“My heaven does not contain Me, and my earth does not contain Me, but the heart of My believing servant contains Me.”
I used to quote this passage to my students at the evangelical university where I taught for ten years. They always nodded in sage agreement, murmuring appreciatively—until I told them the verse wasn’t from the Bible. It’s an Islamic hadith, one of a large collection of wisdom sayings that complement and amplify the Qur’an.
And yet, many Western Christians think and behave as though this verse were Bible truth: that God’s creation is God-less, that humans are set apart from the natural world, and that Spirit only operates between humans and God. This belief prompts us to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (see Genesis 1:28) in selfish, exploitative ways rather than as faithful caretakers who must give an account of our stewardship. It drives young people away from a Church that teaches them that God is only to be encountered through mediating human institutions—when it is precisely human institutions that the young no longer trust.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit scientist-priest, wrote, “The further and deeper we penetrate into matter with our increasingly powerful methods, the more dumbfounded we are by the interconnection of its parts.”*** Contemporary physics teaches us about sub-atomic particles that are “aware” of each other from great distances away, that behave differently when they are being observed—in short, that everything is interconnected and, to some degree, even conscious. The Church generally teaches that Christians, at least, “are one body, for we all share in the one bread” (see 1 Corinthians 10:17)—but beyond that, every other created thing is separate and apart from us.
Now, if you know anything at all about Saint Francis of Assisi, you know that he loved God’s Creation. He preached to the birds, tamed a wolf, and invented the crèche with live players and animals. Many churches will hold a Pet Blessing this week as his feast day approaches; maybe you’ve been to one.
But Francis’s love of Creation extended farther than animals and birds. If you’ve ever sung the familiar hymn All Creatures of Our God and King, you have sung Saint Francis’s most famous poetic work, the Canticle of the Creatures. (Of course, in the hymn, it is translated into English verse.) Also known as the Canticle of Brother Sun, this beautiful poem praises God through God’s creatures, such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, and our Sister Mother Earth.
For a long time, I assumed that Francis’ habit of addressing non-human creatures as “brother” and “sister” was a mere poetic conceit—the kind of sentimental stunt you might expect from someone who preached to the birds. But then I read a story in one of his early biographies that turned that idea on its ear.
Francis contracted an eye ailment (probably trachoma) whilst proselytizing in the Middle East, and for the last two years of his life, he was nearly blind, and had a painful discharge from his eyes. In the town of Rieti, physicians tried to cure him by cauterizing his eyes with red-hot tongs. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.) Just before the painful procedure began, Francis looked intently at the glowing iron, and addressed Brother Fire in it, asking it to be gentle with him. He asked his Brother, Fire, to be gentle with him.
After I read this, my own eyes were opened, not only to Francis’ writings, but to scripture itself, in which the rivers clap their hands, the hills skip like rams, and the heavens declare the glory of God. For pre-modern Christians, Creation was ensouled, participating in Spirit and not of a wholly different order of things than we ourselves. Once we embrace this worldview, the possibilities for climate justice, the significance of environmental protection, and opportunities for encountering God become fruitful and multiply.
Which is why, when the eldest of my three goddaughters told me she was becoming interested in earth-based religions like Wicca, I recommended Shawn Sanford Beck’s brief-but-powerful book, Christian Animism. Because where the earth-based religions are concerned, I think we Christians have thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater. We have baptized and appropriated the trappings, while discarding the essential wisdom. Why should we crib holly and mistletoe from the Druids, lighted trees from the Norse, and colored eggs from Slavic fertility rites, and throw out what our own ancestors in the faith knew: that we are all “creatures of our God and King”, inextricably bound up with each other in the unsearchable web of life, all animated by Spirit?
***Teilhard de Chardin. The Human Phenomenon. Sussex Academic Press, 1999. Quoted in Duffy, Kathleen, Teilhard’s Mysticism: Seeing the Inner Face of Evolution. Maryknoll, 2014.