THE Pope and our own Australian bishops have spoken strongly on the Christian duty of care for the environment.
Our beautiful planet, long taken for granted as ‘mother earth’, in its capacity to nurture life in all its wonder and variety, has been severely damaged.
Though estimates vary on how serious the crisis is, all agree that urgent and radical action is called for.
The ongoing extinction of so many species of plants and animals, the destruction of the great forests, the threat to the Great Barrier Reef, the careless plundering of the land’s natural resources, industrial poisons leaking into air and soil and water, and the resultant Greenhouse Effect, are sufficient to bring all responsible people to the point of grave concern about the future.
We can ask, with the Pope, what the earth and its atmosphere is telling us. What message is coming from our land, its great rivers and the air we breathe?
No matter where you went during the summer holidays, to whatever secluded part of the beach or of the bush, the empty beer can and cigarette pack was there before you. A willy-willy of food wrappers or a pile of plastic containers in the remotest national parks speak their own message.
The larger matters are as well known as they are inescapable – the polluted beaches, the hills and plains denuded of their trees, the erosion that scars the landscape, the ‘die-back’ in the forests and the salinity in the soil, our sprawling ill-planned cities … These are all symptoms of an uncaring destruction of so much that was once so beautiful, and now perhaps gone forever.
A nation of consumers has left its mark. After a mere 200 years, our effect on our land has been remarkably like the effect of the Crown of Thorns starfish on the Barrier Reef.
As the tragedy of all this strikes home, an enormous change of heart is called for.
What is the earth and its atmosphere telling us?
The Pope suggested some years ago that it was telling us of an order in the universe which must be respected.
We human beings, in our capacity to make far-reaching choices, have a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. What has this got to do with Lent?
Recall the oldest Lenten formula used by the priest marking our foreheads on Ash Wednesday: ‘Remember, O human one, that thou art but dust and unto dust thou shalt return’.
Receiving the ashes is meant to be a sign of humility and conversion, in preparation for the great feast of Easter.
The word, ‘humility’, comes from the Latin word, ‘humus’, meaning ‘earth’, or ‘soil’. This Lent, we would do well to cultivate humility, as our basic ‘earthliness’, in a larger, more ecological sense.
For we are earthlings; this earth is our native place; it sustains our life and we must care for it; it is our basic commonwealth.
As such, it can be appreciated as a great sacrament of God’s faithful, life-giving love.
Our Creator does not mean us to haunt this earth like restless, rootless, all-devouring aliens from another planet. It has been given, in a providence extending over billions of years, as our place.
We do well to think of it as a vast sacred site worthy of our reverence and care.
That would be the beginning of a lasting conversion – the change of heart that each Lent always invites us to.
The Pope has reminded us in the past that there can be no solution to the ecological problem unless we take a serious look at our way of life.
Consumerism, with its cult of instant gratification, has become a huge cultural addiction. As with all addictions, withdrawal symptoms are going to be severe.
The way forward will be a Lenten one. It invites us along the path of simplicity, moderation and daily discipline.
It leads to a sense of ‘being’ rather than ‘having’. Here, ‘being’ means a basic contentment, a joy in being with the capacity to give thanks for the uncanny gift of life and readiness to praise God as the giver of all life in all its wonders.
It is contrasted with the attitude of merely ‘having’, measuring our lives by what we can possess, own, exploit or ‘grab’ (note how frequently this word pops up in our modern idioms, as in ‘grabbing’ a cup of coffee, or a movie, or a few days off).
The traditional Lenten penance was understood in terms of prayer, fasting and alms.
Each one of these has a bearing on our ecological concerns. A word, then, on each of them.
First, prayer: Let’s remember that the eucharist, the Christian prayer par excellence, is quite a very earthy matter.
It uses the grain and the grapes that have grown in our land.
This presupposes the fertile soil, the rain and sunshine, the cycle of seasons, and the skill and care of farmers and bakers, vine-growers and wine-makers.
Men and women have worked with nature to produce this food and drink for our nourishment and celebration.
In the eucharist, the Holy Spirit transforms what nature has produced and what human beings have made into the sacrament of the Lord’s real presence.
The eucharist, then, celebrates our communion in the greatest gifts of God coming to us through what nature provides and human work has produced.
This sacrament does not take us out of this world, but makes us belong to it in deeper reverence and responsibility. It ‘earths’ us, so to speak, in the mystery of creation.
The real presence of Jesus on the altar opens our eyes to the creative presence of God in all creation. It invites us to contemplation, to see the whole world as the vast temple of God, as an all-nurturing ‘mother earth’.
What a profound mystery nature must be if it figures so essentially this (and the other) sacraments.
Eucharist prayer leads back to the psalms. These inspired prayers relish the wonder of world as God’s creation.
Everything radiates with the beauty and faithfulness of God: ‘O all you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord!’
A meditative reading of Psalms 8, 19, 104, 146-148, would be a good Lenten exercise.
Ecological fasting? The addictions of consumerism continue to have their effect.
We may all need to go on a diet. But there is a deeper problem.
The outer pollution of our environment is in no small way caused by the pollution of the inner environment.
Our imaginations are clogged with the thousands of skilfully produced images of modern advertising. Radio and TV promise instant entertainment, or, at least, distraction.
A good form of fasting would mean doing without all this for a while. That will mean learning to enjoy silence and stillness of mind.
For some, it could well mean learning to enjoy again what they once enjoyed – company and conversation, a good book, poetry, music, or visiting an art exhibition. A healed inner ecology is a great resource for dealing with a suffering outer ecology.
Yet it takes discipline to enjoy the things that are worthwhile. They nourish the inner environment, and help put a stop to the degradation there.
Ecological almsgiving? This means, not only donating for the support of our suffering neighbour, but also doing something for the ecological neighbourhood.
It means not littering, not using plastic bags, not driving when public transport or walking is a possibility; domestic recycling, making a compost heap for the garden; working in the garden itself as a token of friendship with the earth, and all who might enjoy it (not forgetting the birds and the bees!).
So, an ‘ecological’ Lent: It is the time for fresh beginnings.
Fr Tony Kelly is a Redemptorist priest, who is Professor of Theology in the Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology at Australian Catholic University and Australia’s representative on the International Theological Commission in Rome.