Be praised, my Lord, for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light;
he is strong and shines magnificently.
O Lord, we think of you when we look at him.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon,
and for the stars
which you have set shining and lovely
in the heavens.
Be praised, my Lord,
for our Brothers Wind and Air
and every kind of weather by which you, Lord,
uphold life in all your creatures.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,
who is very useful to us,
and humble and precious and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you give us light in the darkness:
he is bright and lively and strong.
Be praised, my Lord,
for Sister Earth, our Mother,
who nourishes us and sustains us,
fruits and vegetables of many kinds
and flowers of many colors.
The long excerpt above from St. Francis’ Canticle of Creation, written in 1224, included wisdom beyond its knowing. This playful, prayerful testimony to the wonder and beauty of creation predates, of course, any understanding of evolution and the science that all things are connected and are—literally—from one source. So, when Francis speaks of different manifestations of nature as “sister” and “brother,” it is likely that he was, in part, trying to express affection, not the 13-billion-year history and linkage human beings share with all things.
Certainly, Francis, whose Feast Day we celebrate on October 4, believed that all things are authored by God. It is likely that he imagined, drawing from Biblical images, some kind of divine and supernatural spectacle that gave the sun, moon, stars, earth and all things. But Francis, like all of us, was limited by what human knowledge could provide at a certain point in time. The cosmology Francis would have inherited included the assumption that the earth was flat, that the sky was a dome over the flat earth, with the stars, sun and moon as objects that mysteriously orbited the flat earth. He would have also assumed that heaven and God resided above the dome, and that this life, this earth were a kind of precursor to our “real” home in the heaven above the dome.
What we know today is that the earth is not flat, the sky is not a dome. We know today that there are 200 billion “suns” (stars) in our galaxy and there are 200 billion galaxies: We have a LOT of sisters and brothers. Meanwhile, the universe continues to expand. There is no “up” and there is no “down.” So, heaven is not “up.” God is not “away.” Heaven and God are here, there, everywhere — as fully present in this moment as in some far-off, mysterious place.
What human knowledge has revealed is that we literally emerged from this planet, along with water, and the fruits and vegetables and flowers that Francis honors; they are indeed our sister and brothers, or at least cousins. Here’s the point: this is our common home and this is our common origin. God is the inspiration and source, we believe, and the stuff of our bones, blood and flesh—like all things on this planet—all come from the same material. What was molten rock has become Francis, Clare, Sojourner Truth, Rembrandt, Malala Yousafzai, Gandhi, Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking.
For over 4½ billion years, this planet earth has been forming into the remarkable water planet that sustains the miracle of human life. The interconnections are so wondrous, so intricate . . . and so very fragile. The interplay of light and darkness, oxygen and carbon dioxide, rain and sunshine, and a million, billion chemical reactions keep us alive with almost inexhaustible complexity.
But in 2019, this we KNOW. The earth is warming at an alarming rate, caused by a concentration of heat-trapping gases in the air. Called greenhouse gases, they are higher now than they have been at any time over the last 800,000 years. These gases are largely a consequence of human activity: emissions from automobiles, industry and agriculture compounded by the destruction of forests, jungles and prairies.
As weather becomes more violent, coral reefs die, polar icecaps melt, and oceans rise, we recognize that, if faith is to mean anything, it surely must prompt us to recognize, perhaps for the first time, that we are, in God’s name, the custodians of this planet. Yes, of course, the sovereignty of God is real, but sovereignty does not mean (and never has) that God will protect us from our mistakes. Over the centuries, we have slaughtered each other, enslaved each other, bombed each other’s children, and God did not stop the carnage. We can destroy each other if we choose. We can destroy ourselves if we choose. We can destroy our planet if we choose.
Or we can choose to call each other sister and brother. We can call the stranger our brother, the enemy our sister. We can call the ocean our brother and the mountains our sisters. We can call the rainforest and the polar icecaps our kin. St. Francis had it right.
And then we must make choices and act. We must alter our lifestyles (reduce our consumption), opt for sustainable strategies, and change our social policy. We need to do this now, as urgently as if our house was on fire. Because, in all kinds of ways, our home is on fire.
So, yes, let us be brother and sister to the wind, air and water; to the flowers, vegetables and fruit; to the oceans, forests and grasslands. Let us go forth as if they were as precious to us as they are to God, as we are to God. Let us praise God with our lives, honoring what has been so generously given, including the responsibility to care for this common home we share.