Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, we identified the special relationship that humanity has with creation. It is through us that the rest of nature experiences spiritual completeness, spiritual union, with God. When we understand this we begin to see environmental issues in a different light, a spiritual light, which I believe may make our environmental decisions much simpler.
Essentially, the question is one of how we use nature. Nature sustains us. We employ it to feed us, cloth us, and provide us shelter. We can harness its substance and its energy according to our designs. But to use it as God means for us to use it, we must have the vision of oneness, the vision of transformation.
Let me put this in practical terms. I can cut down trees, dig up rocks, and process metals in order to build a lavish home for myself, one that provides every comfort I can imagine and stands as a proud monument to my worldly success. Or I can use those same resources to construct a humble home that will be filled with the worship of God, one which offers peace to all who enter it, and shelter to those who lack it.
In the first case, I may not have done anything that is obviously, ecologically unsound. I may not have violated anyone’s environmental conscience. Yet in truth, I have stolen the praise of all the living and inanimate creatures of God that gave themselves up to fulfill my desires—the trees, the rocks, the earth—everything that went into the building of the house. I have imprisoned and silenced them by my sinful, selfish corruption.
But in the latter case, I have offered those creatures as something holy. I have employed them for purposes and activities that lead me and others to union with God. In doing so, I have awakened their spiritual dimension, the spiritual dimension of those creatures. They, like me, become joined to God, and through me, they rejoice.
In short, the way I treat the environment either contributes to my spiritual transformation, or roots me deeper in my selfishness. And the environment either stagnates with my sin, or transcends itself through my devotion to holiness.
When I adopt this attitude and allow it to govern my actions, the whole world becomes a sacrament. By that I mean that every interaction I have with the physical realm becomes an opportunity for me to meet Christ, and be joined more intimately with Him. It becomes an opportunity for me to fulfill my responsibility to creation, to raise it up, to make it one with Christ. Not only does my relationship with the environment become sacramental, it becomes eucharistic, a continual offering of thanks.
To understand this let us think first of all about the Holy Eucharist of the body and blood of Christ. “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee on behalf of all and for all,” we hear the priest declare over the bread and wine of communion. We often reflect on our own thankfulness for the incomprehensible blessing we receive, as these fruits of nature become, through our offering them to God, the means of genuine union with Christ.
But what about the thankfulness of the wheat and the grapes which have, by the priest’s act of consecration, transcended their natural state to become divine? These also rejoice, as by our offering we make them one with God.
What about our ordinary food? What happens when we consume it with gluttony, or merely to fulfill a desire for culinary pleasure? The thanksgiving that these fruits of nature are meant to offer to God, the meaning and purpose of their existence, is drowned in our sin. But when we receive them with thankfulness, and especially, I think, with ascetic discipline, the foods we eat become praise to God.
This explains something I have observed over the years, and that is, that no food in the world tastes as good as the simple fare at a monastery. I know that is not just my own personal opinion, I have heard many people remark about this. Now I think I understand why. To prepare food with deep prayer and to eat it in an attitude of holiness, transforms it, and unlocks its deepest, God-given sweetness.
I could go on and on talking about how we spiritually transform nature, either in sublime ways, like in the making of icons or the building of temples, or in the very mundane.
How about shoveling snow for instance? When I was doing my research for these presentations back in December, my beloved north Idaho—yes, that is what we call it. We do not call it northern Idaho, for some reason. It is north Idaho. Anyway, my beloved north Idaho was receiving record-breaking snow fall. Every other day we were hit by a new major winter storm. For three solid weeks I shoveled out my driveway at least once a day, and frequently twice.
But this time it was different than in seasons past, when I took to the chore begrudgingly and tried to keep my mind on something else other than the bitter snow that had so inconveniently invaded my domain. This time, I said the Jesus prayer with every shovelful. In the beauty and purity of the snow, I saw the beauty and purity of its creator. By allowing the snow to endear me to God, I released its spiritual dimension. I became an instrument through which God could fulfill His pre-eternal desire to make all things in heaven and on earth, including the snow, one with Him.
Becoming aware of my sacramental, eucharistic, and transforming relationship with the environment has had a profound impact on me. All my life I have wanted to be the kind of person who could honestly say, “I see God in nature.” Oh, I could always look at a tree and say, “My, what a beautiful tree God has made. I thank Him for it.” But try as I might, I never felt I could actually see God in it.
But this new realization that I have a dynamic relationship with the rest of creation, and a spiritual responsibility to it, has given me new eyes. Now I look at a tree and see a creature of God that longs for me to offer its praise and raise it to oneness with its creator. And in the selflessness of that act, I too, am drawn into deeper union with God.
Before, I looked for God in nature as one views a painting, hoping that some intellectual or emotional revelation of the divine would jump out at me. But as we have often noted in this podcast, God is not revealed in observations. He reveals Himself in acts. It is only as I engage my environment with love, with a humble, self-sacrificing sense of my responsibility to it, and my responsibility to God on its behalf, that I truly meet God in it.
When I introduced this topic, I noted what we all know, that questions about what we should or should not do with the environment are some of the most hotly debated in our society. And those debates can be confusing.
