November 2009 – Abundant Life XI

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

November 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

This reflection is based on a reading of two important books – Zachary Hayes OFM, The Gift of Being: A Theology of Creation (Collegeville, Min.: The Liturgical Press, 2001) and Ilia Delio OSF, Christ in Evolution (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2008)

All life is imbued with God’s. Accordingly, abundant life is linked to our capacity to see God in all of creation. This insight led Saint Francis to write the Canticle of Creation at the end of his life. It also led others to develop an entire theological framework about the nature and purpose of creation.

November 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, the book that launched thousands of arguments about God’s role in the origins of humanity. These debates typically pit science against religion, arguing on one hand that we are the product of evolution by natural selection and on the other that we were created explicitly by God as a species quite distinct from others.

More recently, some conservative Evangelical Christians have attempted to rescue creationism from ridicule by introducing a more nuanced concept called “intelligent design,” which admits natural selection as an explanation for some natural phenomenon but that others “are best explained by an intelligent cause.”

But what if evolution itself is an intelligent design and that natural selection is not a random process? What if it is true that God created the universe with Christ as the meaning and centre of everything? What if the Incarnation is actually part of an evolution? Beginning from the Canticle of Creation, the Franciscan intellectual tradition has much to offer in constructing a thoughtful response to these questions.

May Thou be praised, my Lord, with all Thy creatures (cf. Tob. 8:7), especially mister brother sun, of whom is the day, and Thou enlightens us through him. (Saint Francis, Canticle of Creation)

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The three earliest Franciscan theologians to deal with the centrality of Christ in Creation were Alexander of Hales (1183-1245), Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) and John Duns Scotus (1266-1308.) A key element of their worldview was a monumental regard for the Incarnation as a loving action with implications well beyond the need to rescue humanity from its original sin, which both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas had seen as the sole motivation for the life of Jesus. From these, as well as from our reading of certain passages of Scripture, we had inherited elaborate doctrines of reparation, ransom or substitution that prevail to this day.

Saint Bonaventure and Scotus did not disagree that we are saved by the cross but added that the crib of Christ’s birth and the entire narrative of his life have at least as much merit. As Alexander of Hales before them and others since, they saw the entry of “God Among Us” in human history as part of God’s loving plan even before Creation. In fact, Hayes argues that “a world without Christ is an incomplete world.”

In reality, all life is imbued with Christ who fills the universe across all time and space. His fingerprint is on everything that is created with purpose and love. The Incarnation, therefore, is the focal point of creation. It explains what came before and sets the stage for what is to follow.

Delio does an outstanding job of synthesizing the heritage of Franciscan perspectives on the Incarnation and the centrality of Christ who we rightfully regard as the king of a reign that is the destiny of all Creation. The prophet Isaiah reports it as a promise from God, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” and Saint John receives it as an apocalyptic revelation, “Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’” (21:6)

Often we regard these statements to mean that Christ is a condemning bystander. Rarely do we understand them to suggest that Christ is an active part of this vast project of creation, conceived after the image of the holy Trinity itself. This project, the achievement of God’s own deepest desire, is ongoing and just as dynamic as the life of the Trinity because Christ is at the centre of both. The Incarnation therefore is an event of infinite significance and bearing. It holds together the whole of Creation and, not incidentally, its salvation.

It is logical to argue, I believe, that God anticipated at least the possibility of “The Fall” and was satisfied that Creation was worth the gamble because he intended from the beginning to communicate his love through the Incarnation regardless of how we would use the gift of free will: “Indeed, God did not send him into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn3:17)

Referring to Hayes’ insight, Delio writes, “(He) suggests that this evolutionary universe is meaningful and purposeful because it is grounded in Christ, the Word of God. This world is not merely a plurality of unrelated things, he states, but a true unity, a true cosmos, centred in Christ.” The Incarnation is more than a historic event. It is the iconic representation of an intimate relationship between the lover and the beloved. The Holy Spirit, the Love itself, never rests, and continues the transformation and restoration by drawing everything into the life of the Trinity.

God completes what God initiates in creation and crowns it with eternal significance. (Hayes, Christ, Word of God and Exemplar of Humanity)

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Others have held similar views, notably the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Benedictine Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), and the Cistercian Thomas Merton (1915-1968.)

De Chardin, who was familiar with the writings of Scotus, understood evolution to be a progressive movement toward consciousness that comprised three stages. The first was one of organization in which elements were combined and differentiated. The second is the organization of humanity toward “the Omega, the risen Christ.” The third is the convergence into “a Christocentric vision of reality.” This would be achieved, he argued, because Christ lives and acts in all things. He wrote,

We may say that the dominant concern of theologians in the first centuries of the Church was to determine the position of Christ in relation to the Trinity. In our own time the vital question has become the following: to analyze and specify exactly, in its relations, the existence of the influence that holds together Christ and the universe. (Christianity and Evolution)

Griffiths discovered the scope of God’s presence among us at the intersection of two ancient religious traditions, Christianity and Hinduism. As a result, his conviction that Christ is the central figure in a much larger drama that is depicted by any single spiritual system led to the conclusion that:

Christ opened up the depths of the unconscious to divine consciousness. He redeemed the whole creation by opening it to the divine life, the life of the Word, which filled his human consciousness. It is said that every man recapitulates in the womb not only all the stages of the evolution of matter but also all the stages of the evolution of human consciousness. (Return to the Centre)

Grifiths and de Chardin shared the view that love is key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. Delio writes that they “saw love as the very nature and structure of reality because the cosmos, created through the diving Word, is a perichoresis of Trinitarian love centred in Christ.”

Merton clearly saw Christ as the only unifying agent in Creation, the integrating force that bridges cultures, specifies and galaxies. He suggested that the closer one gets to Christ, the more one comes to understand the purposes and workings of the universe. Whereas the scientific method tends to examine by dissection in order to understand, mysticism—which is allied to the silent contemplation that he advocated—sees the totality first. Not only is the whole always greater than the sum of its parts, only the whole is true. Indeed, integration was for him the true meaning of redemption because, in effect, the downfall of all Creation is the tendency to pull away from the centre, where Christ is to be found.

To live abundantly is to be in constant communion with God. This need not require anything more than a capacity to see God in all things and in all people. As Saint Bonaventure imagined, all of Creation is the mirror and book that reveal God. Creation is the product of self-effusive Love, the ultimate emanation being the Incarnation and concluded,

From all we have said, we may gather that the created world is a kind of book reflecting, representing, and describing its Maker, the Trinity, at three different levels of expression: as a vestige, as an image, and as a likeliness. The aspect of vestige (“footprint”) is found in every creature; the aspect of image, only in intelligent creatures or rational spirits; the aspect of likeness, only in those spirits that are God-conformed. Though these successive levels, comparable to steps, the human intellect is designed to ascend gradually to the supreme Principle, which is God. (Breviloquium)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer make and female; for all you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3: 28)

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May your eyes feast upon the wonders of the created universe. May you delight in what God has done just as he delights in you. May God bless you abundantly.

Fraternally in joy and hope


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