An Ecological Spirituality

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God heard the boy’s cry, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven: “What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid; God has heard the boy’s cry in this plight of his. Arise, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand; for I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and then let the boy drink.

God was with the boy as he grew up.

  Genesis 21: 17-20

The story of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael is as topical as today’s headlines. This is true geopolitically because it deals, according to many Talmudic commentaries, with the origins of the Jewish and Arab peoples. However, its underlying human dynamic is also universal and foundational in its applicability. Sarah sees the two boys playing together and perceives, in this act of fraternity, a threat. “No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac.” It is on the basis of such conflicting human dispositions that the course of human history and destiny turns. Sarah fears that the presence of Ishmael may somehow threaten Isaac’s inheritance. She is moved by the fear that God will not provide enough for us all. On the other hand, we see that at a moment of desperation Hagar’s eyes are “opened” and she sees the water that God has provided for her son. The truth is that there is more than enough for the needs of all of us, although there is not enough for the desire of many of us for the superfluous.

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis invites us to develop a spirituality of sobriety and humility that is based on a pervasive gratitude. If we take the time to truly contemplate the reality of the world, to “consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6: 26), we shall come to reverence the earth as the gift of God that it is. In turning from grasping and consuming to reverence and gratitude, we shall form our hearts in their capacity to receive as a gift only what we need and to share the earth’s fruits and goods with all others.

One of the most common ways I experience the conflict between these two ways of being is in my relationship to time. Far too often I experience the presence of others as an intrusion on “my time.” Since I am convinced that I don’t have enough time to perform all the tasks that the day contains, I often have a very difficult time fully attending to a person who unexpectedly crosses my path. Without significant effort, I find that my attention to them is often divided, as I try to listen and be with them on the one hand and worry about the time I am losing for my own tasks on the other. This conflict manifests itself even more intensely in the struggle to take time for prayer. As Sarah, I feel that there is not enough time for both my projects of the day and attending to God. I forget that there is “a time for every everything and a season for every purpose under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1), and that every moment is a gift to me, not a possession of mine.

Every moment of every day affords an opportunity to practice the disposition of gratitude over the fear of scarcity: to receive what is given, to know that it is more than enough, and to leave the rest for others.

223. Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

224. Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.

225. On the other hand, no one can cultivate a sober and satisfying life without being at peace with him or herself. An adequate understanding of spirituality consists in filling out what we mean by peace, which is much more than the absence of war. Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances? Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment. An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence “must not be contrived but found, uncovered”.[155]

226. We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si

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