Seeing Differently. Franciscans and Creation.

Book cover

Shelly Dennison reviews, “Seeing Differently. Franciscans and Creation,” by Simon Cocksedge, Samuel Double & Nicholas Alan Worssam.

‘Seeing Differently’ caught my eye whilst browsing in the bookshop at Greenbelt this year. The timing means that, rather appropriately, I read it during the ecumenical Season of Creation which ends on October 4th, the feast day of St Francis.

The authors summarise their purpose well when they say, “Our book has been written in the belief that Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan tradition have an important contribution to make in transforming world views that have become dangerous to life, and to all creation, both human and non-human.” The book explores what a distinctively Franciscan response to climate science and threats to nature and the environment might look like.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, ‘Francis and Creation’, is written by Simon Cocksedge. Cocksedge was a family doctor and is now a parish priest and hospice chaplain. He is part of the Franciscan Third Order whose members commit to an individual rule of life. His section  looks at the stories about St Francis and different aspects of Creation, covering birds, animals, fish and insects, as well as inanimate creation such as water and rocks. It also covers the Canticle of the Creatures (‘Francis’ great prayer of praise and thanksgiving’) and themes from Francis’ spirituality and way of life.

The second section is ‘Franciscans and Creation’, where Nicholas Alan Worssam, Guardian of Glasshampton Monastery in Worcestershire, continues the story by explaining how Francis’ followers lived and developed his spirituality. He looks at figures like Clare of Assisi, Angela of Foligano and Bonaventure, pulling out some key themes such as sin, lament, contemplation and beauty.

The final part of the book is written by Samuel Double who was Guardian of Hilfield Friary in Dorset, where he led their project on living sustainably in community. He is now at the Franciscan Friary in Plaistow, east London. This section, ‘Franciscans and Creation Today’ explores how learning from Francis’ way of seeing and inhabiting the world around him could transform our contemporary relationship with creation. Importantly, the words he draws out are active – attending, inhabiting, valuing and gazing – which reflects the focus of all three writers on the practical lessons that can be drawn from the Franciscan tradition. He also discusses the recurring themes of the book such as connectedness, reconciliation, hospitality and limits.

One of the strengths of ‘Seeing Differently’ is that it has been written by practitioners rather than as an academic study. This makes for a very readable volume, where the authors share something of their own stories alongside the historical and thematic elements. For example, Simon Double writes about his move from rural Dorset to urban London, “I was challenged by those who told me that a care for creation was all very well for those living in the countryside or leafy suburbs, but was hardly a priority for those in cities. I wanted to respond to this challenge, reflect on it and investigate an urban as well as rural ecology, particularly because Franciscans have traditionally tended to establish their friaries in towns.” He goes on to explain how his eyes were opened to London’s nature and green spaces on walks with writer Bob Gilbert. (Incidently, I can also recommend Bob Gilbert’s book ‘Ghost Trees. Nature and People in a London Parish.’ It’s an excellent read, and one I discovered after hearing the author speak at Greenbelt back in 2019) The fact that it is written by practitioners also gives the book a down to earth tone, the Franciscan hallmarks of poverty, humility, simplicity and prayer are all here. It may also explain the lack of romanticism which often colours writing about Francis. The writers are clear about his sometimes pragmatic approach to creation and don’t present an idealised picture of his life. Familiar stories such as Francis preaching to the birds or the taming of the wolf of Gubbio are thoughtfully explored to show how they may have evolved and the lessons that we might take from them.

There are some useful supporting resources for readers who wish to go further. Each chapter has some questions for reflection and suggestions for further reading. There is also a bibliography, glossary and appendix on studying Francis.

‘Seeing Differently’ is a thought provoking read that brings the Franciscan threads of prayer and action together in a practical and engaging way.

Shelly Dennison is a JRI director and works as the Digital Engagement Officer for CPRE Bedfordshire. Shelly communicates the countryside charity’s message on their website and social media channels, as well as in print materials like their members’ magazine. Her role involves content creation, communications strategy and planning, profile raising and engaging new audiences. More recently Shelly has also begun working with local community groups and campaigners to help them communicate their aims. She is the Eco Church lead in her local Methodist Church and also worships in her local parish church.