In the July 2, 2005 issue of the Tablet, the Scottish Episcopal priest Michael Northcott wrote, “In his inaugural homily as Pope, Benedict XVI used the metaphor of the desert to link ecological destruction and the moral exploitation and spiritual vacuity of materialism and consumerism; as he put it: ‘The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.’ This linkage between spiritual poverty and ecological destruction not only hints at a greater ecological awareness than was evident in many of the utterances of his predecessor, but is also reminiscent of prophetic ecological utterances from the Old Testament: it was Jeremiah (18:14-5) who first linked desertification and local climate change with spiritual and moral decay in Israel in the sixth century BC.”
Historically, American Catholics have been rather skeptical of environmentalism. As the historian Patrick Allitt has told us, environmentalism has been seen as corrosive to the Christian obligation to alleviate poverty and protect human life. Environmentalism was itself often associated with dubious spiritualities. Perhaps most challenging, however, was “the difficulty of attributing religious significance to issues such as global climate change.” On the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, we should ask ourselves whether we presently believe that ecological issues really can show us something of the state of our souls. If we pose this question, we might also recover parts of Francis’ spirituality that we have too readily dismissed as hopelessly sentimental.
Some environmental theology sees creation as brought into relationship with God through human mediation. Perhaps the most memorable example is in George Herbert’s poem ‘Providence’:
Man is the world’s high Priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent,
Such as spring use that fall, and winds that blow
This is a beautiful image. But, as the exegete Richard Bauckham has written, St Francis of Assisi’s liturgical compositions invite us to praise God in fellowship with other creatures. ‘The Praises to be Said at All the Hours’ culminate by bidding “every creature, which is in Heaven and on the earth and which is beneath the earth and the sea and those which are in it” to praise God, following the Benedicite. The ‘Exhortation to the Praise of God’ calls on “all you rivers,” “all you creatures,” “all you birds of heaven” to do the same. These were not just words to Francis. The First Life of St Francis says, “he carefully exhorted all birds, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love their Creator, because daily, invoking the name of the Savior, he observed their obedience in his own experience.” Francis had a practice of singing along with cicadas and nightingales in praise to the Father. He doubtless remembered the cosmic liturgy of Revelation 4:6-8, where “living creatures” offer praise without ceasing in God’s presence – one with a human face, but the others resembling a lion, ox, and eagle.
We encounter the same sense of fellow-creatureliness in morning prayer: “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He established them forever and ever; he set a law that cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5-6). We also find it in other stories about the saints – “[Benno of Meissen] called to mind the saying in Daniel: ‘Oh ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord. O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord.’ And fearing lest the singing of the frogs might perchance be more agreeable to God than his own praying, he again issued his command to them, that they should praise God in their accustomed fashion: and soon the air and the fields were vehement with their conversation.” And we find it once again in our hope for the end of time, for St John writes, “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever’” (Rev 5:13).
Professor Bauckham tells us, “It is not just the moments of breathtaking beauty that help us to worship God, but the endlessly remarkable quiddity of other creatures, their being themselves in all the strangeness, intricacy and difference that God has given to each. This being themselves is their glorification of God, the way they continuously give back to God the glory the Creator has given them, and so for believers in God to attend to their quiddity is also to recognize the greater glory of the Creator who surpasses them.” It is not that nature is divine. Not at all. God’s creatures “point beyond themselves to the God who made them and surpasses them.”
Ecological destruction might be a sign of bad planning. It might show us our greed. But we can usually detect these problems without nature – we see grim cities without solitude or quiet and feel the suffocating presence of inanimate goods. Ecological destruction, the earth’s treasures’ subjection to “the powers of exploitation and destruction,” might show us the real heart of the matter – that we live in a state of forgetfulness, increasingly unable to recognize the God to whom we should be drawn by the praise of those mountains, plants, waters, and living creatures that we can now only see as so much raw material. Our deserts are external because they are also internal.
Prayer (from James Kiefer)
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant unto thy people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of thee delight in thy whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
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