Sunday, October 4, 2015

St. Francis: Action Grounded in Compassion

“What did you do once you knew?”

This year’s celebration of St. Francis falls at a time when there is growing awareness of climate change and its effects. The effects are all around us now, even if we don’t always articulate the connection between these effects and rising global temperatures. Global warming brings exceptionally dry conditions to some areas and torrential rains to others, while rising sea levels make coast flooding more frequent.

This week, heavy rains associated with Hurricane Joaquin are causing historic flooding along parts of the eastern seaboard in the United States. On Thursday, a rain-soaked hill in Guatemala collapsed in a landslide. CNN reports that at least 73 people died in the landslide, and hundreds are missing. And this same week, Ed Struck reports that rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. Some of the ecological effects of these fires are already evident; some of us in Nebraska remember some smoky days this summer from fires in Canada and the northwestern United States. Down the road, if these fires burn through the organic layers that protect the permafrost in northern regions, the carbon concentrated in permafrost will be released, accelerating global warming. 

St. Francis Day this year comes also on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. During his visit, Pope Francis exhorted the American people and our leaders to pay attention to climate change and make the changes we need to make in order to allow us and all living things to thrive. His visit makes it easier, perhaps, for us to look beyond the blessing of pets to the deeper teachings of St. Francis that are so important for us to heed in the 21st century.

St. Francis’s compassion extended far beyond domestic animals. Most notably, Francis had compassion for poor people. Born into comfortable circumstances, he left all of that to live as poor people lived. Today we might say he stood in solidarity with the poor. His compassion extended to all living things: people, plants, water, the wind, the sun, moon, and stars. His compassion even extended to death itself, part of the great web and cycles of life. 

His compassion flowed out of his love for Christ. His grounding in Christ was evident in his loving restoration of ruined churches and in his creation of the first crèche to make the story of the Nativity more accessible to people. Francis did not neglect worship, and his attention to the words of Christ in the Gospel guided his heart and his mind, but he also did not neglect action in the world.  As Francis understood as a deacon, when the Gospel works long enough on someone’s heart and mind, the natural result is compassion that extends in an ever-widening circle.

The great work for Christians today is to extend that circle of compassion not only in wider and wider circles in today's world, but also to extend that circle to future generations. Compassion says that if we see the potential for living things to suffer now or 10, 20, 50, or 100 years from now, we should do whatever we can to alleviate that suffering.

What do we do? What response is one we would be happy for people who may be alive in 100 years to know about? What response is one we are happy for God to know about now?

A prayerful reflection on how we act with compassion in today’s world might start with this passage from Hieroglyphic Stairway read by the poet, Drew Dillinger: