In “The Company of Charity Embraces the Community of Earth” Fr. Terrence J. Moran reflects on how the Vincentian family can respond with efficacious compassion to the news of the perilous decline of our home planet and its life systems. How might the traditional five virtues of Vincentian spirituality ring anew from the perspective of ecospirituality?
[Fr. Terrence J. Moran is the Director of the Office of Peace, Justice and Ecological Integrity of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, Convent Station, NJ.]
From the beginning, the charism of Charity has been characterized not so much by a spirituality or style of prayer but rather by efficacious response to human need. St. Vincent de Paul did not begin with theological reflection or writing a Rule. In August 1617, as he was preparing for Sunday mass, Vincent received word of an entire family in the parish of Châtillon reduced to destitution. His appeal for the family in his sermon drew a great response in food and supplies from the people. This experience let him to create structures to meet on-going needs– the first Confraternity of Charity, a collaborative effort between Vincent and women of the parish that would eventually give birth to a number of religious communities in the Company of Charity.
Perhaps you’ve read or seen the recent book by climate change activist Bill McKibben. Its title is Eaarth. McKibben intentionally adds the extra “a” to reinforce the central thesis of his book– Earth as we once knew it no longer exists. We now live on “eaarth” a planet whose life systems have been damaged beyond the point of no return by the activities of fossil fuel burning humans. There is no going back. Vincent responded with efficacious compassion to the news of the destitute of Châtillon. How does the Vincentian family respond with efficacious compassion to the news of the perilous decline of our home planet and its life systems? Most of us are not climate scientists, nor researchers into new sources of sustainable energy; what can we possibly do? What is the role of the Company of Charity in what Thomas Berry has famously called “the Great Work” of our time?
A few years ago cosmologist Brian Swimme gave the keynote address at the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International in Vancouver. Against a background of slides of swirling galaxies millions of light years wide, Swimme brought home a cosmological truth. He said that the prime crisis of our civilization is not scientific or technological. Scientific information on climate change is clear and widely accessible. The problem is that the information is not entering human consciousness. When the information reaches the human spirit it is blocked by one of the central stories of post-industrial civilization– that Earth is a thing that we use rather than a sacred community of life to which we belong. The most pressing task of our time is not invention of technologies but the transformation of consciousness. Relatively few of us are scientists or engineers– but we are experts in the sacred task of transformation of consciousness.
Vincent invited us to bring the poor out of invisibility, to see the poor not as an annoyance but as a presence of Jesus. Does he invite us now to see Earth not as a collection of objects that we own but rather a community of life to which we belong? In its long history, the members of the Vincentian family have issued countless invitations to transformation of consciousness– in regard to those made poor, the economic and cultural structures of society, the dignity and autonomy of women. How does this tradition encourage us to respond to the need for the one of the greatest transformations of consciousness in human history?
Many of the groups in the Vincentian family in recent years have made a commitment to probe the relationship between eco-spirituality and Vincentian-Setonian spirituality. Someone once compared religious truth to a Buddhist meditation bell. Just as the bell only releases the sound inside it when struck by a mallet, so a religious truth releases its deep meaning only when it is struck by the needs of the world. Our new evolutionary, ecological consciousness can strike the bell of our faith tradition and our charism and bring sounds out of them that we perhaps have never heard before.
The Trinity, a central doctrine of the Christian faith, seems to most believers to be a hopeless abstraction with little relevance to daily life. But how the symbol of the Trinity sings again when struck by the scientific truth that relationship is central to reality. All that exists shares a common origin and a common destiny with everything else that exists. Mutual relationship is at the very heart of the Holy Three and is mirrored in creation that is the overflow of the divine heart and an icon of the divine identity.
The American poet Emily Dickinson invites us to re-imagine the sign of the cross by praying, “In the name of the bee and of the butterfly and of the breeze. Amen.” Every time we make the sign of the cross we are proclaiming our relationship not only to the Triune God of our Christian faith, but in and through that profession of faith, to everything that exists from the smallest subatomic particle to the most massive distant galaxy. We are a universe of kin, held and sustained by a God who is a community of passionate and creative love.
What richness is added to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the God who takes flesh, when we realize that the hydrogen atoms in the body of Jesus of Nazareth were born in the first moments of the universe’s existence; that the other elements were birthed in the explosion of a star. The flesh-taking of God was in process from the first moments of creation!
