Desert as Icon

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Early on in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis pays tribute to the ecological spirituality and leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Francis refers to the spiritual roots of environmental problems as identified by Bartholomew, who invites us ‘to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply give up.”‘ Bartholomew urges us;

to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.

My reflections on Laudato Si’ have been focused on the dimension of spirituality, on the primary motivation for our renewed – converted – relationship with the earth because it strikes me that the tasks in hand are not contentious; carbon reduction, renewable energy, reduced consumption. What is much harder is discovering the motivation to do this. Both Francis and Bartholomew offer much wisdom in this regard.

An Orthodox approach to ecological spirituality is beautifully presented in John Chryssavgis’ book, Creation as Sacrament. Having previously written (equally beautifully) on the Desert tradition, it is not surprising that he returns there to affirm a spirituality which is both ascetical and mystical. It is ascetical in demonstrating a pattern of life that seeks not dominance over creation but respectful, affirming submission to it. In the desert, one must travel light and learn the fundamental disposition of letting go ‘which is necessary to a proper relationship with God, world, and oneself.’ One faces ‘the pain and passion of life in all its intensity’, far from any distraction, pride or pretence.

The desert instills a spirituality that is mystical in that those who enter it do so out of a love for the place and who discover there an icon of Divine Beauty, and I use that word in its specific, theological sense. Icons are kissed, venerated as true, sacramental portals to the reality they present. They are honoured as windows to the divine, but not worshipped as God. This leads us to another vital understanding in an Orthodox approach to the nature of God in the world. God is not absent or distant from the world, but intimately present through his energies. The whole world is energised by divine presence such that it is possible to affirm that the world is part of God but not the whole of God. It is important to affirm that God is both near and far, present both in and beyond what we can see and, therefore, able to sustain and transform the world, including ourselves as part of it.

With these two insights held side-by-side, we both assume full responsibility for our place in the world, and delight in the One whose ‘power sustains’ and whose ‘love restores’ it (Eucharistic Prayer IV, Scottish Liturgy).

Conversion to the Earth

I was drawn to a reflection on Laudato Si’ by Eric Jensen, a Jesuit, who calls on some interesting Ignatian insights to talk about the invitation to a conversion that lies at the heart of the encyclical. He suggests that one may have either a religious or a moral conversion that leads to a renewed relationship with the earth. Beginning with a religious conversion, we are drawn to an awareness of a loving creator who cares passionately about all created life and from there to a change of heart about how we then relate to (rather than use) the other parts of God’s creation. Beginning from a moral conversion, which may be the norm for most people in this part of the world, it is also possible that a care for – a love for – the earth may move us to a desire for the Source of life, the source of beauty.

Of course, Jesuits are well-versed in the movements of heart that are involved in a conversion. The Spiritual Exercises are, above all, a path of conversion. They begin with a ‘diagnosis’ of our situation, which is precisely what the Jesuit Pope does in Laudato Si’, for clear discernment of what is true is the necessary precondition for a change of heart. In naming the specific challenges of our ecological crisis, the skills and insights of science are indispensable. I am struck by how much of this thinking is present in the writing of William Johnston SJ, whose work I am researching.


In one of his last books,Arise, My Love…’ Johnston also saw the need for many conversions in our current context: a conversion to the body to overcome mind-body dualism that continues to plague so much Western thought; a conversion to the poor in imitation of the Jesus who emptied himself; a conversion to the ‘other’ through dialogue; a conversion of Christians to welcome the insights of all who are passionate for truth through the attentive work of scientific research. All of these changes of heart are bound up in the call to conversion in Laudato Si’: our embodied nature as part of an interdependent creation; our embrace of the way of simplicity and our option for the poor as an essential realisation of the true impact of climate change; a deep solidarity with all who share a concern for truth and for the renewal of humanity through faith, compassion and contemplation. The path of conversion is not a discrete religious activity but is a way of life, a way for life.

Laudato Si’ Week

Pope Francis has invited people to take this week as an opportunity to reflect on his encyclical, Laudato Si’. For an excellent overview of the document, try this piece by the now Provincial for the Jesuits in Britain, Damian Howard. I thought I’d offer some responses to this remarkable text in the course of the week.

