St. Francis is considered the patron saint of ecologists. This year the 30th anniversary of the Feast of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine took place just 13 days after The People's Climate March. With only day-of tickets available, I got up early and felt the first bite of fall in the air as I made my way north of 101st Street to meet a good friend, already in line, waiting for me. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic Revival architecture and has held its ground for over 120 years. In the brisk morning air the surrounding lawn and buildings stood out in stark relief; Greg Wyatt's Peace Fountain cast a cold shadow on those of us waiting in line as the sun strove to break the leaves with light. A quick web search will tell you, at least today, that St. Francis is the most popular of all the Catholic saints – even more so than St. Patrick. Does this mean we love animals more than we love beer? That despite whatever your button says on St. Patrick's Day, I don't have to kiss you because you really aren't Irish? Because if you were, St. Pat would rank #1. Or is it because St. Francis is more than just a Catholic saint because he “transcends the limits of institutional religion,”1 his influence extending beyond a single holiday?
Born in 1181, by the time Francis was a teenager he already had the reputation as a dandy; he loved to party and break curfews. As they say, his daddy was rich and his momma – a beautiful Frenchwoman - good looking. Spoiled, he quit school at 14. Instead of becoming a merchant like his Italian father, Francis dreamed of becoming a knight, and when war broke out between Assisi and Perugia in 1202 he joined the cavalry. Francis was soon captured and ransomed. A year in prison left him physically and emotionally scarred. After his release he met a leper. A changed man, he turned his life to God. In his 20's, Francis heard the voice of God while praying at San Damiano, calling him to a life of poverty. His father took him to court for stealing cloth and a horse to raise money to rebuild the San Damiano church. Francis broke with his family.
The Middle Ages saw the gradual rise of a money based economy. Paternal identity was strongly associated with contemporary ideas of manhood. Rejecting it was unthinkable and a groundbreaking message that carries gravitas today. “The love of Francis is a rejection of property and the psychology of possession based on which men occupy positions of power and privilege.” 2 Francis began to preach to animals and to reject the human barriers between this world and the next. His unconditional love of poverty was revolutionary.
Unsurprising then that many have called St. Francis the most Buddhist of the saints. Duncan Trussel once said that you can be a Buddhist without knowing it. I don't think that anyone can be accidentally Catholic, but can you accidentally be an environmentalist? The labyrinth of lifestyle choices capitalism lays before us gets harder and harder to navigate as our global economy becomes more tightly knit. If you coast along without making conscious changes, then the odds of accidental environmentalism is slim.
After a long wait and much pleasant conversation with our new friends in line, we eventually got our tickets and headed inside. Apart from nativity scenes, set in plastic splendor, I had never seen animals inside a church before and reveled in every paw and claw that hit the flagstones. The echo of dog barks soon gave way to musical performances and the sounds of humpback whales, harp seals, birdsong and the tundra wolf. Xu Bing's two twelve-ton phoenix, Feng and Huang, perfect companions for St. Francis' Canticle of Brother Sun, twinkled above us as the lights were lowered for the silent procession of the animals. A camel, donkey, horse, tortoise, goats, a swan, a pair of exceptionally reluctant, but cute alpacas, an owl, bats and more made their way down the nave of the cathedral. A unforgettable and transcendent experience nestled in one of New York's most captivating spaces.
Prior to the procession, the Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski delivered what some might consider an unusual sermon. I knew that I wasn't the only one now sitting in St. John's that had been out on the streets of NYC just days before participating in The Climate March, and I shouldn't have been surprised that Kowalski's sermon was a celebration of the march and a call to action. To paraphrase Kowalski, we can no longer separate economic and social rights and keep the planet alive – all wish lists get dusted by the fact of climate change. To quote him,“The only solution is a new economy built on human rights and ecological stewardship...success is more than a call to action. We need to focus and put a price on carbon.”
George P. Hansen in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal calls St. Francis a liminal figure because of his communion with nature, his use of parable and levitation during prayer; that as a mystic Francis disrupted social order.3 In the The Wreath of Wild Olive: Play, Liminality, and the Study of Literature, Mihai Spariosu points to Francis' marriage to Lady Poverty as a move to the fringes of society “a symbolic area where the forms of the world lose whatever fixed and stable sense convention has imposed on them... a scandalous utopia which is disengaged from history." By disengaging from history St. Francis creates a radical new “historicity because it provides the perspective which makes possible a fresh and renewed apprehension of the structures of the world.”4
If ever there was a time for “ a renewed apprehension of the structures of the world” now is the time. There is so much about our world we have yet to learn as we reach beyond the confines of combustion based and thus, carbon based energy ideas. Occupy WallStreet brought attention to income equality and a PEW research poll indicted “61 percent believed that the U.S. economic system was unfair and favored the wealthy,” even though the Occupy Movement only had a 44% approval rating at the time. Pope Francis's popularity is on the rise as he criticizes the global economic system and encourages us to love the poor.5
Despite the popularity of St. Francis he remains a liminal figure. Society tends to scorn chaotic mystics. As the frankincense filled the pews and candlelight flickered in the eyes of the animals around us, the feeling at St. John the Divine was intense and inspirational. For a moment we broke our conventional relationship to the natural world through ritual and prayer and listened to a message calling out for transformation. It is a month since The Climate March. If you do nothing, nothing changes.
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1. Prakash Kona, "Love and Saint Francis of Assisi: A Mass Performer in the Middle Ages," liminalities.net.,1 Sept. 2012. Web. 1: 6, accessed Oct. 2014. http://liminalities.net/8-4/francis.pdf.
2. Kona, "Love and Saint Francis of Assisi: A Mass Performer in the Middle Ages," 9.
3. George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris, 2001) chap 5, Kindle.
4. Mihai Spariosu, The Wreath of Wild Olive: Play, Liminality, and the Study of Literature. (SUNY, 1997.), 47.
5. Mat Berman,"How Pope Francis Can Finish What Occupy Wall Street Started," nationaljournal.com ( Dec. 2013) accessed Oct 22, 2014, http://www.nationaljournal.com/economy/how-pope-francis-can-finish-what-occupy-wall-street-started-20131212