Eco-Human Theory and Practice
ISSN 2713 – 184x
Eco Art Therapy
Ecological Education
The "Green" Arts


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Br. William Ng ofm

is a Franciscan friar, with training in landscape architecture, town planning and theology. After gaining a Master's degree in Religion and the Arts from Yale Divinity School and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in Expressive Arts Therapy from European Graduate School, he now provides spiritual direction and workshops, for both groups and individuals, exploring the interface between the artistic process and eco-spirituality with the inspiration of St Francis.



The essay examines the key points of Pope Francis' 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si'. It pays particular attention to the influence of the spiritual heritage of St. Francis of Assisi on the position of the Catholic Church on environmental issues. The concept of ecological spirituality is revealed. The important role of the arts and aesthetic experience in the spiritual heritage of St. Francis is shown. The correlations between the phenomenology of the creative process, poiesis, considered from the standpoint of expressive arts and therapy and the structure of Lectio Divina (divine reading in Latin) are shown.

Key words: Laudato Si’, St. Francis of Assisi, expressive therapy, poiesis, ecopoiesis, ecological spirituality, ecological citizenship



In the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis in 1979, raised the issue of "the threat of pollution of the natural environment in areas of rapid industrialisation" (paragraph 8), showing how the world "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (quoting Romans 8:19).[ii] In the same year, he proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint for ecologists, “[f]or he singularly perceived all the works of the Founder, and, inspired by a certain divine spirit, he sang that most beautiful Canticle of the Creatures," through Brother Sun, … Sister Moon and the heavens and the stars, he gives due praise, glory, honour and every blessing to the most high, almighty and good Lord.”.[iii] John Paul II is well remembered for coining the phrase "ecological conversion" in 2001.[iv]

When the Jesuit pope who has surprisingly taken on Francis as his name, Pope Francis wrote his first encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, with a strong Franciscan overtone. The title itself is a direct quote (in an unusual vernacular form and not Latin) from St. Francis of Assisi's famous poetic prayer, "Canticle of the Creatures”. Indeed, the entire document shows how insights and ideas of this beloved medieval saint can be applied in a response to the urgent “groans in travail” of the planet of today. This is the first time in history the Catholic Church discusses environmental protection in an official document with the highest rank of an “encyclical”, a sign of the seriousness of the ecological problem, compelling the Church to respond.

As a matter of fact, since the 1960s, when the issue of environmental protection gained much attention, many Westerners, outside of Christianity and even outside of mainstream religions, have begun to explore the relationship between faith and the environment from the point of view of aboriginal cultures, non-traditional religions, and nature worship, etc. Therefore, Pope Francis' promotion of ecological spirituality is of great significance. This paper first introduces how Franciscan thought is presented in Laudato Si', and then discusses Chapter 6 of the encyclical, Ecological Spirituality. Finally, it will discuss how St. Francis of Assisi's example can be a basis for an artistic eco-spiritual practice.

The Franciscan elements in Laudato Si’

The influence of St. Francis on Pope Francis can be said to be considerable. The entire encyclical mentions St. Francis as many as 13 times, including three paragraphs, numbers 10-12, in the introduction before the main text, which directly discuss the connection between the Franciscan spirituality and ecology. Pope Francis has adopted the view that all creatures as brothers and sisters, a theme explicated by St Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Creatures. The Pope said:

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (LS 1)[v]

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.  (LS 2)

Paragraphs 10-12 lay the theological foundation for the rest of the encyclical:

I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. (LS 10)

Indeed, "Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human." (LS 11) And that core is love: "Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise." (LS 11) It is love that makes Francis one with all creation. “He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.’ ” (LS 11, quoting Thomas Celano: Life of St Francis I, 29: 81).

This love from God led to an affective, if not a spiritual, connection with all things: The Pope said that "[The saint’s] response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.” (LS 11)

From the inspiration of St Francis for the unity and interconnectedness of all things, the Pope concludes as follows:

Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. […] The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (LS 11)

In the chapters that follow, the ideas of St Francis are mentioned again and again, showing how important the poverello – the little poor man, as he is affectionately known – has been to the Pope. For the scope of this paper, It would be sufficient to mention the following quotations.

