Celebrating the Universe in Which We Belong
Here’s a description of a five-week art and science project which fifth and sixth graders developed to help commemorate the Oct. 4th Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. As some of you may already know, the Feast of St. Francis marks the closing of the annual “Season of Creation,”‘ an ecumenical observance which has become increasingly important in Roman Catholicism, in part because of the way that it harmonizes with the expansively compassionate vision and mission of Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si.'” https://laudatosimovement.org/news/what-is-the-season-of-creation/
This particular project provided our young people with an opportunity to illustrate their growing understanding of evolution and phylogeny. It allowed them to share their appreciation of both contemporary scientific discoveries and Catholic (and Interspiritual) perspectives regarding the Earth Community and its deep history. The event’s content was strongly influenced by The Universe Story of Thomas Berry, CP, and the perspectives of his many collaborators, including Professors Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grimm, and Brian Swimme.
To accomplish their project, students staged a reading of an abbreviated and scientifically augmented version of St. Francis’s wonderful “Canticle of the Creatures.” This was accompanied by a dramatic procession in which the children carried their own hand-crafted representations of some of the diverse and awe-inspiring beings whose interactions give rise to our Cosmos. The narrative and sequence of these creatures’ appearance recapitulated (to some degree) the chronology of their emergence in time – with the major exception being the Sun which is introduced before the atoms and / or molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water in deference to the sequence of the original poem.
This endeavor offers a clear example of a STREAM project (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, the Arts, and Math). It develops and exercises young people’s cognitive grasp of empirical science content even while it challenges their material construction skills – and their skills in communication (within their teams and to their public audience) with particular emphasis on the visual arts. It can be conducted in work groups that deliberately reference the principles of the Engineering Design Process.
This activity challenges participants to convey to their audience valuable information and perspectives regarding the Earth and the Universe and our human role within it all. It invites students to situate their growing knowledge of evolutionary history (including phylogeny) firmly within the context of their faith’s history, values, and the shared consciousness of their learning community (which, of course, includes their families).
Below you’ll find a script and photographs from the event plus some reflections about a few of the strategies that helped the young people achieve their goals. If you’d like your students to try this, you might opt to have them read the text presented below, or instead, you might revise or rewrite it entirely to better suit your own Creation / Sacred Earth story. Most of the photographs here were taken during the actual Feast of St. Francis Prayer Service that was held at Infant Jesus Church in Nashua, NH on October 4th, 2017. Some were taken in the Art and Environmental Science room before or after the actual Prayer Service. One personal aside: this project took place during my last full year of teaching, prior to my health-necessitated retirement in June 2018. I really thought that this endeavor was a particularly enjoyable and rewarding one for the youngsters, families, and even me – the art and environmental science teacher. If you try this, I hope that you’ll also have very positive results!
Click here for an image-free version of the text, or continue scrolling to read the same text interspersed with photographs from the event.Feast of Saint Francis Pageant Universe Story Evolution
Celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi,
the Earth Community, and the Universe Story
through a Reading and Procession inspired by St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” Contemporary Science, & the Work of Thomas Berry, CP, (as well as his Collaborators, especially Professors Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grimm, and Brian Swimme)
The following text reinforces some of the important points made in The Holy Cross International Office of Justice’s / HCIOJ’s 2017 “Prayer for the Season of Creation.” http://www.holycrossjustice.org/resources/HCIJO%20Document%20Library/2017SeasonCreation/SeasonofCreation2017.pdf
We acknowledge and are grateful for its guidance! We also urge you to consult this excellent resource and to utilize more of its content as you design a celebration for your team. If time had allowed, we would have preferred to present this beautiful prayer service in its entirety together with the student-created procession of the creatures.
Procedural notes: While preparing this project, please make certain that students have plenty of opportunities to consider and discuss the human mission of caring for creation. This is such an important subject / endeavor – particularly during these difficult days when many of us are trying to help heal our Mother Earth from the devastation caused by our species’ own short-sighted greed and extractive industrialization. Students could be asked to begin considering how they might combine the call for restorative actions (and ways of being) with the foundational information that they’ve been acquiring regarding the Planet’s web of life and its complex functions.
This sort of Project-Based Learning which culminates in a public performance (a kind of Social Sculpture, to employ Joseph Beuy’s illuminating term) seems particularly well adapted to learning about Integral Ecology, a key dimension to the message of “Laudato Si.'” message. The project asks youngsters to work collaboratively to design, build, and then conduct a beautiful procession of beings to complement an adaptation of “The Canticle of the Creatures.” Simultaneously, it encourages them to embody their verbal understandings of evolution’s sequence reaching forward from Deep Time to the Present. They’re challenged to express themselves kinesthetically, visually, intellectually, emotionally, and, of course, aesthetically as they work together in mutually supportive and convivial ways to create this occasion.
