St. Francis preaches to the birds, by Antonio Carnicero, ca. 1789 (Wikimedia Commons)

While I was in chemotherapy, I didn’t do much writing, but I did read a lot of theology. That’s one thing you can still do when you feel lousy. In the process, I discovered a Franciscan intellectual tradition I’d only been dimly aware of before.

It focuses on God’s love for all of creation, and I think it offers an alternative to the dour, judgmental focus on sin, sexuality and gender that marks so much of American Christianity. It’s been called an “alternative orthodoxy.” It’s liberating, and it’s changing the way I think about God.

It grows out of a rich tradition, with roots in medieval theologians Duns Scotus and St. Bonaventure, and it has been revived and updated for the 21st century. Richard Rohr OFM, author of several popular books with a mystical bent and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, jokingly says it’s a far cry from the “birdbath Franciscanism” of popular culture.

More to the point for my purposes, in a 2014 book titled Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, Rohr suggests its grounding in God’s love for all of creation (including Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the birds and all of God’s creatures) allows us to relate to a personal God even after we outgrow the simple faith of our childhood:

Mature believers eventually move toward a transpersonal notion of God as presence itself, consciousness itself, pure Being, the very Ground of Being, the force field of the Holy Spirit, God with us, and God in all things — and yet many of these very same people frequently find it helpful, if not necessary, to still relate to God through the intimate sharing of one trusting self to another.

Since it’s grounded in God’s love, I think it offers a compelling alternative to the dour, judgmental focus on sin, sexuality and gender that marks so much of American Christianity and the abstractions of so much Buddhist thought. (Something of special interest to a self-proclaimed Zen Lutheran.) Adds Rohr:

I believe it takes two to love — a giver and a receiver. You normally do not give yourself, fall in love with, or surrender to a concept, an energy, a force, or even to enlightenment. Persons love persons, and the brilliance of Judeo-Christianity is that it keeps the whole spiritual life intensely personal in this very rich sense.

In a word, I find all of this compelling. Besides, I grew up with St. Francis, birdbath spirituality and all.

There was nothing mystical about my early faith formation, but when I was a kid my family belonged to St. Francis Episcopal Church in Norris, Tenn. It was just down the street from the TVA Division of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife, where my father worked with tree crop genetics and other scientific research projects. Several founding members of the parish were also TVA foresters, and it was only natural to name it after St. Francis. “St. Francis’ Church’s name was chosen,” adds a parish history on its website, “because of its location in a wooded area where deer, birds and other wildlife were often seen.”

I’m can’t pretend I’m an expert on St. Francis. What I remember best is the Great Commandment that was read from the pulpit on Sundays, in the sonorous language of the 1928 prayer book then in use:

THOU shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

And a table grace (a Grace before Meat in the language of the 1928 prayer book) — “bless this food to our use and us to thy service” — that has stayed with me through the years. It’s also infinitely adaptable to little ad hoc prayers of thanksgiving for other gifts.

But the idea of praying to a personal God wasn’t on my radar when I was growing up. Prayer was something you did in church or at mealtime, preferably reciting the words of the prayer book. Extemporaneous prayer was something I mostly heard on 500-watt daytime only radio stations or J. Bazzil Mull’s Singing Convention broadcast out of Knoxville. (“Ain’t that right, Mrs. Mull?”) I don’t think the idea of praying in my own words ever occurred to me.

What I remember of St. Francis came not so much from church, as from Dad’s work and the prevailing ethos of conservation, forest management and stewardship. (We didn’t talk about ecology yet in the 1950s.) I recall Dad saying one of his colleagues at TVA had quoted the passage in Genesis (Gen. 1:26-28) in which God commanded Adam and Eve to “replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” in a report on resource management. I thought that was pretty cool.

The old TVA forestry division is no longer in Norris. But out of curiosity, I just checked the agency’s current Natural Resource Plan, and I found this language: “In May 2020, the TVA Board of Directors adopted changes to the NRP to support a more strategic, flexible, and comprehensive management approach to TVA’s natural and cultural resource stewardship work.” Stewardship again. I still think it’s still pretty cool.

Anyway, you can put me down as endorsing science, environmental protection and what Richard Rohr calls “birdbath Franciscanism.” It’s lot like what I grew up with. Well, yes, the greeting card version of St. Francis can be sentimental, even sappy. In a 2019 post to the Franciscan Spirit blog, Jack Wintz OFM acknowledges that. But he goes on to say:

To those who grumble that this birdbath art is too lowbrow and sentimental, I say “Lighten up! Francis belongs to the popular arts as much as with the fine arts—and he certainly belongs to the birds.” To set Francis on a birdbath or in a flower garden or to depict him with birds circling around his head is just a popular way of saying: “This man had a special link with all of God’s creatures, and it’s just like him to be standing there among them.”

Wintz adds this:

Another reason Francis should keep his place on the birdbath or amid the daffodils in that his being there helps us see, as Francis himself did, that the world of nature and the world of God are one. Francis did not fall into the trap of dualism, which creates an artificial wall between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred. For Francis, every creature was sacred. The world he lived in was not something wicked to be rejected but a sacred ladder leading to its Creator.

