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Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski

Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski

Posted: October 2, 2010 09:27 PM

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
--Mark Twain

For nearly three decades, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine has celebrated Creation with an Earth Mass and by blessing animals. Pictures of creatures great and small brought into the world's largest Gothic cathedral or prayed over on the Cathedral grounds have been sent by print media and television images all over the world. It is likely that any local animal blessings you know about have been inspired by Saint Francis Day at the Cathedral.

What's all the fuss? Sure, the special relationship many of us have with our pets has fueled this love affair with Saint Francis Day. Animal blessings and theologies about Mother Earth also reflect a reawakening of the spirit of stewardship of creation. That theology and spirit should not be new to us. The early creation narratives of the Bible and the teachings of the Quran long ago asserted what our relationship to Creation is meant by God to be. Actually, some have said that the Quran is "greener" than the Bible, as the word for Earth (ard) appears no fewer than 485 times in the Quran, and the word Shari'a, meaning Islamic Law, in literal translation is "source of water."

We have become disconnected from that stewardship. Everyone blames consumerism for the problems confronting the planet. Our economies depend on what we can make, sell and buy. The real issues may be that we refuse to acknowledge the fact that not all resources are renewable. Elements essential to life, such as air and water, have been potentially irreparably damaged and are increasingly treated as commodities. In the timeless struggle between the haves and the have-nots, some of the wealthiest people on the planet are investing in water rights in the way that our forebears invested in oil rights.

But the economic distribution of something as basic as water deserves careful ethical and political discourse, recognizing that as we debate, the most vulnerable are again left on the margins. The developing world, now polluting the planet as we have for generations, is being pressured to accept environmental regulations that we refused to embrace for decades. The Abrahamic faiths were intimately related to the desert. How would those early believers respond today to the lack of clean water and sanitation within our faith communities and our treatment of "strangers" in parts of the
world?

The man who would become Saint Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, to a prosperous merchant and his wife. The person who formerly had reveled in wealth became an insightful steward of natural science and theology. All we know about that transformation is that when Francis encountered street beggars and lepers, his life was changed. Against the enormous pressures of his father, Francis renounced all material values and devoted himself to the poor.

By the time he was 28, he had founded a simple Rule for an Order called the Friars Minor. Francis identified with Christ's poverty and suffering, enduring physical ailments that included the wounds of Christ, or stigmata, on his own hands, feet and side. Thereby Francis became profoundly connected to all of God's creation. Francis of Assisi believed that he was a creature of God and that his creatureliness made him and all of us part of Creation. We use Francis' teaching to remind us that we were created by the One who created all things.

In a similar way, our Muslim sisters and brothers have been commanded to find signs of God around them, in order to increase their awe of their Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer):

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day -- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding who celebrate the praises of God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): "Our Lord! not for nothing have You created (all) this! Glory to You! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire." (Quran 3.190-1)

Thereby we are challenged also to be faithful lovers of one another and of all God's creatures and of creation. The "Earth Mass" composed by Paul Winter over 25 years ago for the Cathedral actually gives Voice to creatures of sea and land. And all of what we do is an effort to renew the example of Francis and this message of the stewardship with which we have been entrusted by God. As Francis' Canticle of the Sun says, we were created to offer "ceaseless praise outpoured, [a]nd blessing without measure. Let creatures all give thanks...[a]nd serve in great humility." That voice of reverence and care will offer this fragile planet we share hope.