This world of ours is a magnificent place. It has a myriad of diverse creatures all living together in harmony. In this world every creature has its place. Some are hunters and some are hunted. Some are out at night and some are out in the day. There are creatures in the waters, the land, and the sky. There are creatures as big as a blue whale and as small as a water bear. All of them are our relatives.
As Francis demonstrated through his life and words: the sun is our brother, the moon is our sister, the wolf and the birds are our cousins. It is important that we care for the other creatures around us. We may have been given dominion over the earth, but if we are to be rulers we must rule as Christ did. No one can alter the fact that humanity is at the top of the food chain and that we have more control in this world than any other animal. But, if we are to be Christians we must emulate the servant king whom we follow. We must rule over the planet by washing its feet.
Not only do we need to care for them, they also care for us. Just because we are at the top of the food chain does not mean that we do not need help too. In this article I wish to speak to you about how the other creatures care for us and protect us as well. I believe that the natural elements, and the plants and animals who dwell within them, intercede with God on our behalf. We can ask a river to pray for us in the same way that we can ask a saint in heaven to pray for us.
There is a remarkable medieval Irish apocryphal text known as The Penance of Adam. The following poem is an excerpt from that text which appears in my book Psalter of the Birds. It was originally a prose text but I have adapted it into the format you see below so that it can be chanted with the music that is provided in the book.
After leaving the garden of Eden Adam turned to Eve and said “Let us repent and do penance And turn away from our sins” Eve responded to Adam “Teach me how to do penance” Adam responded to Eve “It is time for us to adore the Lord Let us keep silence during this time We will not speak even to each other You will go to the river Tiber And I will go to the river Jordan You are to remain in the Tiber for thirty three days I will remain in the Jordan for forty seven Put a stone slab underneath your feet And let the water come up to your neck Your hair will float on the river Spreading out from you on either side Lift up your hands to the Lord And turn your eyes towards heaven And beg for the Lord’s forgiveness” Eve responded to Adam “I am unworthy to make such a prayer Because my flesh is corrupted” So Adam instructed Eve “Let us beg all of creation Which has been brought into being by prayer That they may beseech the Lord with us For forgiveness of our sins Let us pray without distraction” Adam was in the Jordan river forty seven days Eve was in the Tiber for thirty three days Angels from God came to speak with Adam Instructing him for nineteen days Then Adam begged the river Along with its many creatures To join him in his fasting So that God might forgive him At that moment the river stopped flowing And every creature in it was still All the creatures gathered around Adam And then they all began to pray The animals and the river included Their small lament was directed Towards all the heavenly orders The angels which surround God at all times So that Adam might be forgiven for his sins They asked for a place to live on the earth And that once their souls and bodies were separated They would have a heavenly dwelling as well For him and all his descendants Excepting those who ignore the law of the Lord
I love the way this text describes the animals and the river coming together to pray on Adam’s behalf. Adam is symbolic of the entire human race, just as Christ is. I believe that the animals and the waters are praying on behalf of all of humanity. We have sinned a great deal more than Adam and Eve ever did. We have not tended this garden left to us by God. Instead, we have squandered our inheritance like the prodigal son.
Perhaps we would be wise to ask the natural world to pray on our behalf. After all, we are the only creatures responsible for the destruction of the earth. All the other creatures are innocent bystanders in this environmental collapse. It is time for us to repent. It is time for us to change our ways and govern this world with the compassion and humility of Christ.
Let our penance be a change in our hearts. Let our penance be a choice to sacrifice our comfort for the sake of all life. Let our penance be the scorn we receive when we stand up for the environment. Let us lift up our hands and declare to the kings of this world that the time has come for a new way.
And as we repent, let us ask the animals and the rivers to pray on our behalf. Let us ask them for forgiveness. Let us ask them to pray for us before the throne of God that we might be forgiven for our carelessness. We need their prayers today even more than Adam did as he fasted up to his neck in the Jordan river.
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