I want to tell you about one of my favorite people of all time and talk about the environment at the same time. If you’re an animal lover and nature lover, like I am, and you’re as worried about the state of our environment as I am, then this guy and his energy is for you. I’m talking about Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment. Francis’s journey from rich spoiled kid to one of the most amazing people who ever lived is a story worth hearing about.

As a child born into a very wealthy family in the late 1100’s – his father was a landowner and a cloth merchant and his mother was royalty from France, so an upper-class family, — Francis was far removed from the daily grind that the rest of the world had to face to survive at the time. It reminds you of Buddha’s early days, doesn’t it.

By age 13, Francis had a serious drinking problem, he was into gourmet food, and, if there were drugs back then, I’m sure he did those too. If you have ever had addiction issues, like I have, you’ll relate to him big-time. He dropped out of school at 13, a rebellious kid who ignored the city curfew and drank himself into a stupor every night. He managed to get away with this behavior because of his charm and his father’s wealth.

St Francis Assissi

As he got older, Francis became highly skilled at archery and on horseback. And although his father expected Francis to go into the textile business, he dreamed instead of becoming a knight. He clearly wanted to achieve hero worship status, which is why he honed his skills as an archer and rider. Ironically, he became a major hero for very different reasons.

Soon, a war broke out between Assisi and Perugia, and Francis leapt on that moment and joined the cavalry. However, during his first big battle, he was captured and, because his family was wealthy, held for ransom rather than killed. It took his father almost a year to pull together the enormous sum required for his release.

It was during his time in prison that Francis began having visions. After he got out of prison, he told everybody he could hear the voice of Christ, who told him to redeem the church, which was, of course, corrupt, (what’s new), give up his profligate lifestyle, and live like the poor.

The defining incident that separated Francis from his father forever was the time he stole a bolt of cloth from his father’s shop and his father’s horse to raise money to rebuild a fallen-down church. Upon discovering the theft, his father delivered him to the local bishop and reported the theft. The bishop told Francis to return his father’s money. He did so, but at the same time he also stripped off his clothes, stood there nude, and declared that God was the only father he would recognize henceforth. The bishop gave him a rough tunic to cover his nakedness, and Francis headed out of town. He was attacked almost immediately by a bunch of thieves and badly beaten, but he took it all in stride, feeling elated because he had finally been fully freed from the expectations of others. If you’re one of those people who had to fight your father or mother to become the person you really wanted to be, you’ll relate to him. After this incident, the Francis that so many of us have come to know and love, embarked wholeheartedly on the road to his true destiny.

Francis’s radical embrace of poverty wasn’t mainstream at the time (any more than it is today). The church itself was enormously rich, as were the people at its helm. This wealth didn’t sit well with Francis; he felt it diverged from the original ideals Christ had decreed. So, he went on a personal crusade to change this, visiting up to five villages every day. His charisma and the purity of his message drew thousands of adherents into his orbit. These became the very first Franciscan friars. He even preached to animals, how cool is that!

St Francis Assissi

By the time he died on October 3, 1226, at 44 years of age, many predicted he would be canonized as a saint. As his health deteriorated, he returned to Assisi to die. Knights were sent from Assisi to guard him and guide him safely home since, at the time, the body of a saint was viewed as a valuable relic that would bring glory to whichever town it rested. He was canonized as a saint on July 16, 1228, and in 2013, nearly 800 years later, the current Pope honored Saint Francis by taking his name and becoming Pope Francis.

Because of visions he had, or actions he took which were counter to the sensibilities of his times, some regarded Francis as crazy, while others considered him as close to Christ-like as they had ever encountered before. One example of his counter-cultural inclinations was his care for and kissing of lepers, whom he said were really Christ in disguise.

Clearly, Francis was an early activist. If you’re obsessed, as I am, by prejudice or unfairness or the assault on the natural world that’s happening, you will relate to Francis.

St Francis Assissi

Now another important point about Francis: Once he found his path, he was obsessed with nature and animals and the environment. He was so attuned to the animal world he could easily hear animals speak to him. If you’re totally into animals, like I am, I bet you can hear them too – I still remember the first time a horse ever spoke to me – I was on my boy, Influence’s back one hot morning, when I clearly heard him say “it’s too hot and my feet hurt.” I jumped off, looked him in the eye, and could see he was really laughing it up – horses have such a great sense of humor!

So back to Francis: his annual feast day is coming up soon, and it’s a custom in many cities to bring your dog, cat, hamster, horse, or you name it from the animal world, to the steps of a local church for a blessing. It’s a very cool ceremony, I used to ride my horse down to the local church, with the dogs following, for us all to get a blessing.

Francis totally wore himself out, fasting and living in rough conditions, in abandoned churches, without any heat. That’s why he died so young, at 44. Now, here’s a really interesting point: he got the stigmata of Jesus, that’s the wounds that Christ got on the cross, making him the first person to every have that happen. Wow, what an achievement!