Saint Francis of Assisi (detail) - Cimabue -

First of all, I think it is essential to recognise the basis of Francis’ approach in a spirituality that is deeply rooted in Christian tradition. It is a spirituality that is expressed most powerfully in St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, from whose opening line the encyclical takes its name. The Canticle directly addresses elements of the created world as brothers and sisters and with which Francis was united by ‘bonds of affection.’ This aspect of fraternal love for all creatures is vital. Our attempts to restore balance with the rest of creation is not best motivated by duty but by love. Pope Francis adds another Franciscan element to his holistic and ecological spirituality, which is a love of poverty and a love of the poor. He sees no distinction between love for our fellow human beings – especially those who are poor – and love for the wider creation. And the sense in which poverty itself can be loved is the sense in which it is a love of simplicity and restraint, spiritually detached from possessions. This, in turn, requires ‘being at peace with oneself’ and an attitude of ‘serene attentiveness’ which overcomes the anxiety that we feed with our greedy consumerism. In a practical vein, the spirituality that motivates Laudato Si’ encourages a life lived with ‘daily gestures which break the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.’ And finally, the mystical insight at the heart of the encyclical is that ‘the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely’ – God is present in each of the ‘sublime realities’ of life. For this latter insight, Francis calls on St John of the Cross, whose Spiritual Canticle speaks of the vast, graceful, bright and fragrant mountains’, and dares to say that ‘These mountains are what my Beloved is to me’.

I think many in the wider environmental movement recognise that a conversion of our world towards a more sustainable future will not be accomplished without an underlying spirituality. Pope Francis has proposed this very thing and has invited us all to join in the conversation.

The Joy of the Gospel

The first exhortation from Pope Francis – the title of this post – called the church to a conversion from a concern for self-preservation to a missionary outlook, sharing the gospel of life. Among the many wonderful insights in this document is the reminder that there is a ‘hierarchy of truth’ in Christian thinking – some things are more important than others. And in this time of challenge and crisis, it’s right that we should be giving a lot of thought to exactly what it is that matters most.

Pope Francis (@Pontifex) | Twitter

Pope Francis would probably say that the answer to this is rather simple. Indeed, it’s vital that the essence of the Gospel is not obscured by an undifferentiated mass of complex ideas, customs and language. The simple answer Francis gave at the outset of his exhortation was that one is set free by an encounter with Jesus. Everything else flows from this. Yes, the church is important in its institutional or communal form – we do not believe in a disembodied ideal – but it is important because it is a realm of encounter with the Risen Jesus. Everything else – community, ethics, structures – flows from this.

In describing the freedom found in an encounter with Jesus, Pope Francis specifies a number of ‘diseases’ from which we are liberated: sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. The freedom is renewed each day when one is open to the possibility of a fresh encounter with the Risen One each and every day. No one is excluded from this offer and ‘no one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love.’ (EG 3)

But how does one encounter the living Jesus? Mostly, we do so when we encounter someone who has already encountered him and has been transformed by his tender mercy, but also through the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the paschal mystery, primarily in the Eucharist. Francis talks of a ‘gift of beauty’ as a primary mode of encounter. By this he does not mean a narrow aesthetic, but the beauty of a transformed life, transformed by joy, gratitude and self-forgetfulness. The constant challenge to the church is to ensure that every decision is made so as to facilitate such encounters. To do this requires spiritual discernment, not programmes, slogans or political manoeuvring. In practice, I see in Pope Francis a commitment to discernment that does not exclude and is based on both-and thinking rather than either-or thinking. This is because the very manner of our encounters with each other must also reflect the tenderness and the mercy of Christ.

Holy Lives

Having just written about the need for more subtle approaches to talking about God, I feel that I ought to add a major corrective to that argument. It seems to me that any intellectual approach to commending Christian faith, even if it is set in the context of communal ritual practice and contemplation, is insufficient of itself to commend that faith to others. The only thing that can offer a compelling commendation of living faith is the visible transformation of human lives. Pope Francis has recently published a ‘call to holiness’ in his exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. In this inspiring and challenging text, he insists that ‘throughout the history of the Church, it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measure not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity.’ (para. 37) He also makes it clear that ‘God is mysteriously present in the life of every person’ (para. 42) and not only in the lives of those who attain perfection.

The key to a life lived towards holiness is a life lived in response to the call to love: ‘Jesus clears the way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother or sister. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art.’ (para 61)