In September 2003, I was shooting a short video for the Franciscan magazine Assisi to mark its 50th anniversary. The project was commissioned to me by Capuchin Fr. Roy Karakkattu. He was then the editor of the magazine as well as the mastermind behind the idea. Inspired by the splash of water drops on plants in the monsoon rain in July, in the shooting-script I sketched a few shots of rain – water splashes, dripping droplets and so on.

However, during the field shoots in early September, the crew was too disappointed with hardly any rain in that season. We neither had any resource for organising an artificial shower, nor wanted one, as it would hardly give the feel of a real shower. One day as we were working for some other shots on the banks of the river Meenachil, I nostalgically wished for a good shower! To my surprise, in ten minutes the bright skies turned dark and tiny drops of water started falling on me. Overjoyed, the cameraman captured several shots of the water beads falling on the quiet river, much slimmed by the scorching heat. The rain had now become a heavy outpour. The crew totally unprepared for such a turn of events ran to the van to protect the camera kit.

Though I would not twist it into a supernatural phenomenon, I still like to believe it was a blessing from St Francis, the patron saint of ecological conservators, whose story we were trying to tell through our video. I also believe that God keeps providing for His children’s needs even before they ask. Nevertheless, the question always troubles me: What have I done to keep His created world pure and intact?

Clarity in Perspectives

The Year of Mercy has awakened many Catholics to an awareness that they need to reach out to the poor and the needy through their works of mercy. It is heartening to learn that many dioceses and Congregations have taken steps to meaningfully celebrate the Year of Mercy. Programmes and initiatives like cloth bank, food counters, scholarships, free health support, organ donation and building houses for the homeless etc are some of them. But if we were not to be sincere about our motives behind them, such initiatives could be reduced to mere show or a mere means to gain indulgences.

What is important at this juncture is to have clear perspectives about the Church’s prerogative to be merciful to others and to the world. For example, there are not a few who engage in charitable activities with a boastful attitude and keep drumming on housetops about their benevolence. They forget the fact that humans themselves create disparities in the world and that theirs is in no way charity and generosity but mere duty. Pope Francis reminds us, “The poor and the hungry ask us for dignity and not charity.”

A Perfect Worldview About the Created World

Our planet is the vital space where our merciful glance must fall. Our relationship and our responses to the created world where we inhabit are fundamentally guided by our perceptions about it. Unfortunately in the past, Biblical texts have been misused for justifying human exploitation of natural resources. One such quote is “God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28, emphasis added).

In ‘Laudato Si’ (LS), Pope Francis warns us that everything in the created world belongs to God; and man cannot have any arbitrary rights over anything in it. Our misperceptions about having dominion i.e., our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations, indeed disrupt the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation (LS 66). The Divine mandate received by man to have dominion acquires its full meaning in the command of God to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Francis comments: “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (LS 67). We are the custodians or stewards of the created world and have the responsibility to keep it intact, unharmed.

Though human tendency to exploit the earth stems primarily from greed, it is also basically related to their perceptions about God. The genius of the Catholic faith involves in affirming both immanence (God is present within the created world) and transcendence (God exists outside of created world) of God in a balanced way that does justice to both.[1] Other religious world views such as pantheism denies God’s transcendence while deism denies God’s immanence.

The Protestant theology rejects immanence of God from Christian theologising and spirituality, and focuses to a highly anthropocentric economy of salvation.[2] Spirituality thus is viewed as detached from the created world, but in terms of human relationship to God, proportional to God’s message that a person receives. Consequentially, under the ‘Protestant Ethic’[3] not only is the care for the world the least priority, but also it develops a subduing and exploitative attitude towards nature. Recently, some scholars have said that divine transcendence does not curtail God’s presence in creation, rather, it makes possible for us to claim God’s boundless presence in and to the world.[4] Indeed Jesus’ saving work targets not only human species but also the whole created world.[5] Humans have an important role in caring and protecting the world.

Human Ecology

We know and experience that our world is undergoing tremendous climate change evidently from various natural phenomena such as global warming, rising sea level, melting permafrost, receding glaciers, earthquakes, tsunamis, and so on. It is inevitable that humans need to do everything possible to prevent these phenomena. For Catholics, however, care for creation is not an isolated activity. They consider the universe as a living organism, a gift of God constantly animated by Him. Though man’s primacy within this universe is recognised, he is to be understood as part of the whole.

