Awakening Your Heart to Ecology

By Fr. Stephen Mitten, SJ

I have a confession to make.   

I was one of the wayfarers on the province’s pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Peru; Catholic, Jesuit, Inca, and Natural. We Midwest Jesuit pilgrims were not alone! Standing on an outcrop overlooking the Sacred Inca Ruin Macchu Picchu, rubbing elbows from folks from around the world made that perfectly clear. If one Googles “PILGRIMAGE to PERU,” you find a plethora of websites dedicated to such trips such as “Awakening the Cosmic Universal Heart,” “Re-Awaken Your Spirit,” and many other tours that attempt to unravel the sacred mysteries of life. While our little group’s travel agenda and motives may have been a bit different we nevertheless desired an awakening heart as we toured the sacred works of present and past Catholic and Jesuit apostolic ministries in Lima and then on to past and present ministries along the Andean Baroque Route including the church of San Pedro de Andahuaylillas, often called the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas.” All of us marveled at the wonders of past Inca glories in the Andean city of Cuzco where the foundations of many of the current buildings once formed part of the earlier Inca city upon which Cuzco was built, and then on through the Sacred Valley, to Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Aguas Calientes, and then to Machu Picchu. All my companions were deeply inspired by the majestic Andes mountains and the spectacular nature of Peru. Me too … but I really had hoped to behold an Andean condor … but no such luck; nevertheless, I was not totally disappointed, as I witnessed the mountain caracara fly above the peaks of Machu Picchu.   

And here is my confession; throughout the trip, I had one eye out at all times for birds!  But then that is my profession. Brian Kimberling asserts in an April 19, 2013, New York Times Sunday Review that “auspice” and “augury” share a Latin origin with “avian,” thus an augur was a priest in ancient Rome who studied birds to determine the will of the gods (Cicero was one). “The ancient wisdom of fretting obsessively over bird behavior has obtained the vindication of modern science. Hawks and eagles do not appear by accident. When, where, and whether they appear is, absolutely, a portent. The spotted owl is a bioindicator, a species that can be used to monitor the condition of an ecosystem. In other words, bioindicator is just modern parlance for omen.” Indeed, I was, to say the least, thrilled to add 55 new bird species to my life “seen” list. And what are today’s birds telling us? Well, I am afraid, the same omen as the canaries in the coal mines of yore.  

Two readings readily came to my mind throughout the Peru trip. The first was Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In it she reminds us that a "pilgrim" strives to behold the sacred, which she devotes herself to finding either by "stalking" or "seeing." The second was Pope Francis’ encyclical of 2015, Laudato si' (“May You Be Praised”). Both speak of observation as an essential skill and practice to any spiritual discipline (and to many of the disciplines of science as well).   

Annie Dillard wrote “When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone-else to find. I was greatly excited, ….at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe…. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broad­side from a generous hand. But–and this is the point­–who gets excited by a mere penny…But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.” 

Jesuit Frs. Kevin Flaherty (left) and Stephen Mitten pause for a photo at the Sacred Inca Ruin Macchu Picchu.
Jesuit Frs. Kevin Flaherty (left) and Stephen Mitten pause for a photo while visiting the Sacred Inca Ruin Macchu Picchu. Fr. Mitten teaches at Loyola University, Chicago. Fr. Flaherty, has served in Peru for more than 25 years 

Peru had pennies aplenty. One just had to look. For me, God’s creative act of love is best seen in the Eucharist but is also equally found in the myriads of life forms of hope. "If you want to see birds, you must have birds in your heart," John Burroughs said.  If you want to see God, you have to have God in your heart for the roots of the eye lie deep in the heart. Dillard’s statement speaks to the fact that an authentic spirituality is fostered on poverty, humility, and gratitude. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si' echoes that same sentiment. The encyclical, in a nutshell, is a call to re-awakening the cosmic heart in all of us. The Holy Father reminds us that we are all kin to each critter on earth.  

