spirituality of kinship and Ignatian discernment.  In the spirit of Pope Francis, a Jesuit who took the name of St. Francis, the two “families” can complement each other.  In Pope Francis, we see a man with a deeply Franciscan love for the poor while at the same time using his Jesuit training in discernment to examine questions of Church leadership and finance, to name a few. In my own life, my Jesuit training helps to channel my innate Franciscan spirituality into a care for Creation.  For example, my innate Franciscan concern for the environment may prompt me to become a strict vegetarian.  But the Jesuit in me asks, “Where is God present in the ‘goods’ of vegetables and meats?” As I engage both of these spiritualities, I begin to see that the answer is more complicated and will differ among everyone. Although both spiritualities are rooted in Christ, I find various ways to express them – from my own ecological research to TJP articles to my Jesuit Tree Huggers Facebook page.  And when we accept our kinship with all of Creation, with all of our family and friends, then we find God’s promised hope of eternal life.

Re-reading the end of St. Francis’ Canticle, we see that he refers to Sister Bodily Death and our second death.  If the first death represents the death of our egos, our attachments, our disdain for one another and for God’s creatures, then the second death shall do us no harm.  In other words, if we die to our discomfort with disease, parasites and crazy Uncle Billy Bob, then we can more fully enter into kinship with all of Creation.  Our second “death” then becomes our entrance into Eternal Life with God, our family, our friends and our Parasite Pals.

 

— — — — — —

  1. Franciscans, like Jesuits, are one of the many religious orders in the Church, all of whom take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
  2. If you’ve ever heard “Canticle of the Sun” you’re familiar with this Franciscan prayer.

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