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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The Saint and the Pope Sing Hymns to Creation

The Saint and the Pope Sing Hymns to Creation

Author: Reilly Capps/Thursday, November 5, 2015/Categories: natural history

[Legend of St. Francis, Sermon to the Birdsupper Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi]

The message that St. Francis preached to the birds, though not recorded, isn’t beyond surmising. Morning hymns that praised creation. “Gather around, little brothers,” he might have said, as they fluttered about him in the treetops, and alighted on the eaves of the tower of the church at Assisi. “Be grateful! Your creator has raised up the trees to give you a home, he breathed out the air that gives you freedom, and he pulled from the earth the seeds of your dinner!”

And what puzzled look did they countenance, his avian audience? How long did they pause in their songs of the morning at the sound of this bald wingless creature and his flat strange song, whose verses had no rhythm and whose chorus was an incomprehensible “Signore, signore, laudato si! Signore, signore, laudato si!” They couldn’t have lingered long; perhaps they wondered what “Signore” meant, perhaps they wondered why this strange bird sang, before they fluttered off to their business, which was singing and staying alive.


Eight hundred years later, another strange bird named Francis – a bald wingless creature in a white gown named -- sang a similar song, only he recorded the message he preached to a flock, and put it to paper, and published it in words many in the flock understood – “Dios, laudato si!” and “God, laudato si,” and “Gott, laudato si” and four others. The flock understood these words Dios, God and Gott, and some small number paused to listen or read before fluttering off to their business, which was business, and loving and working and following rules invented by 266 strange birds who dressed like our Francis, birds who promised rule-followers a sweeter life after this one, and adumbrated bitter pain to those who’d transgress them. (Even the sub-rules about eating meat on a Friday.)

This document from our Francis, “Laudato si,” takes its name from the first Francis, and its spirit too. Its subject is creation and its current state. It even includes the following bit of middle school physics, “as gases build up in the atmosphere, they hamper the escape of heat produced by sunlight,” as well as the following bit of basic literacy, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” to arrive at a conclusion no bird could ever reach, which is that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”


I, another strange bird, have a headache. I need an aspirin, a nap and a valium. After months putting it off, Catholic guilt that lingers after decades of church services, Sunday school, Wednesday mass at Catholic school, “theology” classes, not to mention thousands of years of Catholic revelry and oppression in the green Irish Isles of my ancestors impelled me to spend the day reading “Laudato Si.”

I expected to be pleased by it; I hoped to find inspiration and strength that might spur me on to write more about the environment and climate change, each word of which not only raises public awareness about the changing climate but also -- each and every solitary word of it -- earns me money.

Well … nup. No inspiration. No spurring. No revelation. But I intend to spend the next few minutes explaining WHY there was no inspiration, either until you are sufficiently enlightened about the content of “Laudato si” or else I am sufficiently well-compensated for having read all 37,000 words of it. (Hey, boss, can you pay me by “words read” rather than “words written”?)

In place of inspiration, there has been a rupture in the corpus callosum, the fiber that holds the two halves of my brain together.

The left side of your brain is supposedly the rational, Scientific-American-loving part; the right side is the intuitive, Dave Matthews-loving part. The left brain is terrible at parties. But if you were only right-brained, you’d never make money for rent. The hope, for reading “Laudato Si,” was that my logical, sciency brain would get a jolt from the science while my magical, squishy brain would get zenned on the religious bit.

But all Francis did was make both sides of the brain angry. The encyclical isn’t romantic enough to make you feel squishily happy, and it isn’t logical enough to make you feel intellectually refreshed. Like most church pronouncements, it falls softly to the floor in a big pile of mumbo jumbo (“mumbo jumbo” is a Latin phrase.)


To take just one example: Frank wants to remind us that God has a “paternal relationship with all his creatures.” He quotes Jesus, from Matthew, saying to his followers, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” But that’s just patently untrue. Jesus did not have a particularly solid grasp of the natural sciences, violating as he did in his day the laws of buoyancy, conservation of mass and entropy. Almost no bird dies of old age, in a cushy retirement home watching reruns of Golden Girls. And not only are most birds dead of hunger or predation, but most KINDS of birds are dead. Dodos and Lord God birds and pterodactyls -- all dead. God’s paternal relationship with all his creatures is, at best, a weekend dad. He’ll pick you up from school on a Friday and take you bowling, but when you really need the dough for a new ride, he’s nowhere to be seen.


For more than a morning I listened to the song sung by this strange bird in a flowing white robe. I understood the words but the language isn’t mine anymore. And it isn’t the language spoken by those who helped us understand that gases released in the atmosphere trap heat, and it isn’t the language spoken by those who are building the technology that will help us release less gas. And now, having soothed my Catholic guilt for another day at least, I look out at the trees in the yard, which were raised up by hormones affecting proteins made of organic matter, breathing carbon dioxide breathed out by the kingdom Animalia, made of matter forged in the crucibles of stars, all of it part of a whirlpool of energy arising from the background flow, on a mote of dust suspended in a Sunbeam, whereon no father of any kind is visible, whereon no sign is seen that help will come from outside.

I flutter off now, off to find language that sounds to me like a song. Although I’d like to take one moment to praise both Francises for at least noticing nature. “Laudato Signores,” I say to them. “Laudato Si.”


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