The Cathedral of St Stephen
Faced with the ecological crisis which is upon the planet, it’s taken us time to find a deeply and distinctively biblical and Gospel voice – a voice which is not ideological or political, not wholly determined by economic concerns. Voices such as those abound, but a voice such as we Christians can offer has been harder to find. However, one mature form of that voice has been found in the Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis bearing the title Laudato Si, words taken from the ecstatic hymn of Francis of Assisi.
It’s a voice that speaks of what some have called a contemplative ecology; and that is the essential element which we Christians can bring to the global reflection upon the ecological crisis. If that voice is not heard and that element is missing, the reflection will be hopelessly one-dimensional, leaving us with nothing but ideology, politics and economics.
This is because – as a contemplative ecology understands – the ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual crisis, which according to Pope Francis begins with the desertification of the heart and leads to the desertification of the planet. This vision of a radical interconnectedness of heart and planet, the human and the natural, is central to a contemplative ecology. It is also an ancient and powerful theme in Christianity.
Early Christian monasticism was inspired by the spirituality of fuga mundi, flight from the world. This begins with the belief that you can and must strip away extraneous things that are always calling for attention and deliberately pay attention to fewer things with greater sensitivity and clarity. You must see less to see more; you must hear less to hear more.
By calming the mind and settling the attention, we become more fully alive to “the beauty, inherent strangeness and interconnectedness of the world as a living system. By reducing distractions, we can discern the interrelationships across this pulsing, creative, dynamic whole, and to commune more deeply with the world as it is” (Andrew Zolli). We can listen to it and, in listening to the cry of the earth, we can hear the voice of the Beloved who is the incarnate God.
The Desert Fathers committed themselves to what they called practising Paradise. This rose from the belief that Paradise is everywhere for those with eyes to see, for those who learn a way of deep attention, which “taken to its highest degree”, says Simone Weil, “is the same thing as prayer”. It’s the kind of contemplative attention which, according to William Blake, enables us to “to see a world in a grain of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand / and eternity in an hour” (Auguries of Innocence). It’s the attention of which Mary Oliver speaks in her little poem Praying:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
“Just pay attention” she says; and in that Mary Oliver echoes the Desert Fathers. They could look at the desert they inhabited and see that even there Paradise lurked. That was the whole purpose of the fuga mundi, the flight from the world – to turn the desert to a garden. But that great spiritual task began by recognising the desertification of the heart. They understood the radical interconnectedness of their heart and their home: insofar as they could allow the grace of God to turn the desert of their heart to the garden of Paradise, they could allow the same grace to turn their desert home into a Paradise, to turn the land of death into the land of infinite life. This same sense lies at the heart of a contemplative ecology which we embrace as this season of creation begins.
Jesus urges us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Luke 12: 24; 27), calling us to this same kind of attention. “Pay attention”, he says, “to the birds and the flowers – long deep attention that truly understands what it sees and discovers surprising presences, even the presence of the Beloved, the Creator”. It is then that we can cease to worry, as the Lord urges; it’s then that we can move beyond fear. The spectre of an ecological apocalypse stirs anxiety and fear: how could it not? Only a contemplative ecology will allow us to move beyond anxiety and fear into something like peace and even joy.
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you”, says Job. “The birds of the air and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you, and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (12:7-8). Here too is the biblical call to the radical attention to creation which is at the heart of a contemplative ecology. “Who among all these”, asks Job, “does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (12:9). To listen attentively to the birds, the plants and the fish is finally to hear the voice of the Creator back in the garden.
That kind of deep listening and looking is our vocation in this time of crisis and especially in this season of creation. It will be our distinctive contribution as biblical Christians and heirs to the great spiritual traditions. It will be our word of hope to the human family, a word made possible because we have attended to the cry of the earth, knowing that the desert can become a garden and the groan of the exploited become the song of Paradise, the hymn of all creation.