Benedict XVI who called for the development of a ‘human ecology’ emphatically stated that “The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits” (CV 51; original emphasis). Demeaning the dignity of the human person is the root cause of environmental as well as social crisis. If only human beings are able to appreciate meaning and dignity of life he would be capable of respecting other creatures, and his surroundings. Therefore, Benedict opines:

“[T]he first ecology to be defended is ‘human ecology.’ This is to say that, without a clear defence of human life from conception until natural death; without a defence of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman; without an authentic defence of those excluded and marginalized by society… we will never be able to speak of authentic protection of the environment.”

As a result eco-sceptic Catholics become alert when secular environmentalists advocate and push for population control measures such as abortion and contraception as a solution to ecological crisis. Similarly, it is a Catholic conviction not to seek exclusively technological answers to eco-crises as ideal, than finding organic solutions.

Human ecology reminds us that humans are relational creatures. They grow and develop when they preserve a healthy bond with God, others, and the created world. Whatever be our perception about God (immanent, transcendent or both), our God is a God who revealed himself as merciful. This God who has shown absolute mercy to his people does not admit anything detrimental to his creation.

Significance of ‘Laudato Si’

No papal exhortation than ‘Laudato Si’ had the world waited with such impatience! Through ‘Laudato Si’ Pope Francis has greatly succeeded in creating genuine awareness in human consciousness about the need for environmental conservation. As it is a document much read and appreciated across the world, I do not want to elaborate its details here. However, this chapter would not be complete without mentioning its significant contributions.

First of all, ‘Laudato Si’ records considerable success in creating a great awareness among humans that the care of created world is the serious responsibility of every human being. Secondly, Francis reiterates that environmental crisis is not an isolated issue but has to be addressed as part of a big problem, which includes social, economical, political as well as spiritual. Thirdly, it envisages that peace and development can only happen with due respect for nature and by a process of inclusion of everyone in society – especially the weakest, the lost, the marginalised, and the neglected. Fourth, it advocates that everyone in society – experts, scientists, believers, atheists, policy makers, religious leaders etc. – shall be part of the constructive and open dialogue to find solutions for the eco-crisis. Lastly, with ‘Laudato Si,’ Francis has greatly succeeded in making care for creation part of the social teachings of the Church.

The uniqueness of ‘Laudato Si’ is that while it recognizes the inherent value of the environment, as do the contemporary environmental movements, it does not simply equate nature with God. Though the Church distinctively places the human family at the centre of its response to environmental concerns, it does not think that humans on their own can solve all the issues, unlike the secular environmental movements think. As co-creators with God, human beings have the great responsibility for preserving the creation, which they would accomplish only by co-operating with the grace of God, who is drawing all of creation towards its fulfilment.

Cosmic Liturgy

While in Australia, I had chances of participating in Easter Dawn services. These ecumenical services included prayers, hymns, chants and music. It fascinated me because these prayer services were held in beautiful locales such as a beach or a hilltop. It’s a beautiful experience being right in the middle of the cosmos where little sea waves or birds’ chirpings give the rhythm for your hymns. And it was easier for me to experience the Risen Lord – the Cosmic Christ – in those magnificent moments of Easter daybreak.

Elements and things in the natural world reveal “mystical meaning.” In the living and non-living things on earth we not only discover “the action of God in the soul, but also… God in all things” (LS 233) because we consider the world as a “sacrament of communion” (LS 9). In sacraments God has chosen special things from nature – water, oil, fire – to manifest and mediate supernatural grace to humankind. For us, sacramental life is the prime aspect through which we express and celebrate our relation with God who creates and sustains everything.

Though the Catholic liturgy offers umpteen opportunities to be in cosmic communion with natural and the supernatural worlds[6] transcending the human limitation of time and space, many of us have reduced it to mere routine ritual. This might be because we perceive reality in its duality. Our positive attitudes to nature shall help the Eucharist and other sacraments as intersections between God’s grace, the created order, and the human heart. Similarly our participation in liturgy should help us appreciate the natural world as a gift of God to us. Benedict XVI puts it this way: “The relationship between the Eucharist and the cosmos helps us to see the unity of God’s plan and to grasp the profound relationship between creation and the ‘new creation’ inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, the new Adam” (SC 92).

Theologians like Teilhard De Chardin and mystics like St Francis of Assisi have experienced the cosmic presence of God in sacraments. Chardin wrote:

“Once upon a time men took into your temple the first fruits of their harvests, the flower of their flocks. But the offering you really want, the offering you mysteriously need every day to appease your hunger, to slake your thirst is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming.”[7]

The way we plan and build our centres of worship however does not reflect these attitudes. They do not suit our weather situations, thus preventing an experience of prayer and union with God. Many a time, the natural surroundings as well as the history and architecture itself are destroyed for constructing new churches. And the most saddening fact is that it is by squeezing the poor that we raise funds for mega churches! Even in our spiritual practices we increasingly show consumerist tendencies and suburban lifestyle, which is contrary to nature and to the spirit of mercy (CV 51).

