Lent and Creation

(A few thoughts)

One of the difficult aspects of Lent might be its loneliness. While there are important communal practices during this season, the day-to-day reality of Lent can seem to be one person giving up this while another person gives up that. Lent then becomes a pious project of self-improvement that only indirectly or incidentally affects our relationships or larger communities. What does Lent have to do with the terrorism that is the subject of so many of our conversations? Or torture, nuclear proliferation, and the national debt? None of these issues can be reduced to a solitary matter of individual striving. We really must remember that Lent is about other people. As Fr Schmemann reminded us, part of coming back to God through our Lenten practices is “the rediscovery of the essential link among ourselves: the rediscovery that we belong to each other, the rediscovery, that no one has entered my life or your life without the will of God.” In the concrete reality of life, no matter its complexity, this “rediscovery” is essential, even if it should only mean the gift of one’s presence and comforting words in the aftermath of tragedy.

But Lent is not only about other people. After all, some of our other issues seem to have a larger scope than humankind and cannot even be reduced to a matter of human activity. We can think of the accumulating newspaper headlines about global warming, peak oil, hurricanes, and avian flu. We must then remember that Lent has a cosmic meaning. In Lent, as Fr Schmemann also told us, we rediscover “the essential relationship that we have with everything in the world, a relationship which is expressed so well in our liturgical texts by the word reverence.”

How do we imagine this reverence? One of my earlier posts drew on the exegete Richard Bauckham to suggest that we “praise God in fellowship with other creatures.” “You animals wild and tame, you creatures that crawl and fly … Let them all praise the Lord’s name, for his name alone is exalted, majestic above earth and heaven” (Ps 148: 11, 13). Another way to evoke this “reverence” is to remember that human beings are meant to be “priests of creation.” A recent article in Ecotheology by the Orthodox theologian Elizabeth Theokritoff can help us explore this vocation and how it should intensify the fellowship that we feel with other creatures.

She brings us back to Fr Schmemann, who emphasized that the sacramental quality of the world means that the priest does not give the material world a significance that it had lacked. Nor does he change it into something completely different. The priest merely refers it to “its original and ultimate meaning – God’s conception of it.” Creation is already, in Gregory of Nyssa’s words, “a musical harmony forming a hymn of praise to the power that sustains all things.” Thus, in the Orthodox Church, the Song of the Three Children is sung at the point of transition from Vespers to the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday, because then the newly-baptized enter the church from the baptistry and join their fellow creatures who already offer praise to their Creator. This should not collapse into pantheism. Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, for instance, draws on the Eastern distinction between God’s “infinitely transcendent” essence and the “inexhaustibly immanent” energies of God in action, and, as Dr Theokritoff says, “This distinction enables us to see creatures as both suffused with divinity and wholly other than God in their creatureliness.”

The “theophanic transparency” of the natural world should not mean that we romantically (and rather naively) imagine our fellow creatures as already pure, innocent, without the “groaning” of which St Paul speaks. The late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh reminded us that matter has been subjected to enslavement by our own sin. He wrote:

The created world, as we know it now, so anarchical, so wild, so brutal, so frightening, is like a good horse ridden by a drunken rider. We are the drunken rider. The world in which we live is like a perfectly good horse. We drive it mad and the result is chaos as we know it and not the original chaos of potentialities as God created it.

And creation’s praise of God is hardly independent of human beings. As Dr Theokritoff reminds us, “while every creature has some direct relationship with God, no creature has an exclusive relationship with God such that the quality of the rest of creation’s relationship is of no importance to it.” The human being’s distinct and irreplaceable role as “priest of creation” is to “articulate the connection by offering up the creature’s praise as our thankfulness to the Creator.” The creature, like a congregation, needs a priest to preside over the Liturgy as the representative of Christ the High Priest. But the priest always does so as a member of the congregation, praying in the name of the whole Church, as a “fellow creature.” In a remarkable image, Archimandrite Valsileios of Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos tells of “the ‘words,’ the inner principles of existent things, concelebrating with the one incarnate Word, the One who offers and is offered in the Liturgy of the whole world.” The need for human beings, the “fellow creatures,” to preside over this Liturgy of the world is beautifully seen in the Apostolic Constitutions (my emphasis):

The choir of stars fills us with admiration, declaring him who numbers them, and showing him who names them; the animals declare him who gives them life; the trees show him who makes them grow: all these creatures, made by thy word, show forth the greatness of thy power. Therefore every man ought to send up a hymn from his very soul to thee, through Christ, on behalf of all, since by thine appointment he has power over all.

Dr Theokritoff says that nature’s praise, directed by humanity, is meant to culminate in its transfiguration, so humanity’s “dominion” is profoundly doxological in meaning. What would this transfiguration look like? She leaves us with one more quote, from Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos:

Time, space and matter, all the “flesh” of this world which was assumed by the Word of God, become as limpid as crystal in his Eucharistic body, which is here present among us and which, as on Mount Tabor, shines “like the sun.” The light of God extends itself to all the rest of creation which already “shares in the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:11).”

It is very easy for us to forget that we are part of creation. When we think of natural resources, we often think of markets before we think of the environment, and then find ourselves helpless before the irresolvable conflicts between our desires and sustainability. We can be suddenly shocked by the apparent purposelessness of epidemics and natural disaster and then find ourselves desperately developing more and more esoteric forms of theodicy. We are attracted to the close relationship with nature seen in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, but we do not know what to practically do about it as our society seems to inexorably head towards dangerous forms of technological manipulation. Our spiritual lives cannot run from our place in creation. Lent must be about more than other people, it must be about creation. Our asceticism, our dying to self, must lead us to what Fr Schmemann called “the essential relationship that we have with everything in the world, a relationship which is expressed so well in our liturgical texts by the word reverence.”


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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