This in and of itself is not all that shocking; mystics of most religious traditions along with scientists have said as much. Ecologists define biodiversity as the variety of life in all its forms. They have shown us that the greater the diversity in an ecosystem/community, the healthier that community is. Modern theories of ecology conceive life not as branches on a tree but as an interconnected “mesh,” where humans and nonhumans are invariably “enmeshed.” Many of the early naturalist/biologists and explorers of the 18th century, while primarily motivated by economic and political gain, did so in no small part by their calling to serve God. They believed that by finding and cataloging the diversity of life, the mystery of creation would be revealed along with the creator. Each created being in its own way reflects and images its creator. Each creature was created through the Word that is present to God from the beginning (John 1:3). To know God’s creation is, in some manner, to know more intimately the creator.   

St. Francis Assisi’s care for creation is legend. In his Canticle of Creatures, he reminds us that we are all related to all living things and to even the abiotic factors like the sun, moon, earth, wind, water, and fire. Everything is to be our brother and sister, even sister death. Both Bonaventure and John Dun Scotus, spiritual sons of Francis, taught that nature is the mirror of the Divine. John Dun Scotus, went even further proclaiming that every sliver of matter comprises the very essence of God. In the Bible, creation is God’s act of love and “the God who created the universe is the same God who liberates and saves.” All things come from the same source, is gift, and is the manifestation of God’s love.  

"When we speak of the ‘environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it.” says Pope Francis. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (Pope Francis, LS, n. 139). “If everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions affects the environment and the quality of human life. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment.”  Saint John Paul II said similar remarks, “Christians in their turn “realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.”  Pope Francis continues, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (No. 139). 

Ignatius too came to an insightful realization that God was present and active in all of creation, including within his own soul. As Pope Francis says in the encyclical, “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things." It is our duty to return this love as praise of our creator. Thus, our lives are a reflection of three critical and closely intertwined relationships: our relationship with God, with our neighbor, and with the Earth itself. Authentic praise is treating our neighbor and the earth and all its inhabitants with respect and love.  

Peru has pennies aplenty for Peru is rich in biodiversity. The richest and most diverse region on Earth, the Tropical Andes region contains about a sixth of all plant life in less than one percent of the world’s land area. One of the more unique plant species is an Andean bromeliad that requires 100 years to mature. This region also maintains the largest variety of amphibians in the world, with 664 species. Such a diversity in life reveals manifestations of God. Biodiversity is indeed a reflection of the maker and has to be enormous in numbers to manifest God. A decline in diversity leads to a failure in our understanding of God. 

Yet, as the pope states, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever.”  Many of the Earth’s birds, reptiles, turtles, amphibians, mammals, insects, and plants; ecologists warn, will be gone by the turn of the century if we do not stop and smell the roses.  

Most of the world’s biodiversity persists in some of the world’s poorest countries where conservation is not a top priority. In addition to the call to care for creation, environmental issues are tied to our duty to be in solidarity with the poor. The heart of what the encyclical proposes is an integral ecology; an ecology “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.” Jesus states that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor. We love neither if we are without love for the earth.  

Pope Francis’s encyclical lays out an authentic eco-spirituality. Eco is a Greek prefix that connotes "home."  The pope sees the Earth as our common home, a place of relationship in which the reign of God is the experience of "kinship" and where we are in communal relationship with all of creation. 

The pope knows that the major causes of the environmental problems of pollution, ecosystem denigration, and biodiversity loss lie in the human heart: the pathologies of apathy, arrogance, greed, and selfishness. A true spirituality, an eco-spirituality knows there will be no healing of the Earth unless there is a healing and conversion of hearts. Awaken your hearts, says the pope to the presence of God immanent within the flowers, trees, and animals. But "we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well — for we will not fight to save what we do not love," affirms Stephen Jay Gould. In the long run, it is wonder and enjoyment that become the ingredients for any relationship with nature. Pope Francis longs to open our eyes to the wonders of creation and exhorts us to love and cherish it by going out into it. 

How does one “care for our common home?” I for one suggest that you take a pilgrimage … maybe even if it is to your local park or own backyard and enjoy God's gifts and let what you find show you another facet of God. And then, plant native plants for native pollinators, feed the birds, and invest time in organizations that work to secure habitats for future generations of your grandchildren.   

Return to the Jesuits Magazine Fall/Winter 2018 Magazine Index

Reconciliation and Resilience
Astonished by God
Gathering Around the Table
Traveling on God's Path
Let's Build a House
"The Father"


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