I want to begin by telling you a true story, called the story of the Big fish and the Small Fish. It happened in one of the lakes in Zimbabwe, Africa. There were small fish which were very tasty, and which the Africans loved. However, when the British came to Zimbabwe, they did not like this small fish, so they imported bigger fish from England, and placed these also in the Lake. And of course, after a while, the bigger fish ate up all the small fish. However, within 3 or 4 months, all the big fish died. Why did this happen?
The small fish were eating the algae, but when the small fish were swallowed up by the big fish, there was no one to eat the algae, so the algae grew and multiplied and absorbed all the oxygen -- and hence there was no oxygen for the big fish. So, even the big fish died and thus no more fish in the lake. The point of this story is: that we need to pay attention to how we deal with nature, or else there can be serious consequences.
The gospel of Matthew has a similar parable -- of a land owner who rents out his vineyard to tenants to look after his vineyards. But the tenants are irresponsible. They use it for their own purposes. So when the servants of the landowner come to collect, there was no produce. The tenants beat up the servants, first one, then a second, then a third. Now here is the big question is: what is the land owner going to do? Should he punish these tenants or would we rather say that these tenants brought destruction upon themselves.
This parable applies to us. The earth in which we live is the vineyard. We are the tenants. God is the landowner. God has placed us on this earth to take care of it, cultivate it, look after it. But instead, we have polluted the air and increased the ozone levels, we have contaminated the rivers, the water and the oceans. We have mined the mountains, decimated the forests and cut down the trees. And as a result our health is now being affected.
When I was teaching there was a time when I suffered from respiratory problems. Every morning when I woke up, there would be phlegm in my throat and it would take me a whole half hour to clear my throat before I could speak clearly. So I went to the doctor. He told me “There is only one solution! You must leave the area and go somewhere else.” I told him “How can I? I work here; besides there is a whole bunch of others who have the same problem!” “Well,” said the doctor, “there is a chemical factory here which is spewing out poisonous gases and this is affecting your lungs!” So, it took us 12 years, numerous signatures and a long-drawn out court case before the chemical factory was forced to leave. However there is now scarred tissue in my lungs, which I have to live with for the rest of my life.
In Pahokee, we had something similar. A few years ago, the front page of the Palm Beach Post carried the picture of a small infant, Carlitos by name, who was born without arms and legs. His mother was a farm worker and her pregnancy was affected by the pesticides used by Agro Industries. As a result the baby was born with birth defects, without any limbs.
But all over the world, there is a rising incidence of cancer, an increase in respiratory diseases, a growth in Lyme Disease, e coli bacteria, dengue fever, and allergic reactions, and a whole host of illnesses of which we have not yet fathomed a cure.
What does all this mean for us? It means that ecological consciousness, nature, the environment must be an essential part of our spirituality. Put simply, if you want to be spiritual, you must have an ecological consciousness.
Formerly, we thought that if the world was destroyed, like in the Second World War, God would set all things right. We were naively optimistic! Then we lost our optimism. We became aware that with one single button being pressed, the atom bomb could annihilate the entire world.
Today the situation is far worse, Today this pressing of the button can be done slowly and gradually -- through the destruction of the environment -- without our even being conscious or aware that we are pressing the button.
Forgive the analogy, but if have ever cooked lobster you know that if you throw the lobster in boiling water, it will jump out. However if you lower the lobster in lukewarm water and slowly bring it to a boil…. It will allow itself to be cooked totally unaware of its death.
Does this fact -- that we are pressing the button on the slow and gradual destruction of our world -- does this fact have an impact on our spirituality ? Yes, I believe it does. Spirituality today cannot but be sensitive to the ecological crisis in our times, spirituality today cannot but be thought of in terms of an eco-spirituality.
WHAT IS AN ECO-SPIRITUALITY?
1. First of all, it implies an ENTIRE NEW UNDERSTANDING OF GOD. We normally think of God as the author of Life, but an eco-spirituality demands an understanding of God as LIFE itself, L-I-F-E as that which animates and vivifies all living things, plant, animal and human. God is the web of Life. This is not pantheistic (as some might think) but pan-en-theistic!!
