One hundred years ago today, my maternal grandfather was born in Marcedusa, a town in Calabria, the southernmost province on the Italian mainland (the toe of the boot). He was born on the feast day of St Francis, one of the two patron saints of Italy. (Y’know, the monk often depicted with birds, deer, and other animals.) Flouting tradition for the firstborn child, my great-grandparents named my grandfather Francesco, probably as were many other boys who have that birthday.
Without a birthday on the country’s patron saint’s day, my mother, the firstborn, was given a female derivative of her father’s name. She continued the tradition, passing the same name to me, her firstborn child.
And so San Francesco has always felt like the patron saint of my family, though my immediate family has never been Catholic. My mother has always had what most of us know as “The Prayer of St. Francis” posted in the house:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Years later, my yoga practice led me to a well-known mantra from the Upanishads:
asato ma sad gamaya (Lead us from the untruth to truth.)
tamaso ma jyotir gamaya (Lead us from darkness to light.)
mrtyor ma’mrtam gamaya (Lead us from death to immortality.)
The same sentiment, this one thousands of years old. The repetition between the two is striking:
Where there is error, the truth == Lead us from the untruth to truth.
Where there is darkness, light == Lead us from darkness to light.
in dying that we are born to eternal life == Lead us from death to immortality.
The lines even appear in the same order in both texts.
San Francesco is also the patron saint of nature, the environment, and ecology. That influence was evident in how my parents considered the environment. Not because they are hippies who leave food out for squirrels or rabbits. (We never had any pets. We didn’t even have birdfeeders.) Rather, environmental impact was always of primary concern. And not just “don’t litter.” They always emphasized generating as little trash as possible, buying only what will be used frequently. I have written before that the house never had paper towels. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Scale down; live with less.
More recently, I discovered another San Francesco prayer I appreciate, known as the “Canticle of the Sun.” However, I prefer the more literal translation of the title: “Praise of the Creatures.” An excerpt (emphasis added):
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
San Francesco would definitely vibe with the hippies. Even though parts of Genesis grant people dominion over creation, clearly he is a proponent of nature worship. I think he would agree that no impenetrable boundary separates humanity and nature.
Moreover, the association of the moon, water, and the earth with women, and the sun, wind, air, and fire with men is common across many schools of thought and spiritual traditions. The sun and moon are often seen as a matched pair, like yin and yang. In fact, yang is associated with fire and the masculine. Yin is considered akin to water and the feminine. Many cultures associate the moon with women—certainly because of the menstrual (moon) cycle. The moon also controls the tides—the flow of water, a feminine element.
And surely we all know plenty of examples of Mother Earth, who has many names—Gaia, Pachamama, Mother Nature.
Given that we are living in a time of environmental crisis, when so much of daily life is highly toxic to our planet, “Praise of the Creatures” offers a holistic (and holy) perspective of ourselves a part of, instead of apart from, nature. This outlook is often my guiding principle—to be respectful of what surrounds me, human and otherwise, and to be conscious of my life’s impact on all of it.
And if San Francesco considered the cosmos a sibling, surely other human beings would be even more intimate. We need to take care of each other. Witnessing the consequences of the government shutdown these past few days, I am reminded that we need to do a better job of caring for each other. Nothing will ever change, let alone improve if we’re ultimate hostages of the 1% of the 1%. And not just the financial 1%, but the political 1%, the social 1%. We are all in this together, regardless of the tax bracket.
And not just people. We are all in this together—the people and the plants and the rocks and the water and the animals. May we all remember how close and interdependent we truly are, so that we live accordingly.
SK © 2013