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The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity (Angelico Press, 2013)

Probably the majority in the environmental movement do not see the relevance of mysticism, or personal virtue and morality, to the great issues of our day. To them it is merely a technological or political challenge. They will try to get their hands on the levers of power, and will be increasingly and everlastingly frustrated to discover that all their attempts come to nothing, or make things worse. I do not mean to say that there is no point in political action, but rather that the assumption that these problems are primarily political is a mistake. We need a new kind of politics, a new kind of technology, to solve these problems, namely a politics and a technology that have not been elevated to the level of what the Pope calls “ideological power” (Caritas in Veritate, n. 70). We need the kind of “appropriate technology” that has been developed for use in the poorer regions of the world, and we need a more local politics, in accordance with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. This would place the emphasis back on the human person and our individual efforts. The belief that we can solve the world’s problems by throwing power and money at them does not take account of human nature. It leads to the creation of vast commercial and political empires that inevitably become corrupt.

We need to remember that the call to holiness takes place in the midst of our fallen state. This is why our efforts to do good are so often frustrated. There is no immediate return to the conditions preceding our exile from Eden—even if saints like St. Francis give us a glimpse of prelapsarian innocence. Francis may have been able to speak with the animals like Adam, but he was nevertheless afflicted still by illness and eventually death. Christ, though without sin, adopted the condition of fallen man, and as such he was subject to the same human state. We who come after, in the time of the Church, are living within his body and to some extent measuring out the years before his resurrection is fully revealed to all. The Book of Revelation speaks of a “new heavens and new earth” (Rev. 21:1) where mourning and crying will cease, but for now there are tears a-plenty.

That is why, in Romans 8, there are three references to “groaning”: creation groans in travail (v. 22); we groan inwardly as we wait for our adoption as sons in the Son (v. 23); and the Holy Spirit, the personification of God’s self-gift to us, groans in supplication on our behalf since we do not know how to pray as we ought (v. 26). This word “groaning” signifies the sadness, suffering, and expectation of the whole world; its longing for liberation and the misery of decay. Groaning expresses the tension between what we are now and what we will become, and is a measure of the distance and difference the overcoming of which is anticipated through the virtue of hope.

The author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, in constructing a language for the pre-Christian Elves of Middle-earth, gives them two main words for hope. The word Amdir, which means “looking up,” refers to optimism, or the expectation that things will turn out well or at least get better. The assumption that the ecological crisis can be solved, that big corporations can be persuaded to change their ways, that the earth can survive whatever we throw at it, these fall under the heading of Amdir. The second word, Estel, means “trust”—trust in our deepest nature and the being of things, or in their source of being, despite the apparent victory of evils known and experienced. That, I would say, is perfectly valid, and in its own way quite consoling, but in the face of so much evil it is easily overwhelmed. To these two kinds of hope we must add a third, for which there is no Elvish word. Christian hope is neither psychological nor metaphysical, but theological. It rests on the gift of faith.

This is the hope with which Benedict is mainly concerned. In section 31 of Spe Salvi, his encyclical on Hope, Benedict writes that while “we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day… these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.”

Today, as I mentioned, many environmentalists are falling into despair. Pope Benedict diagnoses the problem thus:

All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action…. Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world’s future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance. If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political or economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope. (n. 35)

Without “the greater hope” that Christianity offers, environmentalism will end in fanaticism or despair. But at the same time the Pope reminds religious believers that secular environmentalists have had good reason to reject them as potential allies—for “modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task” (n. 25). This restriction of Christianity to the individual level is, I take it, precisely what we now need to overcome. As Christians we have been too hasty to “limit the horizon of our hope,” so that hope has indeed become a feeble-minded excuse for inaction.

The children of God are revealed in a life of holiness, which is a life where love has become tangible. The sign of love is not the creeds we adhere to, or the ideas we carry in our heads, but the spirit in which we behave towards each other and the world, which is a spirit of hope. The liturgy and Eucharist begin where philosophy also begins, in amazement and gratitude, in praise for the sheer existence of so much beauty, so much actuality. Forests and mountains, deserts and stars, animals, plants and insects are here and gone in a day, and their existence is fraught with sorrow, but God made them and pronounced them good. In our mysterious desire to unite ourselves with the Giver, to find the source and thank him, somehow, however inadequately, for the community of being, we begin to recall the reason we were made, and to play our part in the redemption of the world.

St. Francis can be an inspiration and example to those in the ecology movement example for the simple reason that he lived his life as an imitation of Christ. Christ’s portrait was reproduced in him. And I think we can also see in Francis, Western though he was, the potentiality for a reconciliation of East and West. Though his followers, beginning with Giotto, initiated the departure from the ancient iconographic traditions that would culminate in the Renaissance, Francis himself became a living icon. It was an icon perfected in the vision on Mount Alverna, where he was confronted with the six-winged Seraph in the form of a man crucified, and was imprinted in his own body with the wounds of the Cross. Devotion to the suffering humanity of Christ is a very Western devotion. But the glorified wounds, the idea that they persist in the Resurrection as signs of love, perhaps represents something that the West can contribute to the East.

So Francis is not the end-point, but rather a pointer, a signpost towards the great reconciliation of Christians in one and the same calling. That can only be achieved by the following of Christ in the flesh, through death to resurrection, bringing with us the whole of creation.

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