The earth and its environment are among the major concerns of people around the globe in this first quarter of the 21st century. People of faith respect the world and even consider it sacred simply because they see creation as a gift from God.
That St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) respected and loved creation is clear from the stories recorded in his biographies written by Thomas of Celano (a Franciscan friar, 1200-1265) and by St Bonaventure (the Franciscan theologian and doctor of the Church, 1221-1274), and from incidents found in the so-called Legend of Perugia.
It is in this latter work, the memories of those who were close to St Francis, that we find the origin of the saint’s famous “Canticle of the Sun,” or "Praise be to you, O Lord." Even as he struggled with poor health and asked God for strength, Francis was inspired to compose a song to praise God for all his creatures.
He told his brothers, “Therefore, for his glory, for my consolation, and the edification of my neighbor, I wish to compose a new ‘Praises of the Lord’ for his creatures. These creatures minister to our needs every day; without them we could not live; and through them the human race greatly offends the Creator. Every day we fail to appreciate so great a blessing by not praising as we should the Creator and dispenser of all these gifts” (Legend of Perugia, 43).
Many stories in the biographies of the saint reflect his respect for creation, especially for animals. St Bonaventure tells of the occasion when Francis came across a huge flock of birds of various kinds, ran up to them without their flying away, and appealed to them, “My brothers, you have a great obligation to your Creator. He clothes you with feathers and gave you wings to fly, appointing the clear air as your home, and he looks after you without any effort on your part.” The birds listened, and did not leave until he blessed them with the sign of the cross. He later, it is said, “began to reproach himself for his negligence in never preaching to the birds before” (Bonaventure, Major Life, XII.3).
He freed a rabbit, rescued lambs being taken to slaughter, and even is said to have moved a worm from the walkway lest it be stepped on. Celano wrote, “He (Francis) rejoiced in all the works of the hands of the Lord and saw behind things pleasant to behold their life-giving reason and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself; all things to him were good…He forbad brothers to cut down the whole tree when they cut wood, so that it might have hope of sprouting again…He called all animals by the name brother…” (Celano, Second Life, 165
Clearly St Francis’ concern for creation was motivated by respect and honor for the Creator. One who knew Francis recalled, “We who lived with him saw him find great cause for interior and external joy in all creatures; he caressed and contemplated them with delight, so much so that his spirit seemed to live in heaven and not on earth…he composed ‘The Praises of the Lord for His Creatures’ a short time before his demise. It was his way of inciting the hearts of those who would hear this canticle to give glory to God so that the Creator would be praised by all for all his creatures” (Legend of Perugia, 51).