When I was a youngster discovering the radical aspects of Christianity, I was very taken with Saint Francis. His embrace of gospel poverty, his pacifism, his linking property with violence, and generally the thoroughness with which he gave himself to the love of God; all this was very inspiring to me. However, I was bothered that his radicalism had been so watered down, so much relegated to birdbaths, and that most of the popular attention paid to him was sentimental and focused on his relationship to animals.
Now, as I have become more conscious of the atrociously cruel treatment of animals in our ungodly capitalist system, and have learned how pigs and chickens and cows are exploited, treated as mass product and made to live ghastly lives as part of our "food industry", I have a greater appreciation for the importance of the radical vision of Francis that we are sisters and brothers to all of creation. I think that Francis's Canticle of Brother Sun with it's vision of all creation humbly praising God in familial solidarity is an essential development in Christian consciousness, which too often has been rather callous towards the rest of material creation.
I have come to cherish the stories of Francis's love for animals, and value the notion that sanctity breaks down the relationships of violence and exploitation even in human relationships with animals. I also love similar stories about the desert fathers and mothers and hermits. They tell us, I believe, that voluntary poverty revolutionizes our relationships with everything, that voluntary poverty is what creates in us the gentleness that allows the lion (us) to lie down with the lamb.
Our lack of sympathy and tenderness for everything and anything held in being by God's love gives birth to our sins of exploitation, whether it is exploitation of other humans, or of animals, or of the resources of the earth.
A brother to Francis in this vision of solidarity with all creation is an early eastern monk and hermit, Saint Isaac the Syrian who wrote:
"What is a charitable heart? It is a heart burning with charity for the whole of creation, for humans, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons --- for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion that seizes his heart, a heart that is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon a creature. That is why such a man never ceases to pray for the animals, for the enemies of Truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified. He will pray even for the reptiles, moved by the infinite pity that reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united to God."
May our hearts be so softened.
New York, January 2003