by Prioress Sister Mary Forman, OSB
Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’ reminds us that while humans are made in the image of God, every creature serves God’s purpose and the whole of the universe speaks of God’s love. The Pope goes on to say that certain places carry the meaning of our relationship with God, such that going back to them in our memory “is a chance to recover something of their true selves.” Thus, in exploring “the sacredness of the world, [we] explore [our] own.”*
Growing up in Boise, Idaho, it was possible from my home on the bench to see the Boise foothills and the Owyhees; the sight of them reminded me of the opening verses of Psalm 121: “I look to the mountains, from whence comes my help; my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Even to this day, when sitting outside the monastery eating my breakfast, I can look on the Gospel mountains and the same verse comes to mind; it is a deep reminder of the God who made the mountains and all that lives there and is the source of my help, awe and wonder. When travelling back to Idaho from Minnesota, where I was teaching for many years, as soon as the car was climbing the mountains of Montana across Lolo Pass into Idaho and I could smell the fresh air and the scent of the pines, I knew that I was home.
How different was the experience for my mother, who came from the East coast and for whom the sound of the Atlantic waves was a reminder of home and the awesomeness of an unfathomable God, who was as faithful as the sea’s vast presence.
A friend of mine, who grew up on the flat prairies of North Dakota once stated that the very vastness of the plains, with its waving grasses and sounds of crickets and meadowlarks brought her a sense of home, the God who cared for each little creature and provided the grain and seeds for a wide variety of prairie grasses. The sighting of the first prairie crocus was a sign of Christ’s resurrection for her; the seemingly overlooked silver casing, bursting open with its delicate purple flower turning its face to the sun, spoke to her of the hope of new life.
While it is inspiring to draw into ourselves a sense of the divine from our reflection and experience of the earth, its creatures and beauties, eco-theologian Thomas Berry reminds Christians in particular that we too quickly move from “the merely physical order of things to the divine presence in things,” when he writes: “Even our sense of divine immanence tends to draw us away from the sacred dimension of the earth in itself. This is not exactly the divine presence…it is also important that we develop a sense of the reality and nobility of the natural world in itself…The natural world is not simply object, not simply a usable thing, … to be manipulated by the divine or exploited by the human…The natural world is the maternal source of our being as earthlings and the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral and religious existence. The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong…To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.”**
It may well be that during this summer of record fires in the West, record flooding in the gulf states and record temperatures in the East of this country, to say nothing of the global elevation of seas, the diminishment of glaciers and the loss of islands to its creatures and peoples, that the earth is crying out for mercy from its global inhabitants. So, while I look to the mountains for help, I have to look to my own complicity in the global ecological crisis that is erupting all over our earth home. I begin my examination of consciousness with a litany of cries for mercy:
For the beauty of the earth marred and scarred by fires, Lord, have mercy.
For the power of the sea engulfing the homes of the poor, Lord, have mercy.
For the sun, whose glory shines too brightly through ozone-robbed skies, Lord, have mercy.
For the indigenous peoples of Nuatambu, who have lost their homes to the rising seas, Lord, have mercy.
For all the species endangered by encroaching habitat and hunts, Lord, have mercy.
For all the mountains that have been strip-mined, Lord, have mercy.
For all the peoples forced into slave labor to put food on our tables, Lord, have mercy.
For all ecologists, artists and musicians, who remind us that we all are a community of species, Lord, have mercy.
For all lovers of the earth to rise up in mutual care for our planet, Lord, have mercy.
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* Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: Encyclical Letter On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015/Washington, DC: USCCB, 2015), §84, p. 41.
** Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Book Clubs, 1988) 81.