The Blessed Earth: A Symphony

Today is “Earth Day,” a celebration spawned in 1970 by astute civic protestors and politicians who felt citizens of the world ought to be doing more to honor and protect the environment.

It is a grand proposal and one which, 745 years earlier –1225 — was highlighted by one who has become “the patron saint of nature” ~ my personal hero, Saint Francis of Assisi. In the  spring of 1225,  the last full year of his life,  Francis of Assisi was very ill and in great suffering (from which, ultimately, he would not recover) when he wrote the earliest literary document in vernacular Italian, not Latin ~ a song that was called the “Canticle of the Creatures.”

An early source notes that Francis was “very sick and suffering especially from his eyes,” and “could not bear the light of the sun during the day or the light of the fire at night. His eyes caused him so much pain that he could neither lie down nor sleep.” He retreated to the convent of San Damiano, where the female members of his order — including his beloved Clare of Assisi — resided. As he contended with his suffering, he prayed, “Lord, help me in my infirmities so that I may have the strength to bear them patiently.”

Perhaps being blind made him more sensitive to the movement of the wind. Perhaps the sweet smell of flowers cleared his head. In any case, surrounded as he was by olive groves, catching breezes off Mount Subasio while resting under the watch of Clare and the tranquility of her garden, Francis wrote a song. Francis wrote it in Italian because he had the common people in mind. He wanted them to be able to sing it, for he intended it to be sung. He sang it himself. It began with the word Altissimu — in Italian, the way to hurl the word “alto” (high) to its superlative expression. Italians frequently attach the “issimo” suffix to words to elevate their force. And Francis was a true Italian.

At San Damiano, sick and suffering, he called forth one more assertion. “I wish to compose a new ‘praises of the Lord’ for his creatures,” he said, because “these creatures minister to our needs every day. Without them we could not live.” “The human race greatly offends the Creator [since] every day we fail to appreciate so great a blessing by not praising as we should the Creator and dispenser of all these gifts.”

Altissimu onnipotente bon signore,

tue so le laude, la gloria e l’onore et onne benedictione.

Most high omnipotent good Lord,

To You all praise, glory, honor and every blessing

 For Francis, God alone is Altissimu—and all creatures have been fashioned to participate in a cosmic performance, one sung in every landscape by each participant in that landscape, and each is unified in the single purpose of giving back to God the beauty and originality of his own personality.

For Francis, the Canticle is the score sheet of creation’s song. It is intended to be sung with energy. It also takes energy to listen to it—and especially to hear it. The song doesn’t settle so much as rise. It doesn’t dispel as much as assert:

 All praise be Yours, my Lord, through all that You have made.

Brother Sun illumines God’s presence and is the “porta significatione”—doorway to meaning. He is warm and grand, and radiates the life force of God. God is praised through Sister Moon because she is precious and beautiful and clear—clarite, Clare’s name—the light bearer and reflector of the sun’s brilliance. Sister Earth, through gentle assertions, governs all life on the planet, bringing forth fruit and colorful flowers and herbs. 

God is praised through Brother Wind, who helps the earth, spreading seed and moving waters, and who is sometimes serene and sometimes fierce. God is praised through Sister Water, who nourishes the earth through a force that is unstoppable, cleansing, chaste, and healing. God is praised when peace reigns between neighbors, for to live in peace requires meekness and charity—the mark of humility and true humanity. Even Sister Death praises God, Francis says.  Mortality itself renders praise to God because, as a fellow participant in all creation, it offers the chance for human beings to find their place in the performance.

The Canticle is often glossed over as sentimental or reduced to the misguided notion that in it Francis “worshipped” nature. The psalms speak of creation as the Maker’s handiwork, making God the agent and creation the recipient. In the Canticle, by contrast, Francis summons creation to give back to God the beauty and originality he bestowed on them. Creation is the agent. God is the recipient.

It is not pantheism. It is an exercise in the particulars—sun, moon, wind, fire, points of intersection between this world and the next. God is ever the giver. In the Canticle, earth gives back to God the gifts he himself ascribed to it. For Francis, the Canticle reflects the vision of God that brings all that exists in this world into harmony.

It is a song that breaks the knees of the black knight that would slay life’s goodness and its hope. To write it, Francis had to place himself where he could hear it—with Clare. Then God came near and rayed his beauty out. Creation raised its voice, and in a small way Eden was restored. Clare and Francis found it there—perfect love—in the upward reach of earth to heaven.

(Portions of this entry were taken from Wendy’s book, A Mended and Broken Heart, the Life and Love of Francis of Assisi, Basic Books)

About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.