Above: painting in the museum of San Marco in Florence showing St. Clare and St. Francis in holy conversation. Photo by Fr. Lawrence, OP.
An exact contemporary of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis of Assisi is often portrayed as a sort of nature-loving hippie who goes around scattering flowers, singing love songs, and doing crazy things that break the system. Well, he did some of that, it’s true, but the flowers were his miracles and lessons, the love songs were addressed to Christ, and the system he broke was the bureaucracy of human corruption and mediocrity.
In reality, far from being a new-age hippie ahead of his time, Saint Francis was a mystic in love with Christ crucified, absolutely faithful to Christ’s Holy Church, and almost combustible with his zeal for the Most Holy Eucharist. If we could just get him or someone like him into the Synod on Synodality, he would shut down all of its useless and acidic chatter in a flash, as he brandishes the stigmata of self-surrender and speaks from the heart of radical poverty.
His love of nature was not at all like that of the modern-day tree-hugger. Saint Francis loved the created universe because everything in it reminded him of God, and so he was able to use it as a ladder to climb up to God. The great Franciscan Cardinal Bonaventure, in his biography of the saint, tells us: “When [Francis] bethought himself of the first beginning of all things, he was filled with a yet more overflowing charity, and would call the dumb animals, howsoever small, by the names of brother and sister, forasmuch as he recognized in them the same origin as in himself.”
For us who believe in the Creator of heaven and earth, nature really is a book, “God’s First Book”: it is a series of intelligible words brought forth from a wise and loving Mind and placed before us so that we could glean His mind and heart in its “pages.” The cosmos is not something impersonal and indifferent to man, but a love letter that tells us, in passionate terms, how much our Maker loves us and longs to have us for Himself. Even natural disasters do this: nature’s fury is God’s abrupt and startling way of reminding us that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “We have here no abiding city, but we seek one that is to come.” This earth is most definitely not our home, and we need to be slapped out of that illusion now and again.
When we allow ourselves to appreciate and delight in the natural world, paradoxically we come to be aware of a capacity in us that goes far beyond this world. In the very moment when this world seems the most beautiful reality there is, we have an aching sense that it is not all that there is—there must be something more. A lot more. Infinitely more. The Infinite Love, the Mysterious and Baffling and Playful and Frightening Love that stands behind it. And there we are, on the receiving end of this cosmic declaration: “You are my beloved, you. I created you in love; I redeemed you in love; I call you to myself in love. I will not rest until you are with me forever.”
Does the Lord really care so much for us? Indeed He does, for we would not even exist without His loving will, and we exist because He seeks us for eternal life in His blessed peace. Neither would the vast expanse of the cosmos with its shimmering stars and planets and galaxies, for God is lavish, extravagant even, in distributing likenesses of Himself, even hiding them so that they might be teased out by us like riddles (and precisely by discovering them and pondering them, we show that we, as spiritual beings who can know and wonder and delight and pray, are superior to the vastness of the cosmos—that is why it makes no difference if the earth is a “little blue dot”).
The beauty He poured out into this world is meant to captivate our heart so that we will give it to Him, rejoicing in what He has made; and the evils He allows in this world prevent us from placing our love in this world, as if it could satisfy us. It cannot satisfy. The Lord has given us a deeper identity than nature can give, a deeper citizenship than the nations of the earth can bestow. We will travel through this world as strangers and sojourners who admire the beautiful things God has made, but who long for their indescribably more beautiful Author. We will be among those who work for the finite and human good, but who know all along that the infinite divine good is our destiny.
Saint Augustine said it best of all: Fecisti nos ad te, et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In his life of heroic virtue, Saint Francis, like Christ, teaches us how to love the good things God has made without becoming enslaved to them; how to taste and see that the Lord is good by experiencing, with purity of heart, the beauty of creation as a summons to return to its Maker, who is peace and every good for us. This is why Franciscans customarily use the phrase: Pax et omne bonum.
Now, what has all this to do with the liturgy or with prayer? Allow me to quote from one of my favorite books—a book called, simply, The Sacred Liturgy:
How should we not see in this great work of creation, its harmony ever new and fresh, a kind of natural song of praise, a cosmic liturgy rising up to God?… The Incarnate Word is not only King of the nations of the earth; He has sovereignty over the whole universe, and creation itself acquires a new dignity from the moment the earth is made literally his footstool… and from the moment when the stream of blood from the crucified Christ bathes it in the river of His love… And so the Church, successor to the first ages of mankind when the pact was sealed between man and the created world, has not expelled from her heart the old pagan loves. She has not lost the savor of earth and sun, she has only purified them; as she has purified her alliance with Ceres and Demeter—goddesses of the harvest and of the fruitful fields—by using bread, wine, and oil in the confection of her sacraments, so she structures her Divine Office to follow the movements of the sun in the sky… Paganism sullied the natural order, Protestantism rejects it, the Church consecrates it.
The Church’s liturgy is the great hymn of creation: a whole cast of creatures is called upon to serve at the altar. Christian liturgy teaches us the right meaning and use and destiny of the natural world. Because man is the only material being that is rational, he alone can see himself as a gift and everything else as gifts; he, therefore, is the cosmic priest who can offer himself and all of creation back to God in worship, so that he not only attains his end, but leads every other creature to its highest goal.
We can go further: because the entire universe has been renewed by the Incarnation of the Son of God, and because we are members of His Mystical Body, we ourselves have the power to give the entire universe to the Most Holy Trinity at each and every Mass. In this way we are helping creation achieve its destiny, we are leading the world back to its source, we are ennobling and dignifying every atom and molecule, every mineral, plant, and animal, indeed, every human person, especially those for whom we are praying. When we receive the Word made flesh in Holy Communion, the whole of reality becomes ours, since it all belongs to Him, and He gives us Himself.
That the objective awesomeness of Holy Communion does not usually translate into subjective feelings of bliss is exactly what we should expect: our religion is not about feelings or even about true thoughts but about mysteries—massive, luminous realities that envelop us, far too big for our comprehension or feeling, and we respond to them in the darkness of faith. We have to trust not our changing feelings or uncertain thoughts but God’s everlasting Word. We rely on the invincible and infallible promises of Jesus Christ, who never abandons us, who is the only Rock on Whom we can securely build, when everything else is always changing.
This, then, is how one might think about the Franciscans: they help us to see how the Mass is a unitive way—a way that unites all of myself to Jesus and Him to me; a way that unites the members of the Catholic Church into one Body; a way that already unites all of creation while we long for the new heavens and the new earth.
 A Benedictine Monk, The Sacred Liturgy (London: The Saint Austin Press, 1999), 22; 24; 25; 27–28.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.