So, how does Francis relate to our present-day environmental crisis?

For those of you who live in rural or suburban areas of the world, I’m sure you can remember driving in the countryside where your windshield was smeared and spattered with the massive remains of bugs that collided with you. How long has it been since you’ve encountered that? I simply can’t remember the last time it happened to me it has been so many years. That tells an ominous tale about what has been happening just during our brief lifetimes. Insects feed countless other creatures that fly, swim, crawl, and burrow. Given fewer insects, fewer species survive.

Back when I was a kid, it seemed like every few rhododendron leaves hosted a green tree frog. Not anymore! And garter snakes, salamanders, pollywogs, bullfrogs, dragonflies, and bees, not to mention rattlesnakes, were easy to find just about everywhere if you kept a sharp eye out for them.

The environmental crisis that we find ourselves in today didn’t happen overnight, but for a lot of us, it certainly has escalated enough that even we can remember multiple “before and after” scenarios that are disquieting.

For at least the past 75 years, environmentalists across the globe have been sounding the alarm about the destruction of Earth’s natural habitats.

St Francis Assissi

St Francis Assissi

You have certainly heard of some of the earliest ones: Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring,” served as the first canary in the coal mine was a big wake-up call for all of us. First published in 1962, the book documented the damage that man-made pesticides were inflicting on the environment. Its publication is considered by numerous historians to be the genesis of the modern environmentalist movement in America.

Fast forward to today. Let’s visit with a few latter-day Saint Francis types from across the globe who have made saving the earth and all its inhabitants their life’s work:

Jane Goodall, the late Dian Fossey, and Dr. Mary Galdikas, have studied and worked closely with chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans respectively in their natural habitats in Africa and Borneo, becoming the world’s foremost authorities on these great apes. They have documented each species’ social networks, amazing skillsets, intelligence, and the ever-present challenges that face them as humans continue to invade and negatively impact the places they count on to continue as viable species.

One gorilla, Koko, raised and taught sign language by Penny Patterson, made it clear to those of us who are paying attention that these magnificent beings experience pleasure, pain, sadness, and deprivation every bit as much as we do. When Koko’s pet kitten died, Koko became very sad and signed to Penny, “My heart hurts.” And when Fred Rogers of the show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, visited Koko, she immediately took off his shoes, as she had seen him do so many times on her favorite TV program. The look they shared with each other was priceless.

St Francis Assissi

St Francis Assissi

 

On September 23, 2019, Swedish teenage environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, spoke at the United Nations about climate change, angrily and tearfully accusing world leaders of half-measures and outright inaction. If you haven’t seen her speech, I encourage you to google it. In it, she makes no bones about the fact that the environmental crises we face right now are the direct result of the powers-that-be looking the other way or placating us with inadequate half-measures, despite the fact that what whole industries are doing to the earth right now is unsustainable — and lethal not just to us, but to every creature that shares the planet with us.

I’m sure David Attenborough is familiar to you: his documentaries have been shown on TV for years. Check out his Extinction: The Facts (2020), which depicts how the world is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, where human poaching, illegal wildlife trade, and overfishing are pushing one million out of eight million species on the planet to the very edge of extinction.

St Francis Assissi

Hans Cosmas Ngoteya: This Tanzanian conservationist has lived in the Serengeti since his childhood and has always had a passion for wildlife and the environment. But instead of becoming a ranger or tour guide, he has opted to protect the Serengeti environment and its irreplaceable wildlife.

Julia Hill: Between 1997 and 1999, Julia Hill (nicknamed Butterfly) decided to live on the branches of a 180-foot redwood tree for over 700 days to keep loggers from cutting it down. The tree in question, which Julia named Luna, was estimated to be 1500 years old.

Considered among the most fiercely committed environmental leaders, Julia Hill has continued to fight environmental shortsightedness by being involved in the writing of a number of books on saving the environment. Interestingly enough, her passion for the environment began after her near-death experience in a car crash. Ever since, she has since been a devoted advocate for the environment and natural habitats.

These are just a handful of the environmentalists whose ethics and activities recall to mind Francis’s efforts to consider all God’s creation sacred and worth preserving.

And here’s a poem that is often set to music, Make Me a Channel for Your Peace, also called the St. Francis Prayer:

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon Lord
And where there is doubt true faith in You
Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy
Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul
Make me a channel of your peace
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
It is in giving to all men that we receive
And in dying that we are born to eternal life
Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul
Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy

In keeping with the spirit of St. Francis, we encourage you to take the time and explore which environmental cause really speaks to you. Whether it’s animal-related, global warming, whatever it may be…research which non-profit organization you think is worthy of your support and donate. Even if it’s a small amount. If we all play our part, together, we will move the needle forward.

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