Through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature. (LS 66)

[I]n the canticle in which Saint Francis praises God for his creatures, he goes on to say: “Praised be you my Lord, through those who give pardon for your love”. Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society. (LS 91)

In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, we come to realise that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change. (LS 218)

It is important to point out that this 2015 encyclical has made an epoch-making move to elevate the concept "stewardship over God’s gift of the environment" from the Church's previous teaching on environmental protection to the idea of the common co-creaturehood of all things. Indeed, St Francis’s vision of all things being created by the same Creator allows him to see the divine in all things. And it is through an ecological conversion that we too can adopt this vision of a cosmic fraternity. The important keyword in this encyclical is "fraternity". It is mentioned nine times in Pope Francis' encyclical in various forms. It is not only rich in the Franciscan spirit, but also the basis of care for the created world. One of these quotes is significant.[vi]

The Pope emphasises a change in lifestyle, rather than staying merely at a theoretical level. “Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle.” (LS 211) So we see all these faith-based insights of environmental protection are not just concepts because they point towards to a change in daily life which can be sustained by a spiritual practice.

Ecological spirituality

Chapter 6 of Lautato Si’ discusses ecological spirituality in detail. The result of spirituality is to realise “an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone”. (LS 202). Indeed, it is human beings who are most in need of change – a change in beliefs and attitudes would motivate new ways of life. Sound spirituality should be transformative, rather than providing superficial comfort or satisfaction of the ego. In contrast, spirituality would be the basis to allow one to "overcome individualism”, recognising the true worth of the rest of creation, being attentive to the good of others, and exercising self-restraint in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of the environment (LS 208). Environmental education on the covenant between humanity and the environment would bring about “ecological citizenship” and this must be coupled with a conversion of heart both on the personal and the corporate levels (LS 209-221).

From the point of view of poiesis, this encyclical has a subtle theme of aesthetics. An ecological lifestyle can be filled with joy and peace: those who live with sobriety can “live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.” (LS 223) The Pope sees the same kind of spiritual fulfilment in both the arts and ecological living.

Further, Pope Francis also cites John Paul II's proposal to contemplate God's creation through the lens of beauty, as there is a strong bond “between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment” (LS 215). The Pope goes on quoting Ali al-Khawas, a prominent 9th-century Sufi poet: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (LS 233) Such sentiment is echoed in the words of St. Bonaventure, a great Franciscan theologian, “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves” (quoted in LS 233).

Both the Roman and Byzantine traditions of Christianity place importance in sacraments where “nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life” (LS 235).

Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colours are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise. The hand that blesses is an instrument of God’s love and a reflection of the closeness of Jesus Christ, who came to accompany us on the journey of life. Water poured over the body of a child in Baptism is a sign of new life. Beauty … is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured…. (LS 235)

In the last two paragraphs of the encyclical, Pope Francis portrays the end of the world as a time when one can finally see the infinite beauty of God directly face to face, and be able to recognise with admiration and joy the mystery of the universe, with which we will share an infinite abundance. (LS 243) We are admonished about what have to do before we arrive to that point. “In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.” (LS 244) To end this paragraph on ecological spirituality, the Pope invites to “sing as we go” (in Latin: Ambulemus cantantes!) I personally find this is a call for a direct engagement with music and dancing – if not all the arts: Singing (cantantes) while walking or moving forward (ambulemus).

St. Francis' personal artistic experience of ecological spirituality

As mentioned above, St. Francis is often mentioned in the Pope’s encyclical, and this section will analyse how relevant his actual experience for our search for a practice of eco-spirituality. Thomas Celano, one of the early biographers, describes succinctly the saint’s interaction with the creation:

This happy traveller, hurrying to leave the world as the exile of pilgrimage, was helped, and not just a little, by what is in the world. … Toward God, however, he used it as the clearest mirror of goodness. In art he praises the Artist; whatever he discovers in creatures he guides to the Creator. He rejoices in all the works of the Lord's hands, and through their delightful display he gazes on their life-giving reason and cause. In beautiful things he discerns Beauty Itself; all good things cry out to him: "The One who made us is the Best." Following the footprints imprinted on creatures, he follows his Beloved everywhere; out of them all he makes for himself a ladder by which he might reach the Throne. He embraces all things with an intensity of unheard devotion, speaking to them about the Lord and exhorting them to praise Him.[vii]

I would like to think of the above as the fruit of an eco-spirituality. However, we cannot hope to find from the writing of St Francis any concrete teaching on practising eco-spirituality as a method like how St Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556) has compiled a set of meditations, prayers and contemplative practices, known as the Spiritual Exercises. So, in order to find inspirations in the experience of St Francis to postulate a method of "ecological spirituality", we have to find out relevant elements from his words and deeds.

From the above discussion on Laudato Si’, one can safely concludes the Canticle of the Creatures is a testimony of St Francis’s own spiritual journey. I would like to recapitulate this trajectory using the fourfold framework of “Lectio Divina” and the architecture of the phenomenological approach to Expressive Arts Therapy.Lectio Divina” (​divine reading in Latin) includes the steps of reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio), in which one attentively and pray​erfully reads the word of God, not as an intellectual but a spiritual pursuit.