Or, as Kenan B. Osborne OFM, emeritus professor at the Franciscan School of Theology, says, “Franciscan vernacular theology and Franciscan academic theology are intrinsically linked.”

Which brings me back around to spirituality.

In an online introduction to Richard Rohr’s theology, Carol Hekman and Richard Redman of All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., suggest he offers a new orthodoxy grounded “a calm and hopeful trust that God is inherent in all things, and that this whole thing is going somewhere good.” They say:

Rohr’s orthodoxy states that Christ is really another name for everything incarnate. That is, every “thing” carries with it, and is included in, the Divinity of God — even YOU. He radically reframes Jesus Christ not as the carrier of atonement for our sins but as the embodied model for how we are to live. [Bold type in the original.]

And that, in turn, brings me back around to the notion of a personal God. In Eager to Love, Rohr offers what he calls a sic et non (“yes and no”) approach that brings together medieval Catholic theology, 21st-century spirituality and St. Francis’ unique perspective “to help Christians and unbelievers alike to know what is very good and deeply true about a personal notion of God.” Adds Rohr:

Francis surely loved and related to God as “Jesus” in a personal and intimate way, and yet he also saw God in “Brother Wind and Air,” as “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “Sister, Mother Earth.” When you get to the more mature levels of mystical union everything becomes a metaphor for the divine, and you grab for metaphors to concretize the mystery that is now in everything and everywhere! [Italics in the original.]

If this talk of mystical union seems loosey-goosey and new age-y, relax. No less an authority than the Franciscan Action Network, an umbrella organization that brings together the Franciscan orders to advocate on ecology, human rights, poverty, peacemaking and other faith-based issues, endorses it (quoting Fr. Rohr) as an alternative to other theologies but one that is entirely orthodox. In its online primer on Franciscan spirituality, FAN puts it like this:

Franciscan ways of viewing God and God’s action in history has been a theology that was always orthodox with other parts of Christian theology and yet, at the same time, featuring a different set of emphases. Whereas Christianity has often overemphasized “the stain of original sin,” St. Francis and Franciscan theologians lived and preached and wrote about the many ways that creation is good and the life we have been given is a joyous opportunity. Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, a widely acclaimed author, names the Franciscan way an “alternative orthodoxy” with its different set of emphases while not trying to fight about doctrines.

I like it, birdbath and all.

A footnote. When I checked St. Francis Church’s website in Norris, I found this on its home page: “No matter where you come from or where you are going, no matter what you believe or what you doubt, no matter what you feel or don’t feel today, no matter whom you love, you are welcome into this space to be met by a God who knows you by name, who knows your hearts, who knows your mind, and … who wants to have a relationship with you.” [Ellipsis in the original.] I like that, too.

Links and Citations

Book of Common Prayer (1928), Holy Communion

__________, Grace before Meat, Family Prayer

“Franciscan Spirituality,” Franciscan Action Network, Washington, D.C.

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” by Walter C. Smith, 1867,

Kenan B. Osborne OFM, The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition: Tracing Its Origins and Identifying Its Central Components (Mansfield, Ohio: Franciscan Heritage Series, 2003), 69.

Carol Hekman and Richard Redman, “Richard Rohr: A New Orthodoxy,” Contemplative Corner, January 2020, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Pasadena

Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 214), xiv-xv, 231, 237-38

__________, excerpts from The Universal Christ, in “Richard Rohr: A New Orthodoxy”

St. Francis Episcopal Church, Norris, Tenn., home page at and “What We Do” at

Tennessee Valley Authority, Natural Resource Plan 2020

Wikipedia articles on Bonaventure, broad church, Duns Scotus, Franciscan Action Network, J. Bazzel Mull and Richard Rohr.

Jack Wintz OFM, “Why St. Francis Belongs on the Birdbath,” Franciscan Spirit Blog, Sept. 25, 2019

[Published March 29, 2023]

4 thoughts on “Richard Rohr, birdbath spirituality, praying to a personal God and growing up with St. Francis in a TVA town

  1. Well written statement of belief and argument for responsible living and acceptance of all God’s creation. Growing up I remember well J Bazzil and Mrs. Mull and the others of his ilk who saw sin everywhere and the certainty of hell from about anything in the larger culture not somehow authorized in the scriptures. Unfortunately, those beliefs are still with us and reflected so many ways, especially in popular conservative political thought and action.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Gordon. When I was writing the piece, I noticed St. Francis in Norris has one of those midweek healing services y’all have in the Episcopal Church. I’ll have to look into it some more when things settle down a little. The biopsy came back, it confirmed I’m cancer-free and I’m scheduled for surgery April 10 in St. Louis.

      BTW, can you send me your email address at edmund dot ellertsen85 at gmail dot com? It looks like I’m locked out of Facebook for good now, and I’d hate for us to lose touch because of Mark #%^ing Zuckerman!


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