Ultimately, the young people assemble for a carefully sequenced walk towards the sanctuary in the presence of the entire learning community. Singly or in groups, they carry the artwork that they’ve created. As mentioned earlier, their art illustrates the appearance of various entities within our splendid and dynamic Cosmos – the magnificent and ancient Common Home that shelters us all and gives us our lives and loves. As the young artists lift up their colorful, sometimes three-dimensional models, they’re able to share directly with their families and the rest of the assembly their understanding of – and their connection within – 13.8 billion years of evolution. Their procession represents in miniature (as a microcosm) the wondrous, on-going process of material manifestation / revelation that is yet another expression of the activities of our mysterious, indwelling, and also all-encompassing, Triunal God. For some, this specific God language may not be useful, so we acknowledge that the sweep of evolution could also be described as an expression of the Tao, the Spirit of Life / Elan Vital, the Great Mystery, or some other verbal configurations that is more congruent with the meaning system / culture of the audience attending.
Regarding the short script (inspired by St. Francis’s lovely canticle), it’s intended to be read aloud, and is structured so that one or more youngsters can voice the text while the others, assembled in the narthex, listen for their cues and then begin their walk down the church’s central aisle towards the sanctuary – recalling, as mentioned earlier, through the order of their appearance, the step-by-step emergence of various components of our Universe and the Earth Community.
The words in upright black print in this section are the ones which the reader will share with the listener during the prayer service and the procession. In contrast, the green italicized words offer staging directions, optional background information which might be read aloud depending upon the audience, or suggestions for possible ways that students might craft objects for the presentation. Many of the particular species depicted (especially the vertebrates) were selected by the students themselves as they brainstormed favorite creatures to represent important kingdoms, phyla, and classes, etc. Your group can choose their own favorites. One final note (pardon the pun), music would be a wonderful addition to this program, and we highly encourage you to add some!
Text for the Student-Led portion of the Prayer Service:
From the Closing Prayer of the HCIOJ (used here as an introduction to the procession):
“Creating God, in you everything on Earth and in the heavens is bound together in perfect harmony. If we lose the sweetness of the waters, we lose the life of the land. If we lose the life of the land, we lose the majesty of the forest. If we lose the majesty of the forest, we lose the purity of the air. If we lose the purity of the air, we lose the creatures of Earth.
Open our eyes to behold your creation.”
1. The wondrous Universe filled with swirling galaxies of luminous
One or two students carry forward a large (6 ft. long) dark blue rectangle of light-weight fabric that they have decorated with metallic paper cutouts of spiral galaxies, single stars, super novae, or other celestial phenomena. The fabric is stretched around two long dowels on the two vertical sides or stretched over one very long dowel that runs across the top. Alternately, the cloth is simply pulled tight and held in the hands of the two walkers.
2. Our generous, energy-filled Brother Sun: the Earth’s closest star.
We represented the sun as a big cardboard circle with a benign, meditative face. Students created and attached triangular metallic foil rays that indicated both the electromagnetic energy radiating out of the sun and the gravity drawing in – both of which forces characterize this powerful star at the heart of our solar system.
3. Our amazing Sister Mother Earth, composed of a marvelous array of chemical elements, often combined into molecules – such as breathable Oxygen (O2), Sister Water (H2O), and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – to name just a few very common ones.
To create an Earth replica, you might consider another big cardboard circle or better yet – a giant 3D ball, papier-maché sphere, or balloon with representations of at least some of the continents. This sphere can be encircled with a few loops of blue and green tulle to represent Oxygen and Sister Water. Large hand-lettered labels can be pinned onto the tulle to identify these clouds of fabric or you might try what we did: just letter some pretty papers with the molecules’ names and attach them to sticks
4. Our Reflective, Powerful Sister Moon, who lights up the night sky and governs the tides.
This could be another big cardboard circle with a silver-colored face or perhaps a large circle formed from recycled aluminum foil from the cafeteria.
5. Our tremendously important, tiny but multitudinous, single-
celled kin and symbionts – the Bacteria.
Some of these microscopic fellows help us to digest our food or make vitamins. Others, especially the cyanobacteria in the ocean, turn Carbon Dioxide back into breathable Oxygen (For more details see https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ocean-oxygen.html).