The reason for juxtaposing St Francis’ story with a creative therapy framework is two-fold. First, religious activities rely on rational thinking such as preaching and writing, whereas the process of any art form involves a combined use of the senses, feelings and thoughts plus a sense of beauty. Second, the concepts of expressive arts therapy are employed to explain St Francis’ spiritual practice because his practice is both art-based and therapeutic, as we shall see.

One of the theoretical and practical frameworks for expressive arts therapy, advocated by Paolo Knill in Switzerland, is intermodal decentring, based on phenomenology.[viii] It emphasises several key elements.

1. The process is low-skilled, enough to allow the participant to enjoy the pleasure of creative artmaking in a short period of time.

2. It has to be highly sensitive, in a way that the participant has a heightened sensitivity to the one or more of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), enough to appreciate the process with an aesthetic sense and to shape materials at hand.

3: Poiesis – creative artmaking in any materials – is regarded a medium of healing because psychological damage often causes one to lose one's creativity.

4. Beauty itself becomes an agent of healing.

Let us now consider the mental and physical state of St Francis before he starts writing the Canticle. From one of the biographies, we know how exhausted he has been.

Likewise, two years before his death, while he was already very sick, especially from the eye disease, he was staying at San Damiano in a little cell made of mats. The general minister, seeing and considering how tormented he was with the eye disease, ordered him to let himself be treated and helped. … Blessed Francis lay there for more than fifty days, and was unable to bear the light of the sun during the day or the light of a fire at night. He stayed in the dark in the house, inside that little cell. In addition, day and night he had great pains in his eyes so that at night he could scarcely rest or sleep. This was very harmful and was a serious aggravation for his eye disease and his other illnesses. Sometimes he did want to rest and sleep, but there were many mice in the house and in the little cell made of mats where he was lying, in one part of the house. They were running around him, and even over him, and would not let him sleep. They even disturbed him greatly at the time of prayer. …. One night as blessed Francis was reflecting on all the troubles he was enduring, he was moved by piety for himself. "Lord," he said to himself, "make haste to help me in my illnesses, so that I may be able to bear them patiently." And suddenly he was told in spirit: "Tell me, brother, what if, in exchange for your illnesses and troubles, someone was to give you a treasure? … Wouldn't you greatly rejoice?" "Lord," blessed Francis answered, "this treasure would indeed be great, worth seeking, very precious, greatly lovable, and desirable." "Then, brother," he was told, "be glad and rejoice in your illnesses and troubles, because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom." (The Assisi Compilation 83)

From the above, it seems that Francis was in a suffering situation in need for healing, and that the dialogue with God could be said to be a religious experience, as if a person of faith were rationalizing the meaning of suffering in religion. According to the biographies, he was transformed the next day, and wrote this Canticle of the Creatures.[ix]  How did that transformation of accepting suffering happen? The text of the Canticle may shed some light.

First of all, Francis uses a variety of adjectives to describe the elements, showing a result of observation of nature – mostly visual and descriptive, comparable to the sensitisation phase in the expressive arts therapy architecture:

  • The Sun is described as “radiant with great splendour”.
  • The Moon and the stars are said to be “clear”.
  • Wind is observed in “the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather”
  • Water is “useful”
  • Fire is described to “light the night” being “robust and strong” 
  • The Earth is observed as one “produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”. 

To come up with such observation can be said to have gone through a stage of lectio - reading, like in the first steps of the Lectio Divina. Pope Francis has also pointed out the readability of nature: "[…] Saint Francis […] invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness." (LS 12)

In the second step in the Lectio Divina, viz. meditatio (meditation), the intellect generally imagines, reasons, etc., about what is being read. The artmaking process of expressive arts therapy invites the participant to work with the activated senses, be it sounds, words, lines, colours and this shaping process and to shape materials in an intermodal fashion. From the text of the Canticle, we can interpolate as such: stemming from a level of visual experience with nature, the medieval saint now writes with multiple focuses: functional, allegorical, and poetic, and this is very much akin to a kind of intermodality.[x]

  • The sun... give(s) us light and ….is beautiful.
  • The moon and the stars... are precious and beautiful.
  • Wind…give(s) sustenance to creatures.
  • Water... is very humble, precious, and chaste,
  • Fire... is beautiful and playful.
  • The earth …sustains and governs us.

