Standing on the left-hand corner of my dresser is a an old gold-framed diptych. One panel depicts St. Francis, bending over slightly, preaching to the birds gathered on the ground just as others are making their descent. The other panel contains his well-known prayer, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. On a not-too-infrequent basis, the disturbance I cause to the nearby stack of prayer-books creates just enough momentum to send the wobbly diptych off the edge and into the almost always empty wastebasket. Bending over to retrieve it time and again has led me to reflect more fully on the relevance of this saint’s self-abasement to the unbending spirit characteristic of our times.
Much is known about Francis’s life (1181–1226), and when one looks at the outline and details of his existence, the contours that emerge are those of a person so self-emptied that he knew his true self, rejoiced in the goodness of Creation, and cared about the suffering of others. When he abandoned his privileged life as a cloth merchant’s son, he exchanged his fine attire for a beggar’s tattered rags. When the priest of a ruined church wouldn’t take the money he got from selling some of his father’s possessions, Francis went about begging for and gathering stones so that it could be rebuilt. When he refused the meal of bread, fish, and fruit served to him after embracing poverty, Francis vowed to eat what others rejected, so he took a bowl, had housewives fill it with their kitchen and table scraps, and ate it saying, “This is the table of God!”
Few of us are willing to go to those extremes, yet Francis’s radical humility and simplicity challenge us to evaluate our habits of being and doing. Mark Galli wrote, “The real Francis makes every age a tad uncomfortable…. In the end, although our modern world wishes to discard so much of Francis into the rubbish bin of history, it is the medieval Francis who shows the modern world a better way” (182–183).
In large part due to Francis’s example of reverence for Creation and resourcefulness in making use of what appeared useless, I often find myself bending over waste receptacles to pull out anything that can be recycled, reused, or resold. Despite signs positioned above the various trashcans throughout our church building which encourage people to consider first if what they’re about to throw away is recyclable, I still repeat the ritual. Some might ask, “Why should you lower yourself that way?” To which I answer and ask, “Why should I not? Why should I not make sure that even my smallest actions serve to preserve the wonderworld God made instead of desecrating it into a wasteworld” (as Thomas Berry put it)?
Rather than functioning as “lords of the Earth,” human beings were fashioned to be “stewards of Creation.” It does us well to be humbled and brought down to the ground alongside our fellow creatures. It does us well to be emptied of our self-sufficiency and arrogance, to learn from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It does us well to recall that God uses “things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order” (I Corinthians 1:28). After all, Paul encourages us to have the mind of Christ, who made himself of no reputation, took on the form of a servant, and humbled himself even to the point of a shameful death (Philippians 2:5–8).
Here is where Francis, whom the church remembers with thanksgiving on October 4, can be our wise teacher. Long before Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the patron saint of ecology in 1979, Francis’s words, life, and legacy have instructed Christian and non-Christian alike on how to live a humble and peaceful existence.
Whether I’m bending over my wastebasket to retrieve ”St. Francis” or over a trashcan somewhere to salvage a bottle or can, I’m reminded that lowering ourselves is what being a servant is all about. I often think of the time when my brother, a resourceful college student, rescued some like-new clothing from a dumpster. A girl with fashion-sense complimented him on his sharp-looking shirt only to hear where he had found it. Horrified, she exclaimed, “You would wear something from a dumpster?!” My brother responded: “Yes, and you just complimented me on it!”
Sometimes others are scandalized by acts of waste redemption, and sometimes we might even be, but the good thing is that they’re habit-forming and lead to self-scrutiny in others areas as well. Although I haven’t done it as often as I’d like, on occasion, I’ve enjoyed carrying a five-gallon bucket filled with kitchen scraps from our local hospital kitchen to our church garden’s compost bin. Who knows, maybe you might even want to start composting food scraps, that is, if you don’t feel like eating them!
Writing of his own lowering awareness ritual—removing the bodies of killed animals from roadways—Barry Lopez commented, “For animals so large, people will stop. But how many have this habit of clearing the road of smaller creatures, people who would remove the ones I miss? I do not imagine I am alone” (116). We can all find valuable acts to implement, acts that change us and our world for the better.
The curse of our times is that we humans have lost reverence not only for the Lord and one another but for all of this wonderworld as well. So how do we regain something so large yet so elusive? By doing the simple daily deeds of selflessness which give the rest of Creation its fair due. I’ll keep doing my trashcan ritual, knowing that sometimes others might see and stop and think, and maybe start doing the same. And as I do, I’ll keep these words from the hymn rendition of Francis’s canticle running through my head and heart: “Let all things their Creator bless / And worship God in humbleness.”
Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Galli, Mark. Francis of Assisi and His World. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2002.
Lopez, Barry. “Apologia” in About this Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.