Still others, in the soil and waters, help keep matter constantly recycling. And while a few do indeed cause disease in multicellular plants and animals – including us humans, the vast majority of bacteria are actually very helpful and necessary participants in life as it’s lived on this planet.
(This last line is a reminder to the youngsters about what they have already learned in their life science / biology studies about the soil microbiota and the microbiota that most creatures (including us humans) host within our digestive systems and throughout our bodies). There are huge populations of bacteria, as well as microscopic fungi and viruses, associated with multicellular living beings – and these tiny creatures are often performing crucial tasks that actually aid the host as well as the bacteria.)
We modeled the bacteria with bundles of small balloons on long sticks. The round balloons represented bacteria with the cocci shape, the long cylinder balloons represented rods, and the wavy or corkscrew shaped balloons represented the spirilla.
6. Our brilliant, tiny but multitudinous, single-celled kin with true
nuclei, mitochondria, and / or chloroplasts – the Protists.
These complicated, single-celled beings emerged out of partnerships / mutualistic symbioses forged with various bacteria over a billion and half years ago! We humans share with them (as with the bacteria) common ancestors, some genetic material, and certain metabolic pathways.
Medium balloons on carrying sticks with large dots of green or black on their sides can represent the protists with their requisite organelles / endosymbionts such as nuclei, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. The protist balloons could also have attached pieces of macramé twine or yarn to represent cilia and flagella. (We tried to avoid helium balloons as much as possible, out of concern for the increasing scarcity of helium – which is derived commercially from fossil fuels, although we did resort to a helium balloon for the Earth model.. We were able to represent the protists and their organelles using regular balloons and permanent markers.
7. Our varied Multicellular Kin which include:
7.1 The vital Fungi, who are so important in essential mineral and elemental cycling all across the planet.
A large painted cardboard mushroom can work well here. Perhaps it could sport tiny trees sticking up from its mycelia to symbolize the dynamic, mutualistic partnerships between mycorrhizal fungi and trees – partnerships that are necessary for the growth and sustenance of forests – as well as for the nourishment of the fungi.
7.2. The beneficent Plants, who with the help of their endosymbionts, the chloroplasts, translate the sun’s energy into carbohydrates (molecules that are commonly called sugars and starches). In this way, plants (along with photosynthesizing cyanobacteria and protists) are actually able to make their own food from a mix of Brother Sun’s energy, the molecules of Sister Water, and Carbon Dioxide. They can feed themselves (usually!) without having to hunt or gather other creatures. We’ve learned to say that plants are Autotrophs – self-feeders.
And, amazingly, they can transform and store energy so very well that they can also feed, directly or indirectly, nearly all of the other living beings here on this precious planet, Mother Earth. (There are some bacteria who feed on rocks and chemicals in hot springs, etc. but they’re small in number compared to the rest of the living population.) As many of the older students know, photosynthesizing green plants not only convert the sun’s electromagnetic energy into chemical energy stored in carbohydrate bonds, but they also build complex polyphenols, proteins, fats, vitamins, and other molecules that are indispensable for the health and well-being of so many creatures.)
Plants feed beings ranging from butterflies to frogs, from earthworms to birds, from sardines to cattle to us people – to name just a few. Because of plants’ partnerships with our closest star, the sun, the incredible food webs of this planet are able to flourish, interlacing together billions upon billions of beings across time.
And as if that weren’t enough – plants restore Oxygen to the earth’s atmosphere! As they make energy-rich foods using Carbon Dioxide and Water, they also release breathable Oxygen (O2) as yet another gift. Those of us who require oxygen to live (and that includes all the animals including us people) have so many reasons to be grateful to plants.
The representative plant could be a large houseplant wheeled forward on a dolly or a small tree branch that’s bee retrieved from a windfall or carefully trimmed from a shrub that was going to be pruned anyway. That branch could be decorated with rope roots plus an array of paper or toy animals busy finding food and shelter. Alternately, students could opt for a ‘cutout’ cardboard tree that has been drawn and / or painted – which is what we did. If there had been time for us to add roots made of string, yarn, or paper, our final tree would have been more botanically informative, but we did what we could with the time that we had.
7.3 The dynamic Animals who include so many amazing species, large and small. These active, mobile beings are often made up of vast assemblies of tiny individual cells. (They’re multicellular.) The cells all work together to create complex, beautiful, multi-talented beings who are able to find food, grow, and reproduce across the decades.