In the architecture of intermodal Expressive Arts Therapy, crystallisation of experience comes next. I would point out that St Francis employs a language of fraternity in his understanding of the elements of nature because he has experienced brotherhood and sisterhood, discovering a theological connection among creatures and the Creator, now expressed in an I-Thou[xi] way with the Creator while also placing emphasis on the role of “us”.

  • Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through whom You give us light and he … bears a likeness of You.
  • Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven You formed them clear….
  • Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind… through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
  • Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water...
  • Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night…
  • Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth… 

No wonder the Pope calls this Canticle a “magnificent expression” of a sentiment of seeing “God reflected in all that exists” and the “hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them”. (LS 87)

The third step of the Lectio Divina is oratio (prayer), which can be understood as a form of dialogue in which the inner thoughts of the heart are made known to God in the form of confessions, requests, praises or thanksgivings. No wonder St Francis starts his canticle by acclaiming, “Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honour, and all blessing,” and then bursting out the phrase Laudato Si’ (Praised be you) for each stanza. In the process of Expressive Arts Therapy, the participant has to harvest the resources available in the poiesis process. St Francis, according to the biography:

said to his companions: …"I must rejoice greatly in my illnesses and troubles and be consoled in the Lord, giving thanks always to God … for such a great grace and blessing. …Therefore, for His praise, for our consolation and for the edification of our neighbour, I want to write a new Praise of the Lord for his creatures, which we use every day, and without which we cannot live. Through them the human race greatly offends the Creator, and every day we are ungrateful for such great graces, because we do not praise, as we should, our Creator and the Giver of all good." (The Assisi Compilation 83)

The fourth step of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (contemplation). We do not know exactly how Francis practises contemplation after writing this Canticle, but we can see from a line in one of his Admonitions that he had a certain understanding of contemplation: Where there is rest and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor restlessness. (27:4) Some scholars point out that “rest”, quies in Latin, is the only time St Francis uses this word in all of his writings, borrowing from an earlier monastic understanding.[xii] In the expressive arts framework, perhaps we can imagine this quies is the closing of the poiesis process when the heightened aesthetic sense comes to a rest, letting go of the artmaking process. For St Francis, this quies is the fruit of healing, coming to terms with his own creaturely condition, an understanding of being part of creation. Pope Francis speaks of “the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of [the] rupture [between human beings and nature]”. (LS 66)

The process of expressive arts is therapeutic, having transformed one to face reality with renewed resources. In the same way, some may add actio (action) as what happens after Lectio Divina. Indeed, the transformation of the person, effected by a spiritual practice is observed in the encyclical, “[St] Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wildflowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” (LS 12)


The pandemic of the past few years has shown itself to be a global tragedy. Do we need another ecological disaster to make the world repent? The Catholic Church in trying to make a response to the ecological issue has drawn on the inspiration of St Francis of Assisi. Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi practiced eco-spirituality with an artistic sense. Perhaps, the world can benefit from an artistic practice of eco-spirituality that can help us on the path of ecological conversion to ecological citizenship.



[i] Adapted from the article published in the 2021 Symposium of Six Religious Leaders: Reflecting on the Relationship and Balance between Heaven, Earth and Humanity in the Epidemic from Different Religious Beliefs, Hongkong.

[iii] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Inter Sanctos, November 29, 1979.

[iv] Numerous articles have been written on this topic. One excellent summary is Christopher Rice. “Pope John Paul II and care for God’s creation” 2022.

[v] LS is the official abbreviation for encyclical Laudato Si’, followed by its paragraph number.

[vi] From the definitive Latin text, these nine occurrences of words with the root “fraternitas” can be found in paragraphs 11, 70, 82, 92, 201, 221, 223 and 228. It is not easy to spot this in translations.

[vii] Thomas of Celano. “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul” 165 in Armstrong, Regis, eds. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. The Founder.

[viii] As a graduate of the European Graduate School, I am heavily inclined to the method of Intermodal Decentring. Many monographs are on this subject, for example, Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetics. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004.

[x] Functional words are underlined. Poetic words are italicised. Words used in an allegorical way are in bold.

[xi] “You” and “Your” appear 16 times in English 16 times among the six paragraphs.

[xii] Footnote b in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents: The Saint.


Reference for citations

Ng ofm, W. (2024). Practicing ecological spirituality with a Franciscan-artistic sensitivity. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 5(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: (d/m/y)


About the journal

In accordance with the Law of the Russian Federation on the Mass Media, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) on September 22, 2020, the web-based publication - The peer-reviewed scientific online journal "Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice" was registered (registration number El No. FS77-79134).

“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.

The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.

One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.

The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.