ColumnsFaith Alive

The presence of God in all creation

Faith Alive! 2016 No. 11 — Lent and nature


So much is heard every year in Lent about spirituality. In this first year after the release of “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, it seems noteworthy how much attention his message about creation focuses on spirituality.

In a world beset with serious ecological issues — from drought and global warming to the disappearance and/or endangerment of various plant and animal species — it makes sense to take St. Francis’ teaching on the environment to heart and into reflection.

In the spirit of Lent and of St. Francis and “Laudato Si’,” we can listen for the voice of God. What does God want us to do to protect what he created?

All things speak of God: Spirituality in our time

By David Gibson

Catholic News Service

“God wants to be in relationship with us,” a Trappist monk named Father Paul says to Anne, a central figure in “The Abbey,” Jesuit Father James Martin’s recently published first novel. A conviction that God cares about Anne or might in some way speak to her has not, however, characterized her life.

A car struck and killed Anne’s only child, Jeremiah, three years earlier. Today she is confused not only about how she feels, but how she is “supposed to be feeling.”

In a series of conversations, Father Paul eventually encourages Anne to “let God be God and continue to speak” to her “in whatever ways God wants.” But, the priest adds, “let it be God, not Anne’s God, not your old images of God, but God.”

That sounds simple enough — or does it? Certainly, it is the very stuff of Lent to converse with God and listen for God’s voice.

So much is heard every year in Lent about spirituality. In this first year after the release of “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, it seems noteworthy how much attention his message focuses on spirituality.

“Christian spirituality, the fruit of 20 centuries of personal and communal experience, has a precious contribution to make to the renewal of humanity,” Pope Francis comments in the encyclical. He makes known that “more than in ideas or concepts,” he is “interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world.”

“Spirituality” undoubtedly ranks among the most frequently uttered words in the Christian vocabulary. Yet “spirituality” resists precise definition.

Christian spirituality, after all, is multifaceted and multidimensional. Moreover, it tends to reflect the unique, concrete circumstances, predicaments and hopes that prevail in the lives of the individuals, families and communities that pursue it.

Since these circumstances typically involve complicated situations that are hard to resolve, spirituality can mean wrestling in God’s presence with the big questions of ordinary life. That is what happens with Anne in “The Abbey.”

She did not even know if she believed in God. But Father Paul thought she seemed “drawn to God even if she wasn’t aware of that yet.” The time arrives when he suggests that she “try telling God” how she feels.

“Our main work in prayer is simply to be present to God and open ourselves up,” Father Paul explains.

“Most of the time God comes to us through everyday things — like relationships and work and families and friends,” Father Paul says. “But sometimes … God comes to us in very personal ways,” using “things from your life to speak to you.”

Father Paul mentions how in the parables Jesus used “birds and seeds and clouds and things that people in his time were familiar with,” turning them “into stories to help them understand God’s love.”

Through spirituality, believers quietly but earnestly try to be present to God, to understand and hear God. They converse with God, whether out of happiness or frustration, dashed hopes or gratitude.

In one way or another, spirituality encompasses both listening for God and calling out to God. Spirituality reflects a desire to know God is present, not absent. It expresses a desire to understand God better and to grow as a person.

In its quest for God and new ways of living, spirituality can involve personal prayer, reading, reflection, meditation or a focus on developing more virtuous attitudes and habits.

However, spirituality is not only a private undertaking pursued alone. Christian spirituality just as often anchors itself in the church’s communal and sacramental life, where God’s voice may be heard through others whose life journeys have paralleled our own in notable ways.

It always seems possible to grow in the spiritual habit of listening for God’s voice in the most unexpected people and places. And as Pope Francis points out in his encyclical, “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

Still, one place to listen for God’s voice is in the world and the universe surrounding us, the encyclical asserts. In the mind of Pope Francis, this is a spiritual practice.

St. Francis of Assisi “invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness,” the pope remarks.

He observes that “if someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.”

For Pope Francis, “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.”

A prayer at the encyclical’s conclusion raises this petition to God: “Teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you.”

Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.

The presence of God in all creation

By Mike Nelson

Catholic News Service

My late uncle, who was also my godfather, was a devoted Lutheran, family man, lover of animals and wiseacre who enjoyed pointing out that while most of his neighbors in small-town Iowa were Catholic, he was the only one with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in his backyard.

“Can you believe it?” he would say with a sly grin. “I’m more Catholic than they are.”

In fact, St. Francis’ October feast is honored in Anglican and Lutheran churches in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain, as well as in the Catholic Church — meaning that my uncle’s devotion wasn’t as unlikely as it may have seemed.

Indeed, few saints are as acclaimed or beloved as Francis of Assisi, a man who, in the midst of living “la vida loca,” renounced his wealth (to his family’s great consternation) and gave the rest of his relatively short life (he died in his 40s) to loving all of God’s creation.

That kind of sacrifice — a timely topic during Lent — is something we admire greatly, at least in part because we can’t imagine ourselves doing likewise. We can give up something we like for a time. We can donate from our excess. We can even make some behavioral changes that last beyond Lent.