The animals could be stuffed toys that youngsters bring from how or large cardboard cutouts, painted in tempera and supported by lightweight wooden dowels or sticks. They could even be labeled with the phylum and class names of the creatures portrayed – if that seems worthwhile for your particular audience and set of students. If possible, encourage the teams to engineer a way for the model animals to move during the procession – i.e., flap their wings, open jaws, ‘swim’ or ‘leap and land’ in an interesting, life-life manner as they’re being carried along. Below are photos of the animals the youngsters chose in our interpretation of this project.
This fellow represents the Invertebrates – important multicellular animals without backbones. This group includes everyone from essential little ants and honeybees to sea creatures like clams or sea stars.
The model butterfly can be suspended from a decorated arch by embroidery thread so that it will be able to sway back and forth during the walk.
7.3.2 A Generic Bony Fish
These creatures represent some of the early animals who lived in the water and evolved internal skeletons. Their skeletons were made of calcium phosphate and other materials. Because they developed these segmented backbones / spinal columns, we call them vertebrate animals. The descendants of these early fish continue to thrive in many forms in oceans and fresh water all around the world.
This animal is a representative of a very interesting class of vertebrate animals known as reptiles. These scales creatures first appeared in the fossil record 300 million years ago. They continue to thrive in the water and on land in many different forms ranging from turtles to lizards, from snakes to alligators.
This creature represents the marvelous class of animals called birds: feathered, warm-blooded creatures who almost always provide lots of active parental care to their babies.
They are the descendants of the fascinating reptiles called dinosaurs who were very common on earth millions of years ago.
This fellow represents the warm-blooded mammals. He helps us to remember the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. Mammals are a class of warm-blooded, vertebrate animals that includes primates (such as human beings), as well as creatures ranging from mice to elephants to kangaroos. These creatures often have hair and complex social interactions. Like birds, mammals direct lots of energy and care, even love, into the raising of each new generation.
Optional: Other species if additional youngsters need parts or have different favorites.
7.3.5 And, of course, we Human Beings are part of this story!
We are multicellular, vertebrate mammals, actually a type of ape (like the gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons, and bonobos with whom we share so much genetic material / DNA).
We are not separate from the rest of God’s Creation, but we are particularly gifted in our willingness to care for others, including others who are not our close relatives (or even human – think how we partner with plants and dogs, horses, and other domesticated animals). We even care about future generations, in other words, thoses who haven’t even been born yet. We also have a wonderful ability to share ideas and hopes through both the arts and symbolic language. Amazingly, we can continue learning and applying our learning as we work with others throughout our lives –
And so, by the grace of God, and God-inspired people,
such as our ancestors, families, communities,
and St. Francis and St. Clare,
we continue learning, even now,
how to better appreciate and truly care for
– truly love – one another, and
all of God’s other amazing creations,
large and small,
now and in the future,
who are our precious relatives and partners
on this beautiful, sacred Earth,
nestled here within this sparkling Universe.
A costumed Sr. Clare and St. Francis – holding toy domesticated animals or a pretty house plant and / or baskets of harvest fruits and vegetables – are accompanied by other youngsters (representing people at large who, perhaps, hold photos or toys representing beloved creatures).
Any children who worked on the project or who want to join in could readily be included in this next section of the parade.)
Following Sr. Clare and St. Francis, all walk towards the Sanctuary where the other creatures have already arranged themselves on either side of the steps that face the assembled audience.
The Reader resumes the closing prayer:
“Open our eyes to behold your creation. Create in us a new spirit
of awareness of our place in your delicate balance; transform our
hearts that we may reclaim our sense of awe and wonder.
Quicken our understanding that we may acknowledge our
responsibility, and strengthen our resolve to work with you for the healing of your creation.”
All parts in quotation are taken from the closing prayer of the forementioned HCiOJ 2017 prayer service, which in turn was excerpted from “The Web of Life” from: Earth and All the Stars, edited by Anne Rowthorn.
After the prayer service, we recommend a pleasant gathering in the church hospitality Hall with refreshments for everyone. Students can bring their models to the hall and take their place in one section of the room for a little while so that the younger children, families, and guests have an opportunity to admire the artwork that was created and ask the students questions about their work for the pageant, the construction of the models, etc. To enhance the science learning, those questions might include inquiries concerning the roles that the varied beings played in their particular ecosystems. Students could also answer questions about the challenges they had overcome in making or carrying their constructions, or about the important physical features, functions, or characteristics that they were striving to represent in the finished model . Such a sociable, enjoyable conclusion to the presentation will make the occasion even more memorable for all involved.
We hope that this project for the Feast of St. Francis will encourage you to design your own pageants, prayer services and / or events to honor and celebrate the wondrous Earth Community and the Universe to which we all belong!