Despite the fact that the Church marks the life of Francesco Bernadone by a “mere” Liturgical Memorial, he remains one of the most beloved saints. Better known as St. Francis of Assisi, he has grown in popularity because he seems to be a saint belonging not to his own times, but ours. As Chesterton says in his great biography “that St. Francis anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property.” Francis was a great lover of nature but he was also “spiritual.” Because he was an ecclesiastical rebel, he was not particularly religious, or at least his modernized version wasn’t. He became the patron saint of the New Age and like many believers in the New Age he was, “spiritual but not religious.”
To keep the beloved saint from being hijacked by the New Agers, it is important to point out that St. Francis loved those things because he loved the Person who made them. He loved the poor because Jesus was poor and God is close to those who are poor. In other words, St. Francis loved those things because he found God in all those things.
At this point, the New Ager might respond “Exactly. St. Francis found that God is in everything. That is why we don’t need religion. We can find Him anywhere.” And in this, we find the fundamental error in the New Age view of reality. The New Age view is based upon a profound misunderstanding of what it means to say that God is in everything. We need an understanding of this not only to refute New Age philosophy but to also develop a deeper understanding of Who God is for ourselves. St. Thomas thought this idea so important for understanding Who God is, he tackles it at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae (Book I question 8).
To understand this, it is first important to define precisely what we mean by the term essence. The essence of a created thing is what that thing is; what makes it to be that particular type of thing and not something else. What the New Age believer says about God is that He is part of the essence of all things. But because God is simple (i.e. cannot be divided into parts), then everything contains God they argue. This is where the Church differs from the New Age believer. Relying on the teachings of Aquinas, the Church says that God is in created things “but not as part of their essence.” Everything is not God. When we say that God is in everything what we mean truly is that He is present to all things.
We must also make clear what we mean when we say that a spiritual substance is “in” something. For example, what do we mean when we say that the soul is in the body? It does not mean that it is found inside the body, but that it acts upon the body. Death is when the body degrades to the point that the soul no longer can act upon it. So too with God, we say that God is in something in the sense that He is acting upon it. When we say that God is in everything what we mean truly is that He is present to all things.
He is present in two ways— as efficient cause in that He is Creator of all and as an object of operation in that He acts on them, holding them in creation.
An analogy will help. When a man builds a chair, we often say that he put his heart into it. In that way the builder is in the chair. This analogously is what we mean by God being in creation in the first sense as the creator. Now suppose that the chair breaks and he glues it together. Suppose further that in order for the glue to set properly he has to apply weight by sitting in the chair. This is the second sense in which we mean that God is in all things holding them together.
In both cases though, the man is not part of the chair itself. This is very important. He is not part of the chair’s chairness or essence. He is in the chair as its creator and as the one holding it together.
In short, the Church teaches that God is transcendent in His nature and immanent in His Presence. He is wholly other because He is God, He is wholly present as Being itself (“I AM WHO AM”). In fact, it is only because He is transcendent in His nature that He can be present to all things at all times. The difference between God and the world is not a spatial one, but modal. God doesn’t occupy another space but His way of being is qualitatively different than creation.
Furthermore, God is not equally in all things. To reject this doctrine is ultimately a rejection of the Incarnation and Christianity itself. Christianity is founded upon the belief that God was most fully present in the created humanity of Jesus Christ.
Because man is an intellectual creature, God is more in him than the rest of visible creation. Man is the only being in visible creation who has the capacity to know and love God. In that way God is “in” man as an object known is in the knower and the desired object is in the lover. This presence is not as perfect as the presence of God in man when he is in a state of grace; for grace is the very life of the Trinity and “adheres” to the human soul. Sanctifying grace means that God acts directly upon the human soul, making all of its actions God-like.
Above it was mentioned in passing that God is most fully present, in the Incarnation. He is really and truly present in the Person of Jesus Christ. His human nature was the one thing in visible creation that contains the very essence of God. The Eucharist, as the extension in time and space of Christ’s personal sacrifice on the Cross, also makes Him fully personally present. While in the Incarnation His divinity remained hidden within the human nature of Christ, in the Eucharist not only His divinity remains hidden, but His humanity hides under the appearances of bread and wine. Although hidden under these signs, He is no less present than He was when He walked the Earth. This is what we mean when we say that the Eucharist contains the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.
Herein lies the problem with the effort to associate the New Age with St. Francis of Assisi—the Eucharist. He may be remembered most for his love of animals and evangelical poverty, but his writings show his greatest love among all of Creation was for the Eucharist. He believed in the Real Presence, not just intellectually, but with a heart that burned to adore Our Lord in the Eucharist. In his Letter to All the Friars he implored his spiritual sons to “show all reverence and all honor possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God. I also beseech in the Lord all my brothers who are and shall be and desire to be priests of the Most High that, when they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men.”