Mercy to the Created World

Water has become such scarce that it is a reason for social conflict. Declaring ‘water emergency’ (Section 144 of Indian Penal Code) due to people’s fight over water in the Marathwada area of Maharashtra, India terribly shocks us. People postpone their scheduled surgeries to save money for water.

If we were blessed to be born in this beautiful world, we have great responsibility to preserve it for the posterity. While we have the right to pure air, water and healthy environment we also have equal responsibility to give the same to others especially to the generations to come after us. Commemorative days such as Earth Day and Environment Day should inspire us to live in tune with nature everyday. Such celebrations should help us to make them an on-going programme and lifestyle for us, than being content with posting a message on social media.

For this we have to act in solidarity with creation and with the poor: by aiding those most affected by environmental problems, like natural disasters and climate change. We need to have concern for waste pickers, recyclers, environmental conservation activists and farmers. We need to think about increasing number of suicides among Indian farmers and find ways to fight their problem.

We should not forget courageous souls like Sr. Valsa John (SCJM) who sacrificed her life for spearheading the programme of forest conservation under Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan, (RPBA) that had enraged the local timber mafia and stone-quarry owners in the neighbourhood. Similar examples are Jan Vikas trust of Indore diocese in Madhya Pradesh which does fantastic work among the waste pickers along with Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and MST fathers who do commendable work among waste picking children and families right in the middle of the huge waste dumping yard in Jahangirpuri in Delhi.

We need to simplify our personal lifestyle and consumption. Along with it we need, collective mobilisation and advocacy for political and economic reform that will lead to longstanding social and ecological sustainability. We need a holistic approach, integral methods and all encompassing programmes for such mobilisation for a sustainable eco system.

As “the heavens sing the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork… without speech, or words (Ps. 19:1-2), let us be enveloped in the loud silence proclaiming the magnificent glory of God, manifested in the created world.

Abbreviations

LS – Laudato Si

CV – Caritas in Veritate

SC – Sacramentum Caritatis

Notes and References

[1] Transcendence and immanence are both attributes of God. There are various texts in Bible justifying both these attributes of God. Paul’s speech in Areopagus (Acts 17: 24-28) is a good example: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands (v 24 means God is not a far away God, i.e., God is immanent), nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (v. 25 means he is not a nearby idol similar to that of Athenians i.e., God is transcendent). From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (Vs 26-27 means although transcendent, God is not far from any of us). For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

[2] Tracy, D. (1981). The Analogical imagination: Christian Theology and the culture of pluralism. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

[3] In The Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism Max Weber, the renowned sociologist of religion, analysed the connections between religion and economic situations. He observed Protestantism offered a concept of the worldly “calling,” and gives worldly activity a religious character. As capitalism sees profit as an end in itself it has implications how man exploited the nature itself which was purely a gift of God. For further reading see Weber, M. (2001). The Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism. London: Routledge.

[4] See for example Tanner, K. E. (1988). God and creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or empowerment? New York: Blackwell.; Koster, H. P (2012:3). Questioning eco theological panentheisms: The Promise of Kathryn Tanner’s Theology of God’s radical transcendence for ecological theology, Scriptura 111, pp. 385-394.

[5] Conradie, E. M. (2006). Christianity and ecological theology: Resources for further research. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.

[6] Both Oriental and Latin liturgies are filled with themes and prayers of mercy. ‘Have mercy on us’ is common prayer found in these liturgies. The Eucharist is offered for the whole universe (for example in Syro Malabar Qurbana people pray “…May He be pleased with the sacrifice you offer for us, for yourself, and for the whole world, through the goodness of His mercy, forever”), and the whole universe is uniting in space and time during this Great Mystery of Eucharist (for example in the 1st G’Hanta prayer of the Syro Malabar Qurbana the celebrant prays: “… You created the world by Your grace, its inhabitants by Your mercy, and bestowed great grace on mortals…. Myriads upon myriads of holy angels, hosts of spiritual ministers of fire and spirit glorify Your Name; and with the holy cherubim and the spiritual seraphim, they offer worship to Your Lordship”).

[7] Chardin, Pierre Teilhard De. (1978). The Heart of Matter. New York: Harcourt.