Saturday, November 14, 2015

Laudato Si: Sunday Reflection #17... It's not just about us

If there's anything that drives me crazy about Pope Francis' recent letter to the world, it's that it had to be written from the angle where we human beings with our theologically-approved ability to relate to God seem more important than the rest of God's creation, even though creation would probably manage better without us! I think it's really hard for human beings -- with our big intellects and sense of our own souls -- to get our heads around the fact that maybe, just maybe, God loves -- and lives in -- every other creature in the web of life too. It's not just human beings who are special. We are just special in a different way than the others (and as I've said before -- how can we be so sure they don't have souls too?)

Halfway through section IV, which is called The Message of Each Creature in the Harmony of Creation, paragraph 86 notes that "God's goodness "could not be fittingly represented by any one creature. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships." Actually, the writers of Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, are quoting different pieces of Saint Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, which were written in the 13th century! (You can read this week's paragraphs, 86-90, including the footnotes about where to find Aquinas' ideas, by clicking here.) The Bible says that God created humans in His and Her image, yes, but Saint Thomas tells us definitively that God's image also exists in the rest of creation and we need to understand the importance of everything. How did we miss this?

What I love about this encyclical, besides the fact that the Pope and friends are addressing our planet's ecological crises, is that it is constantly pointing out that creation is all "of a piece." We can't understand anything if we don't even attempt to look at the entire picture -- because everything depends upon the interdependence of all aspects of creation. Humans have gotten into the habit of thinking we must be independent (that's what marketers want so they can sell us each our very own fill-in-the-blank) but clearly, we need to change such thinking because it's creating quite a mess.

Our insistence on our independence means that there too many single occupant vehicles driving around the cities of North America. But what if we decided to try some interdependence -- carpooling, carsharing, public transit and other modes of getting around? We might have to depend on one another, build stronger community supports, create fewer emissions that lead to climate change, and maybe live a healthier life, but would that be so bad? Not according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which points out at the end of paragraph 86 that "Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other."

Sound like Utopia? Or maybe heaven on earth? But what if I don't want to carpool with a neighbour who irritates me? What if I lend my car to a friend who scrapes the bumper? What if it's too much of a hassle to share because I don't have time to organize a car pool?

The thing is, what is worse? An uninhabitable planet, or making time to connect, share and get along with others? This Anthropocene era in which human activity has had a major impact on our earth's ecosphere since the Industrial Revolution has seen an incredible increase in population and pollution, partly because we've gotten out of the habit of working together. The increasing suffering worldwide due to climate change-related weather events seems to be a catalyst for the beginning of a conversion in us, where we see the necessity of living more simply, co-operating with our neighbours, and respecting the sacredness of creation.

Paragraph 87 seems to be designed simply to allow for the reappearance of Saint Francis' Canticle of the Creatures to aid us in praising God. I just wish they had printed it in its entirety, including the part about Sister Death. I can't help but think that if we were all better friends with our mortality, we wouldn't spend so much of our lives accumulating the earthly treasure Jesus warned against, "that moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal" (Matt 6.19). If we are constantly aware that Sister Death allows us to take no possessions with us, maybe we'd leave fewer behind!

In paragraph 88, we are reminded that "The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship" by cultivating the "ecological virtues" that are part of the social doctrine of the Church. In my brief skim of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, creation is seen as important to the well-being of humans. I hope the Compendium also sees it as important in and of itself, or both Saint Francis and Saint Thomas Aquinas will be frowning... Every creature in creation has its role to fulfill, and human beings in particular need to acknowledge our "right and proper place" instead of thinking ourselves the pinnacle of creation or of creation as merely the fulfillment of our wants. Not the left, but the right, below.

I'd love to know where this graphic originated so I could give the artist credit, because it pretty much sums up my feelings about our relationship with the earth. Who says human beings are the highest level of creation? Human beings! But the true picture is on the right. We are not the top of the pyramid, though that's the image that consumer culture (and the beginning of the book of Genesis) may have imprinted upon us.

God (not us) owns everything, says paragraph 89, and
all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate respect... God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.
No kidding. This summer I kept finding dying bumblebees. My heart broke every time. Can't we stop with the pesticides already?

Paragraph 90 underlines the importance of the role of people in the care of creation, stating that
we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, where we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.
Enormous inequalities breed enormous anger and terrible division. I'm afraid my church pretends to be blind to the greater rights it gives to men over women, and how that only feeds the inequality of women around the globe, many of whom are left to feed families and care for the elderly without much support from the males who are seen as having greater value in many cultures. The inequality of people based on gender is just another example of living beings being treated irresponsibly, though Pope Francis and friends are ignoring that here (they don't want to think about things like women priests, for example) -- for them, the division is not so much between male and female, but between rich and poor.

But again, it's all of a piece, and we'll never get to equality and heaven on earth if we ignore sexism... or any of the other "isms" that divide us from other beings in creation. All that God made must be valued and considered worthy of care... and it would be good if all living things were accorded similar rights, though it would require more effort on our part to care for them all. At the moment, we only care for the things we value, and heaven knows we haven't always valued the right things!

For the week ahead, let's give some thought to the things we value and how they fit into the web of life that God created. If a fire was to come and swallow everything we own, what would we miss the most? What could we easily live without? How much do our "needs" impact our planet and its ecosystems? How much impact do our "wants" have on the earth?

Let's give some thought to the idea that the needs of creation are important too.

This life, this planet, is not just about us.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.


(A prayer for our earth and all quotations from Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home © Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Next up: #18... Time to tone it down

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