When Pope Francis put forward two new Works of Mercy that pertain to Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation, the response was underwhelming. I wish the reason was because people realized these Works of Mercy have already been a long part of our spiritual tradition. Whether it be Maximus the Confessor's understand of Cosmic Liturgy, St. Bonaventure's classic the Mind's Journey to God, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's theology of Human Ecology, or Pope Francis' expansion of his predecessor's work into Integral Ecology, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of expounding upon the Biblical theme of Care for and Contemplation of Creation.
In regard to Contemplation of Creation, I think it's important for us to remember that the first call to practice this spiritual Work of Mercy was presented when God makes a sacred promise with Abram (soon to be Abraham) in the book of Genesis. How beautiful for a blog dedicated to faith and astronomy that one of the first symbols of God's promise to humanity is the night sky. All of these examples from Scripture and Tradition must be why Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation is taken so for granted... right? Well...
Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a servant of my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: No, that one will not be your heir; your own offspring will be your heir. He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be. Abram put his faith in the LORD, who attributed it to him as an act of righteousness. (Genesis 15:3-6)
Not only has Catholicism had a "Green Theology" but, in many ways, the strongest Christian voice of ecology comes from the Orthodox. If Pope Benedict XVI was the "Green Pope," then Patriarch Bartholomew is the "Green Patriarch." His practical, hands on trips with faith leaders, scientists, and theologians as part of the Religion, Science, and Environment Symposia was one of the most creative, forward thinking approach to Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation I have come across in my years a priest. Sadly, it is also one of the most under appreciated and forgotten efforts to address environmental concerns from a Christian perspective. Why did we not study these symposia in seminary? Why did I not see any reference to these symposia in the curriculum for Catholic Social Teaching when I taught Care for Creation at Regis High School? And why has its legacy among other Christians been so muted? Here are a series of links to articles I put together on the symposia.
One of the great contributions of these Symposia in regard to Care for and Contemplation of Creation is not only providing intellectual reflection on our environment, but to bring scientists and theologians out to these locations to experience them first hand. I think this twofold process of intellectual reflection and practical experience of creation points to one of the main reasons Care for Creation has been received in an underwhelming manor: In order to appreciate a healthy environment, one must experience both a healthy environment and a degraded environment.
For example, a true blessing of my priesthood has been to lead mission trips to our Diocesan Orphanage in Lurin, Peru, Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II. Of the many eye opening experiences youth and adults I've taken on these mission trips have had, one of the first pungent experiences of a less than ideal environment occurs when we cross the bridge that leads to the orphanage's front gate. The "stream" we cross quickly greets the noses of our mission group with the reality that it is basically an open sewer that is a dump point for everything from human feces to dead animals.
In subsequent trips, it is clear the city of Lurin is making efforts to address this issue, but that rude greeting often would lead members of our group to instinctually comment, "How can this be allowed?" Good question not only for the city of Lurin, but for all of us, regardless of where we live, wondering why we allow our environment to suffer so much when we instinctually understand environmental injustice when it stares us in the face... or our nose!
Another reason I fear that calls to Care for Creation specifically are met with an attitude of apathy is because of how it challenges our lifestyle. For example, one of the big stumbling blocks I see in the United States when it comes to Care for Creation is the cultural debate on fossil fuels.
The argument ultimately becomes about production and consumption: Given the growing population of our country we will need more energy to provide for the needs of people in the future.
The debate then begins by asking, "Do we approach this problem by producing more fossil fuels or by developing green energy sources?" Absent from this debate is a mentality of simplicity and conservation. The irony for me is that when I talk with people and get them out of their political mindset, most people will acknowledge that we as a people are too depend upon fossil fuels and need to develop new energy sources. However, the bigger challenge is to develop a mentality where we use less, save more, and refine what we already have. Consumption has become an addiction and our addiction culture is refusing to detach from this dysfunctional mindset.
In regard to Contemplation of Creation, there is an understandable fear that calls to contemplate creation will slip into nature worship. Christianity, after all, has defined Pantheism (a belief that the world and God are one and the same) as a heresy. Wouldn't the Contemplation of Creation do precisely what the faithful have defined as a fundamental error? The answer is that there is a clear difference between seeing creation as God vs. seeing God's "finger prints" in creation. A great role model for us on how to make this distinction is Jesus himself. When we look at the parables, Jesus is practicing the Contemplation of Creation all the time throughout Scripture.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” (Matthew 13:18-33)
There are more examples I could give, but they would all come to the same conclusion: Jesus teaches us, time and time again, that if you want to understand the Kingdom of God, practice the Contemplation of Creation. Do we think of the parables in this way? To be honest, I think we already do. Sadly, I think our culture of suspicion and distrust toward things pertaining to both caring for our common home and praying in a way that engages creation has created an acidic spirituality of unhealthy detachment from the natural world. We need to rediscover the beauty of this relationship that has been a part of our heritage from Genesis.
Let us remember, one of the first threats to the early Church was the Gnostic movement. And what was the mentality of the Gnostics in relation of creation? The material world was corrupt, evil, and an illusion with the goal of the spiritual life being to liberate yourself from the material world and ascend to The One. Let us not implicitly recreate one of the most fundamental errors in the history of Christian thought by rejecting Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation. Let us see these Works of Mercy as an antidote for struggles we face when it comes to understanding our relationship with each other and our common home.
Spiritual Exercise: How can you practice the Works of Mercy of Caring for Creation and Contemplating Creation today? How can you deepen your understanding of these Works of Mercy? Both of them require us to get out and engage creation, both in its pristine form and in its denigrated state. Whether you perform a Corporal Work of Mercy with your hands, a Spiritual Work of Mercy with your mind and heart, or both, do them for the Lord as an expression of your love of God. Let us be good stewards of God's creation. And may that creation both provide us with our daily bread and lead us to long to embrace God's Kingdom now and in the New Creation of the Resurrection.
I wish to conclude this posts with Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew's joint statement on the World Day of Prayer for Creation. May we embrace these words as challenge to embrace our responsibility for caring for our common home.
The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.
However, “in the meantime”, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.
The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.
Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September. On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labour in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127), if prayer is not at the centre of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.
We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.