Praised be my Lord for our sister, Mother Earth,
who keeps us and feeds us,
and brings forth fruits of many kinds,
with grass and flowers bright.
Bless and praise my Lord,
thank Him, and serve Him in all humility
There is something inexpressible about the heart of Nature and the heart of Man. It is right and well that Francis called her “our sister, Mother Earth”. We are made of the same stuff, as siblings, and we are born from her dust as children, formed from her clay by the hands of God. Indeed, when we are in communion with her, it is also a communion with the Father himself. To see this communion at play (often quite literally “at play”) is lovely.
The city is a hard place to live, and for those who live there with little to no opportunity to escape from it from time to time, it can be downright deadening. The noise of incessant traffic, the glint of steel, the hardness of concrete beneath your feet. The “F” word is as common as the clamour of construction as the drama of dysfunction plays out constantly before your eyes; the hardened heart of the city seeps into your own, calcifying tenderness and petrifying love. These things work a terrible, cacophonous song into the soul of a person whose life is already marked by seclusion, by pain, by isolation.
But it’s a strange and wonderful magic when that discordant tune gives way to the song of sister Mother Earth. Noise gives way to silence, confusion gives way to clarity, and callousness gives way to tenderness as you are swept into the arms and cradled in her maternal embrace.
My friend has been to prison more than once. His life has been hard in more ways than I will ever know. He has lived the life of a criminal, a working man, a hobo and a wino. It was the wino that I first met, so many years ago. His story, which is still being told, is a novel in itself; let it be enough to say here that it is a story of friendship and redemption. It was a redeemed man that we brought that day to Knight’s Ferry, a beautiful conservation area that’s just a 40 minute drive from downtown Modesto. A redeemed man, to be sure, but one (like all of us) still prone to the temptation of living in old patterns of hardness and isolation. Sometimes such a man needs to rip off his shirt and dive into the ice-cold waters of a mountain-fed river. Sometimes such a man needs to be baptized again.
I wish I could adequately describe the picture I still see in my mind of that moment, the unexpectedness of the moment when three friends standing by the riverside became two friends watching and laughing while the third is throwing off his clothes and jumping with abandon into the frigid waters. I wish I could share without words the picture of that man floating on his back, eyes to the sky, his face the very picture of a hobo’s peace. That day the river held him like a newborn son, and the old drunk was like a weened child with his mother.
Richard is a man I’m still coming to know, someone I’ve met on the streets of the Canadian town I’ve been tentatively calling ‘home’ since my return from my Italian adventures. His eyes are soft and kind, his fingers stained with nicotine, his heart carrying a terrible burden. He’s lived on the street for a very long time, and has rarely had the opportunity to leave the city. But he has the soul of a truck driver, a profession he held for over thirty years, and his heart still longs for the open road. I asked him, one blustery January day, if he’d like to take a drive.
“Where are we goin’?” he asked.
“Away from the things of man,” I said.
He threw his backpack in the back seat, and wobbled into my borrowed black PT Cruiser.
It’s amazing to see where you’ll go when you have no particular place to be. We listened to Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin. We stopped by a bridge in a small village and looked out at the rushing river below. Again I saw the familiar look of a man finding his soul.
A few weeks later, when good friends with boarding stables invited us out for a visit, I saw that soul kissed by the whiskers of a mare named Molly. They would be friends for a long time to come. We still make it out for a visit every other week or so, and at every visit he stands by Molly’s gate, and she saunters over to say Hello. There is a mothering magic at work here, a whispering of the Kingdom into Richard’s soul as he nuzzles the nose of his favourite horse, for her horse breath is as the breath of God in Adam’s nostrils.
When I see his face clouded with confusion and cheap sherry, his eyes darkened by a lonesome gloom, I need only mention Molly and light breaks through.
“She sees me and youknowwhat? She knows.” And he smiles, and his soul remembers its source.
On the western side of the mountain of La Verna, Italy, there is a cliff. At the top of the cliff is the Chapel of the Stigmata, built on the site of Francis’s vision of Christ’s Passion. From here there is a small walkway that leads outside, built for visiting the small hole in the wall where Francis was known to seclude himself in prayer. Here you can visit the small stone womb where he would restore himself as he watched the sun’s gold light fall down upon the hills around him. This place is known as the Precipizio, the Precipice, and from Francis’s hollow, it is a long, shear drop down into the tree-spotted meadow below. (Once, the devil himself tried to throw Francis down to his death from this cliff, but as Francis fell, the face of the rock turned to putty and... well, that’s another story.)
I stood on the Precipice, and watched the sun — that same ever-blessed sun that Francis saw — crown sister Mother Earth with another golden diadem. If I had the words to describe every sunset I’ve seen, I don’t think the world could contain the books that would be written. This one, this particular, never-to-be-repeated sunset, was of course unlike any I’d seen before. My cane — that ever-blessed cane — lay atop the stone wall overlooking the golden green trees below, the blue-grey mountains in the near distance. Birds chattered and sang songs about the close of the day, and I drank up all the sights and sounds in slow, savouring draughts.
The birds, the sun, the trees below, were beautiful of course, but not a surprise. What did surprise me were the maple seeds, falling upward from the trees below into the sky above. I watched in wonder as one by one, every few minutes, “helicopter seeds” ascended the face of the cliff, up, up and over the roof of the chapel above. I noticed more helicopter seeds on the walkway around me. Like a kid, I gathered them up, set them carefully on the stone wall, and flicked them one by one into the sky in front of me. They would descend for a moment, only to be caught by the graceful wind and carried up and away. With great joy I found that I was, like these seeds, caught up in something unexpected, carried along and brought back to a place of giggling wonder.
Once, 1200-or-so years before Francis sat here in the womb of the Precipice (undoubtedly watching with the same kind of wonder at the ascendent maple seeds), a pharisee named Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can a person once grown old be born again?” Jesus told him that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. “Do not be amazed,” he told the pharisee, “that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
And here is a key, a secret, to life in the Kingdom, to rebirth, to life in the Spirit: the holy, holy Earth that God has given us; this sacred older sister who sustains us. By her silent witness have countless souls been caught up like helicopter seeds into the Spirit of God. She keeps us, and feeds us, and washes us in rivers. She puts her fingers (which are soft and strong and smell like earth; like a china doll working in a garden) to our drooping chin, lifting our eyes to the golden sky and the miracle of seeds in flight. And she sings, oh she sings so sweetly, songs of the Father into the hearts of hardened men. She blesses Him, and praises Him, and serves him with all humility. The Lord bids her send winds as whispers to carry us where the Spirit wills, that we who were born from sister Mother Earth, we who have sinned and grown old, may be born again of the Spirit, and born from above.