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Walking the Franciscan Way toward the Fiftieth Earth Day

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated by 20 million Americans—in addition an untold number of others residing in 24 countries around this planet. They rallied together “in defense of Mother Earth,” in what became the largest affirmative event in human history until that time.

As a 17 year old high school dropout (also gone truant from the college I was supposed to be attending), I worked at the first Earth Day headquarters in Washington DC. I served as an unpaid intern that winter, and again as a much wiser and better skilled 18 year old during the next summer. On Earth Day itself, I was the youngest speaker in an Earth Day event at a parochial college not far from the Mississippi River…my rite of initiation as an out-of-league speaker (see Orion magazine and the Ecological Restoration journal spring issues for accounts of this misadventure).

Two springs later– in April 1972–Saint Francis of Assisi came into my contemplative life while I was on a wilderness solo, sitting silently and fasting in the mountains of Southern Utah. In fact, he and Saint Clare never much left me alone after that. On November 29th, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology, guiding those who conserve, propagate or restore the many species at risk on the face of this planet. I was taking graduate courses in ecology at that time, and was deeply moved by the Pope’s refusal to accept the false dichotomy or dualism of science and faith (as if they are inherently opposed to one another).

In the early 1980’s, I became a novitiate in the Secular Franciscan Order at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Metro Phoenix.  In 1993, I walked the Strata Francescana from Monte La Verna, Tuscany to  Monte Subasio, Umbria, in time to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis in Assisi. I later transferred my spiritual formation process to the Ecumenical Franciscan Order, and in the mid-1990’s, became a professed member of that Order. In addition to regularly attending its convocations, I studied with the Living School team led by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr for 2 years at the Center for Action and Contemplation. When Pope Francis released his Encyclical Letter, Laudato si’,  on caring for Creation in a time of rapid climate change, I felt as though two strands of my life had converged—one as a desert ecologist and the other as a contemplative ecologist.

Beginning with Ash Wednesday 2020, I will be writing and distributing brief daily reflections on the 50 years of efforts by peoples of all races, cultures and faiths to recognize and protect the sacredness of this earth and all life within it. I will be releasing them in time for you or others to use them in guided reflections for each of the 50 days leading up to Earth Day 50. (Please alert any of your friends that these will be released on daily through April 22nd on my website, on my Facebook page, and through alerts on Twitter.)

Although they will occasionally refer to historic traditions or parables from the Christian faith (as well as from others), and to some extent echo the values of Francis and Clare, these reflections will fundamentally be non-denominational, i.e, “inter-faith” in nature. I am not out to missionize nor proselytize anyone. However, I will refrain from posting on other topics through April 22nd, so if this is not your cup of tea, I accept that, and simply hope you will resume interest in exchanges regarding other topics on line after that date.

Between Ash Wednesday and March 4th, I will lay out some context to help us find common ground. On March 4th through April 22nd , each offering will include a short quotation from a contemporary poet or ecologist, or from Francis and Clare. It will be followed by a brief commentary in my own words, and then with an open-ended “action item” that you might opt to use to guide your own contemplative practice. Enjoy this pilgrimage.

Gary Paul Nabhan aka Brother Coyote is a professed member of the Ecumenical Order of Franciscans, a graduate of the Living School, a conservation biologist, orchard-keeper and story-teller.


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