For instance, is global warming a cataclysmic tragedy riding on the heels of ecologically disastrous, modern practices? Or is it just an ordinary cyclical event which we should not worry too much about? Both sides of the debate offer their scientific evidence, but I know a few people who have actually formed their opinion on the issue by impartially weighing the scientific evidence. That would be a formidable task indeed.
No, it seems like most folks I know have decided whose evidence is right based upon the political, economic, and social agendas of the people who present it. While that approach to decision-making may be common, and given the frailty of human nature, understandable, it is nonetheless fundamentally illogical. As my first-year critical thinking students would tell you, it is an example of fallacious ad hominem reasoning.
As I say, global warming is just one of a number of debates which folks of dissenting minds take very passionately. And for the typical layman, all of these are subject to the same problem of evidence, of weighing the evidence, of making judgments about the evidence.
So can the principles we have been discussing here, principles regarding our spiritual inter-relationship with the environment, provide us perhaps a better means of answering these controversial questions? I think they can.
To aid our reflection on this, let me paint a mental image for you. A while back, I found myself, purely by the force of circumstances, driving through a major U.S. city at rush hour on Friday afternoon. My saving grace was that there were four of us in the car. So I was clipping along at about 50 miles an hour in the carpool lane, even as the four lanes to my right sat bumper to bumper, completely stopped. And this went on for miles.
I have experienced that situation many times before, but on this day I found myself contemplating all of those idling cars, and the single occupant in each of them. All at once it occurred to me that what I had before me was an exceptionally vivid icon of humanity separated from God.
After all, God desires that we be one with Him and one with each other, and as we know now, one with all creation in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit are one. This is what we learned from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23.
But there on that freeway, what I saw was a radical declaration of personal independence, a declaration of aloneness, alienation and stubborn separation. Before me was this massive icon of just exactly what God wants to deliver us from. And it is an icon that is painted all across this country twice a day.
Carpooling, public transportation—they are just too much of an infringement upon our personal mobility. We would rather sit there burning dollars and expelling volumes of pollutants rather than share our resources and reduce our impact on the environment.
If we tend to believe those who are raising the alarm about global warming, we may sit there in the gridlock feeling guilty. Listening to the “cycle” folks, we may feel that whatever impact we are having is simply inevitable.
But what if we are committed to the truths that we have been discussing here? First, that God desires to be one with all creation. Secondly, that we human beings are the instrument of that oneness. And third, as the scriptures and the Fathers teach, our corrupt acts corrupt nature, and our holy acts elevate nature to union with God.
If we accept all that, then we do not need confirmed, scientific evidence regarding carbon emissions or ozone depletion or the melting polar ice cap. And it does not matter if global warming is our fault or a natural, cyclic event. For when we gaze upon that icon of thousands of gridlocked, single-occupant, exhaust-spewing vehicles, we can say with spiritual certainty that this is wrong. It is not what God wants.
For clearly this is a reality which is not born of love and selflessness. It is born, rather, of stubborn individualism and self-concern. This is an icon that portrays no sense of responsibility for the world, or a commitment to its transformation. This is not oneness. In fact, it is the antithesis of oneness, and if it is the antithesis of oneness, then it is spiritually corrupt. And we know that our spiritual corruption has a corrupting effect on the physical world. The environment bears the fruit of humanity’s spiritual condition, be it good or ill.
So whether or not we know the actual size of the hole in the ozone layer, or the square miles of polar ice that have been lost, we know for certain that creation is being harmed by this individualistic behavior. Our driving habits need to be changed for a spiritual reason. They need to be changed in a way that promotes God-ordained oneness with other human beings and with nature.
Let us take a related environmental issue, drilling for oil in the ANWR, the Arctic National Wildness Refuge. This is a battle that has been going on since the late 1970s. It pits our desire as a nation to be less dependent on foreign oil against the possibility of seriously damaging one of the most pristine and ecologically sensitive wilderness areas in the world.
What should we do? Well, applying the principles that we have developed here, the answer seems pretty clear to me. I consider my rush hour icon, and I ask myself, “Should we risk destroying anything natural for the sake of preserving this—this abject individualism, this lack of concern for anything but the ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and all by ourselves? Is this reason enough to risk harming lands and creatures that God made and deeply loves?”
Now that does not mean that there might not be a time and a circumstance where it would be spiritually prudent to take such a risk. But it would have to be motivated by something far more serious than just preserving the current self-interested, irresponsible, personal freedom status quo. It would have to involve caring, compassion, selflessness and most of all, a commitment to oneness.
I am not an environmental expert, nor do I know how to change the hearts of all those people in my gridlock icon and turn them into willing carpoolers or bus riders. Most sadly, even as I am moved by this new perspective on my relationship to the environment, in living out that perspective I encounter the same obstacles that I face in every aspect of my Orthodox life—laziness and self-love. It is always easier to do what is comfortable and to promise myself, and God, that I will get serious about changing my life tomorrow.
Lord Jesus Christ, wake me up. Make me serious. May I embrace my sacramental and eucharistic relationship with the environment and live in it fully. And may I arrive at the judgment having born my responsibility to creation well. Please grant me that grace.