The gospel of Luke has an intriguing passage where a man with a paralyzed hand comes to the temple on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11). The Pharisees are all waiting to see if Jesus is going to cure him or not. Jesus asks them: "Which is more important to promote life or to destroy it?" And when they cannot answer Jesus goes ahead and performs the miracle on the Sabbath.
The point that Jesus is making is that the Sabbath can be broken if a higher principle is involved. The higher principle here is the promotion of life. Jesus said: "I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly!"
Hence, an eco-spirituality will include WORKING for anything and everything that promotes a better and fuller life.
In his 2005 book Jared Diamond tells us that civilizations have collapsed because they failed to take care of the environment… and he cites the Chinese, the Roman, the Greek and the Mayan civilizations. An eco-spirituality that focuses on LIFE makes us very sad that that we in industrialized countries produce six times the amount of greenhouse gases that non industrialized countries produce.
2. Secondly, an eco-spirituality includes an understanding that we are part of nature; not above it, not exploiting it, but caring for it, being concerned for it. For several centuries we have interpreted Genesis 1:28 incorrectly. We humans were not created to subdue and dominate the earth; in fact the second story of Creation in Genesis tells us clearly that God created us to be stewards of the earth, taking care of it and cultivating it like trustees.
Jesus, constantly used symbols taken from nature. He spoke of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the ocean, the fig tree, the soil, the mustard seed, the corn in the fields, etc.
An eco-spirituality then would include meditation or prayer that encompasses a greater enjoyment of nature, such as watching a beautiful sunset, or a meditative walk in the woods, etc.
The realization that we are part of nature can be a very humbling experience. In his book, the 'Enchanted Darkness", Lancelot Pereira tells us that human history has been recorded on this planet only since the last 5,000 years. And this is only a fraction of the duration that human life has been in existence on this planet, which is about 40 or 50,000 years ago (the arrival of homo sapiens sapiens). And these 50,000 years are only a tiny fraction of the time life itself has existed on this planet, which is a couple of billion years. And this planet is only one among the millions of entities that make up the Milky Way and the Milky Way itself is only one of the million galaxies that populate our universe. So a little reflection that we are a fraction of the universe, a very tiny, tiny part of nature can be very revealing and very humbling..
More importantly, if we are part of nature and we need to collaborate with nature, we need to question the model we have of progress. What kind of development is this, which wants progress, growth, luxury and modernity at any cost -- or rather at the cost of nature, plant and human life, especially of peoples in other countries. We want cheaper goods, so we produce them in countries where environmental laws are less strict.
The problem is that once we destroy nature we have no way of repairing the damage. If I hurt you, I can ask you for forgiveness. But if I have wasted water, how do I ask the water for forgiveness? If I have polluted the air or destroyed the soil, how can I remedy that damage? If I have littered the streets with garbage, germs will be released and like a ripple effect go on spreading far and wide.
The movie 'Jurassic Park' has a very clear ethical message running through: that if you tamper with nature, if you manipulate life -- life and nature have their own way of getting back to you; there will be a boomerang effect that we human beings cannot control.
3. Thirdly, an eco-spirituality includes an understanding of our bodies... a sensitivity to sickness, a concern for our own health and the health of others...
Jesus took away illness whenever he saw it, whether it be the lame, the crippled, the blind, the deaf, those afflicted with leprosy, paralysis or the dropsy. An essential part of spirituality is compassion and this includes sensitivity to sickness, to pain, and to pollution. An eco-spirituality is not only conscious of recycling but aware at all times of one’s carbon foot print…
Eco Spiritualists sometimes speak of the world as God's body, but their only purpose in using such categories is to make us more concerned about our bodies, about our spiritual and mental health -- and not just ours but the spiritual and mental health of future generations.
I'd like to end with a short poem, written by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, one who was very much in tune with nature. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase his verses from the original Italian:
Be praised O Lord for brother wind and for the clean air.
By which you sustain all creatures from the ant to the bear
Be praised O Lord for our Mother Earth
Who sustains, nourishes and gently gives birth
To fruits and leaves and colorful flowers and seeds
Be Praised O Lord our Creator who cares for all our needs.
Text of sermon by John D’Mello Ph.D., Parochial Vicar, St. Patrick Catholic Church, N. Palm Beach, FL, delivered at 1stUUPB, Feb 2, 2014.