Laudato Si, mi Signore; praise be to you, my Lord.
Sung by Saint Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Sun, this phrase is a testament to Saint Francis’ profound spiritual connection with creation. On this year’s feast day of Saint Francis, I find myself reflecting upon Saint Francis’ canticle, connecting with the words more deeply than I ever have before.
The cause for this shift is an experience that I had in the first two weeks of this past summer. As a part of the Chaminade Scholars program, I had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage with Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, Elizabeth Montgomery and the 15 members of my cohort to Assisi and Rome. In Italy we walked the very footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi and his followers, praying where they prayed and hiking where they hiked, all the while learning about the life and death of the Catholic saint.
As I sit here almost five months later, I still come back to the lessons I learned on this pilgrimage. Rather than sit on them, allowing the experiences I had to touch my own life, I had the the urge to share them. And so, here are a few brief words on what Saint Francis means to me and how I hope to celebrate his Feast Day.
Saint Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy to a wealthy cloth merchant. After taking part in a war between Assisi and Perugia, he felt the call to return to his home. Upon return, he made the decision to turn away from a life seeking pride or prosperity and instead dedicated himself to contemplation and prayer in order to discern God’s will for him. During this time of intentional solitude, Saint Francis heard the call to repair the “house” of God.
After several attempts at physically rebuilding churches and temples, he realized that his true calling was rebuild the metaphorical house of God, at which point he renounced all of his worldly possessions and ties in order to live a life that closely followed the model of Jesus’ own life, fully embracing poverty, service of others, and contemplation. Francis considered all nature the mirror of God, and thus later earned his status as the patron saint of animals and ecology.
I had the opportunity to learn about the life of Saint Francis before I went on pilgrimage through the a class taught by Sr. Angela Zukowski called Vocation and the Arts. One of the main topics that we focused on in this class was, broadly stated, beauty. Though it may seem like a vague ideal that is hard to grasp at from an intellectual perspective, we found through this class that the appreciation and care for beauty is one way that you can follow God in your every day life.
Saint Francis saw beauty in all things: in the poor, the sick, the outcast, the stranger and all throughout nature. Following the way of Saint Francis allows us to create a special place in our lives for the appreciation of beauty. For many, there is beauty in paintings, music, grandiose landscapes. Saint Francis accepts all of these things as worthy of our love and attention. However, he also challenges us to look beyond these conventional forms of beauty, turning ourselves both inward and outward to see the beauty within ourselves and allow it to radiate out towards others.
As I journeyed through the Italian landscape with some of my closest friends and mentors this past summer, the lessons that Saint Francis implied in his teachings became easier and easier for me to understand and put into practice. From the brothers who welcomed us into their homes even when there was a large language barrier, I learned that love has no boundaries and beauty can be seen even when it can not be understood. From spending intentional time with people who are usually quiet and keep to themselves, I learned that there is beauty within each and every one of us, even when we don’t have the courage to share it with the world. Our hearts and our souls hold a beauty that we don’t have the power to create or share; it is innate.
As I would sit during the times we had for personal reflection during this pilgrimage, I realized just how much we have to learn from the natural world. Nature is not show or reserved; it shows its beauty to all, whether they are looking or not. The leaves and trees and grass and sky are all the truest versions of themselves at all times. There is no wall built around a flower so that only those it chooses to see it can see, rather, a flower blooms for all. And yet, a flower doesn’t bloom to just be beautiful, to show off or to be boastful. A flower blooms because it must: it is survival, a celebration, a burst of growth. Releasing its sweet scent is necessary to a flower’s very being.
What if we, too, didn’t have to trust to reveal ourselves? What if we were able to just be?
This idea of us just existing like the flowers and the insects, singing the glory of existence, is exactly where Saint Francis draws some of his inspiration for his canticle. In order to truly be connected to the Earth and all the creatures in it, we must take up their example and trust as if we’ve never been hurt. In order to be connected to the joys of all the people of the world, we must also be open to feeling their pain. There is beauty in letting our guard down, just as a flower allows itself to bloom without question.
The pinnacle moment of my pilgrimage experience was the time we were able to spend at the Hermitage of the Carceri (Eremo delle Carceri) where Saint Francis would come to pray and contemplate, away from the distractions of society. During our short time at this wilderness retreat, a few of us paired off to walk the grounds, exploring in the small chapels and grottos where Saint Francis would sleep and pray and walking the trails in the surrounding fog-filled forest where Saint Francis would contemplate, eager to experience the peace for ourselves.
After the experience, many of us were in agreement that the visit to the Hermitage was a transformative moment along our journey. For me, hiking is the lived experience of boundless love, the deliberate face-to-face encounter with a beauty so immense that we cannot even begin to comprehend it. Each crunch of leaves underfoot and each sharp brush against a bush forged a deeper connection to the natural world and a fuller understanding of my place in it. I learned in my travels at the Hermitage that in order to understand the perspective of the weed, I had to level with it, experience the vast world from its dirt-packed vantage point with an upwards facing heart and a steadfast dedication to humility. I realized that each individual fiber in this weed was crafted by design, and that I am connected to it.
In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” Pope Francis writes about this mysterious connection: “When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”
As we hear from Pope Francis, there is no need to separate ourselves from the world. We can draw direct inspiration from nature as if it is within us if we only take the time to stop our busy, fast-paced lives and awaken. It is only after we truly wake up to this reality that we can understand that the inner truth which guides us along the path to vocation is held not only in our heads, but connected to the rest of creation.
In closing, I will share a few words I wrote in a notebook during a time of silent personal reflection. I frequently go back to this humble prayer when I feel a disconnect between myself and the natural world.
I hope these words meet you kindly wherever you are in your life journey.
Let’s celebrate the life of the ant! The dirt! The moss!
Listen to their stories, sympathize with their joys and sorrows, breath in their existence.
Let’s follow the example of the leaf! The flower! The tree!
Bloom and grow tall in due time, fall and return to earth in due time.
What is the difference between nature and me? Where does my life end and the other begin? Am I more meaningful than the ragweed?
Let’s sing the glory of God!
I have nowhere to go; I just have to be.
Out of all the lessons I learned and knowledge I gained throughout this entire journey, the one which was most influential can be summed up in a simple statement which Pope John Paul II made in the letter he addressed to all artists: ”You have to come. You have a great responsibility.”
Finally, I will pose a “feast day challenge” of sorts: go out, take a walk, leave your phone and your to-do list at home, intentionally create a space in your day for peace, quiet and silent reflection. Let go of your present worries in order to allow the living world to just be, both in front of you and within you, blowing your mind freely in the breeze. Notice what happens in the world. Pay attention! I am convinced this is the way to foster an authentic connection between ourselves and the world around us, creating the sort of oneness that Saint Francis of Assisi so fiercely urged for us to embrace.
Beauty is always around us. It shines through all things, connecting humanity to the natural world in the deepest way possible. The very most important component of it all is just to show up. Be there for life, don’t blink and take care not to miss anything.
Photos courtesy of Nathan Mansour and Kaitlin Gawkins.