But to do something as radical as St. Francis, who gave up everything he had permanently, to follow Jesus without turning back, that requires an extraordinary courage and faith that most of us lack.

Not all of us are called to become clones of St. Francis, though there is much about his life that we all would do well to reflect on. A good place to start is with Francis’ Prayer Before the Crucifix at San Damiano. It goes like this:

“Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out your holy and true command.”

This prayer — from which Franciscan tradition says Francis received God’s command to rebuild the church — gets to the heart of discipleship, which is to love one another. Francis, of course, took this several steps further than most of us, recognizing the presence of God in all creation — sun and moon, wind and rain, plants and animals, and people of all persuasions and all afflictions, physical and spiritual.

And in a world beset with serious ecological issues — from drought and global warming to the disappearance and/or endangerment of various plant and animal species — it makes sense to take St. Francis’ teaching to heart and into reflection.

How many more housing developments and shopping centers that place a burden on limited water supplies do our communities need? How much more nonrecyclable, nonbiodegradable “stuff” must we buy that someday will end up in a landfill to do heaven knows what to the land?

Asking both questions another way, how can we use what is already in place, or what we already have, to serve the same purpose? Most important, how do we acknowledge that all we use and receive, all that is present in our world, is, in fact, rooted in the gift of God’s goodness? And how do we respect and value that gift?

Lenten “sacrifice” is not about giving up, but about giving over — that is, giving over one’s life to understanding God’s will and desire, to letting go of what separates us from God. Lent, ultimately, is about connecting to God.

St. Francis sought to connect with God through all creation — loving not just birds and bunnies (like those on my uncle’s statue), but the big animals, too, the not-so-cuddly ones, the ones (including the human ones) with an attitude. That’s a good example for us all, whatever denomination we may be.

Nelson is a freelance writer and former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Lent lessons from St. Francis

By Marge Fenelon

Catholic News Service

It seems to me that St. Francis of Assisi could well be named the patron saint of this year’s Lent, in which many are looking to incorporate the calling of the pope’s “Laudato Si’” encyclical into their 40-day journey of penitence and conversion.

It’s almost as if St. Francis lived his entire adult life as one continuous Lent, and this Lent I’m thinking more and more about him and wondering how we might imitate his goodness and virtue, with a focus on creation.

Francis, born into wealth, very much enjoyed all of the pleasures and privileges that accompanied his status. He loved revelry, fine clothes and showy displays. He was popular and witty and was a favorite among the nobles of his town. He had it all. Or so it seemed.

In his 20s, after a long illness, his contemplation of eternity was the beginning of his transformation. Nature — God’s creation — provided an entree for Francis into a life based on the Gospel.

This contemplation led Francis to change his view of the world, and he became less and less enthusiastic about the things that used to matter to him: riches, parties and finery. He set about to live in a different way, one that became spiritual instead of material. He began to yearn for a simpler life.

Perhaps he meditated on Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it. For he founded it on the seas, established it over the rivers.”

Or maybe he read Isaiah 11:6-9: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.

“The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox … they shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”

Scripture offers endless passages for us to contemplate God’s creation. Genesis alone provides a wide picture of God as creator of man and of nature, and also a God who includes animals in the tale of redemption, as we see in Noah’s Ark (Gn 6-9).

For St. Francis, nature itself became a way to give glory to God. We can strive to see through the eyes of Francis, to view nature — the land, animals, resources and even the weather itself — as sacred and appreciate all of it, as he did.

But in the spirit of Lent and of “Laudato Si’,” we can listen for the voice of God. What does God want us to do to protect what he created?

I have so much to learn from St. Francis, and I pray that, even in a small way this Lent, I’ll be able to imitate his virtuous life.

(Fenelon is a freelance writer from Milwaukee and author of “Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom.”)


There’s a lot about the season of Lent that mirrors nature, at least for those of us who live in places where we experience four distinct seasons.

As Jesus wandered in the desert, some of us, too, live the season of Lent in what physically resembles a desert: a sea of brown trees without leaves, dry and barren land, and darkness that engulfs the day. We anticipate Easter and its message with the same longing of seeing that first daffodil push its way through the earth after a long and cold winter.

Nature can teach us a lot about Lent, about patience, anticipation, about listening and observing and letting the greater power of God take over. We can’t control the seasons, just as we can’t control life. We just have to let it happen.

In a March 2015 America magazine article on Lent, Jesuit Father Francis X. Clooney wrote about this type of detachment, which he called a “path of serene action, for the sake of the world, and leading directly to God.”

We can be like Jesus, he says, as he approaches Jerusalem, quiet and letting God take over.

“The greatest and tumultuous things in our lives can be, if we understand this, as simple as the rising and setting of the sun; we just need to be there, we don’t have to do anything,” Father Clooney writes.


St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology, is depicted in mosaic at Westminster Cathedral in London. Not all of us are called to become clones of St. Francis, though there is much about his life that we all would do well to reflect on. (CNS photo/Mike Nelson)