A bird took flight.
A flower in a field whistled at me as I passed.
I drank from a stream of clear water.
And at night, the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a tress of God’s.
When I returned from Rome, all said,
“Tell us the great news,”
and with great excitement I did:
“A flower in a field whistled and at night,
the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a sacred tress…”
Musing on this piece by St. Francis is a good follow up to my last post, in which I mused on Mirabai’s poem, “A Hundred Objects Close By.” That’s because this poem invokes the “book of nature,” the centuries old notion (esp. the Middle Ages, to wit, Megenberg’s 14th century "Buch der Natur") that nature, as much as books of revelation, reveals to us the sacred depth and meaning of God’s creation.
“The heavens bespeak of the glory of God while
their expanse declares the work of His hands.”
– Psalm 19
On the one hand, the book of nature complements books of revelation (or vice versa). Indeed, as mentioned in my last post, sages from the world’s various religious traditions, some of whom are central figures in these very books of revelation, themselves invoke nature in their teachings: the lilies of the field, the lotus flower, mountains, wind... rainfall. It only makes sense that revelation, which is said to reveal God’s will, be consistent with God’s own creation: a harmony between nature and revelation just intuitively makes sense.
This raises an interesting question though, intimated by this poem. If it makes sense that the book of nature and books of revelation be harmonious, which has more authority, especially in those instances wherein the two seem to contradict one another?
One obvious example, given the theme of this post, is the theological doctrine that creation is “fallen,” which points to the further, logically implicit theological doctrine that human beings are inherently sinful; “born into sin.” Given that there is so much beauty and goodness in the creation, do these theological notions not run against the intuitive grain? Do not the book of nature and books of revelation (in this particular case, the New Testament) seem to contradict one another?
Those who would be prone to defend these theological doctrines can easily point to the “problem of evil.” They may ask: “Doesn’t the fact of evil in the world, from tsunamis to humankind’s aggressive tendencies, demonstrate the truth of these doctrines?” It certainly must be admitted that natural disasters and humankind’s destructive tendencies are undeniable realities in this world.
However, it may be countered, what about the “problem of the good?” The evidence of beauty and tenderness in the creation far outweighs the “problem of evil.” For every tsunami that occurs there are countless fiery sunsets, golden meadows, surging mountains, and flowing rivers. For every act of human aggression committed there are myriad examples of acts of compassion, often unnoticed but present nonetheless - present and deeply indicative of our essential human nature: spontaneous acts of compassion between children and moments of deep tenderness demonstrated to those in need.
Yes, there is misery in the world and people can behave “sinfully.” At the same time, beauty permeates the creation and human beings are capable of profound goodness as well. If we admit beauty and goodness as an equal part of the creation, if not even a predominant part of the creation, then the theological narrative of the “fall” is out of step with the book of nature. Pray tell, what then? Should theological doctrine determine our thinking (and behavior) or the book of nature? I think St. Francis is informative here...
Would St. Francis have sacrificed his fellowship with nature and the “great news” he learned from it in favor of theological doctrine? Or, would he have turned his mind away from such theological meanderings and gone back to sleep in a truss of God’s hair, leaving it to Rome to pontificate on such matters? Regarding this question of authority, St. Francis seems to be indicating that nature trumps revelation, or at least the Church Fathers’ interpretation of revelation, if not revelation itself (though I suspect he would hold to that as well). After all, when St. Francis returned from Rome, the seat of Church authority, with everybody chomping at the bit to hear the “great news” from Rome, he opted to read them the book of nature.
There is a profound anti-authoritarian impulse in St Francis, which could be interpreted as heretical. At the same time, one could also interpret St. Francis’ answer as a simple reminder not to lose faith with the creation itself and that the creation itself, if we bother to read the book nature, is already informing us about life’s sacred depth and meaning. “We do not,” he could be understood to be saying, “need theological mediators.”
Tennyson was correct when he said “nature is red in tooth and claw.” At the same time, he was remiss not to point out that nature is far more often cooperative and caring than it is aggressive (Darwin did attempt to convey this message in “The Origin of Species” but the message was missed.).
Now, I’m off to smell the roses and take in those other “hundred objects close by.”
Such love does the sky now pour
That whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light when I get home.
- St. Francis of Assisi
What a tremendous image and beautiful sentiment Saint Francis gives us! Indeed, the mystics often regale us with such imagery and sentiment, too beautiful even to be believed at times. Yet they intend us to believe them, for theirs is not an imaginative hope with which they console themselves a la Freudian wish fulfillment. Rather, their imagery and sentiment arise out of a direct experience of the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. No, theirs is no wishful thinking but an honest report - sometimes invitation - of and into the reality of Being.
But we doubt our beloved mystics, or explain them away (Modern psychology is a great tool for this: "To those that hold hammers everything looks like a nail," and all that...), or simply ignore them because theirs is not our experience and for what one has no reference point, one will have no ear (or vision, as the case may be.) Jesus said this very thing, as reported in saying 113 of The Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him: "When will the kingdom come?" [And Jesus said,] "It will not come by watching for it. People will not say: 'Look, here it is,' or 'Look, there it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth and people do not see it."
The great Hindu mystic Shankara said something very similar when he spoke of a rope mistaken for a snake, regarding his teaching of adhyasa (fundamentally meaning misperception due to past conditioning). In short, taught Shankara, ignorance gives rise to skewed perception which in turn causes one to misperceive reality. That is, we live in a world of illusion and, returning to the application of this fact to Saint Francis, fail to see the love that the sky pours down.
What if one wanted to know for oneself the truth of Saint Francis (or Jesus', or Shankara's) words? What if one wanted this experience as one's very own? Then what?
All that is needed is a shift of attention and enough trust to surrender. That is, one simply needs to direct one's attention away from one's thoughts, one's feelings, and one's sensations; become internally silent - then surrender to the moment. When one does this, perception corrects itself and one sees the reality of Being; the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. Is this a struggle? If so, consider taking on the practice of silence...
"Be still and know..."