Our sacramental tradition reminds us that God’s self is expressed and touched in the stuff of this Earth. Creation is not in competition with God but the principal way in which God is experienced. Abuse of creation is truly a sacrilege– the violation of a sacred thing. By our unsustainable life style we commit the gravest liturgical abuse imaginable– we compromise the cleanliness of water, the pureness of wheat, grapes, olives; we pollute the air from which we draw breath to praise God in word and song. Our actions to preserve creation are not merely trendy or politically correct, they are liturgical. Does it make any sense to bring solemnity to our acts of worship and not bring a sense of liturgical awe to our dealings with the whole of creation? Pope Benedict XVI, whom some have called the “green Pope,” made this same point in a Vespers homily in July 2009: “The liturgy [is not] something alongside the reality of the world, but the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.”
Eucharist is at the heart of Elizabeth Seton’s charism and it was primarily the Eucharist that drew her to the Catholic Church. She was shocked when she heard a British tourist in an Italian church mock the Eucharist and she reflected, “My very heart trembled with shame and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration. I thought secretly on the words of St. Paul with tears, ‘They discern not the Lord’s body!’” Imagine Elizabeth looking with tears at the destruction that human selfishness has brought to God’s creation. Do we discern God’s presence in God’s first word– creation?
How might the traditional five virtues of Vincentian spirituality ring anew from the perspective of ecospirituality?
Vincent called simplicity “my gospel.” For him simplicity was the focus of our intention on God alone. Simplicity invites us to have the largest perspective possible. Ecospirituality invites us to always consider the well being of the whole. As Thomas Berry challenges us, “All human activities, professions, programs, and institutions must henceforth be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship.” Simplicity calls us to see the universe as God sees it– one interdependent sacred community.
Humility means living in the truth. We humans have not lived in the truth of our place in the community of life. We are called to live in a way that recognizes we are not above creation or separate from it.
Vincentian meekness calls us to an attitude of deep respect and welcome of the other– not just the human other but all of creation. Each creature is a word of God, an irreplaceable icon of the divine beauty. The ants that ruin our picnic also aerate the soil under our feet and make agriculture possible. Even the ants invite contemplation.
Vincent saw mortification not as empty ascetical gestures but as the necessary dying to anything in ourselves that prevents us from generous service of the poor. How much of the life-style that we in developed countries consider “normal” is in reality bought on the back of the poor. Do we calculate the price that the poor pay, that Earth itself pays in our lifestyle choices?
“If love is the sun then zeal is its ray,” said Vincent. He very appropriately looked to the source of energy in our solar system as his image for zeal. Can the Company of Charity embrace the ecological crisis of our time with the same energy and creativity that Vincent brought to the relief of the poor in 17th century France?
Vincent called his five virtues “the five smooth stones by which we might conquer the evil Goliath,” Common Rules XII, 12. Perhaps they show the Company of Charity the way forward in facing our Goliath– climate crisis, loss of bio-diversity, contamination of natural resources.
Vincent said, “Let us love God, let us love God but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.” The following are some suggestions of how to translate eco-spirituality into eco-action.
- Make connections – Vincent de Paul was a genius at making connections among forms of oppression and the social and religious structures that supported them. Ecology is all about seeing the connections of interdependence that hold the cosmos together. And so when we head to Wal-Mart in order to save a few pennies, Vincent would ask us to make connections Why the disproportion between the salary of the CEO and the clerk at the check out? Why can’t the largest corporation in the world provide adequate health insurance to its employees? What is the environmental impact of huge buildings and mammoth parking lots?
- Live closer to the rhythms of nature– Vincent said that the love of a Daughter of Charity should be both tender and effective. We are moved to action only by what widens our heart with affection and compassion. Fall in love with your own backyard! Learn that spring is coming not from the weather person on TV but from seeing the tips of tree branches swelling with new life. Learn where your water comes from and where the food in your local supermarket is grown. Make friends with local organic farmers and support them. This also means reverencing the limits of our human nature as well and our need for rest, healthy meals, contemplative time– is there truth to the old joke that there are contemplative religious, active religious and, Sisters of Charity– hyper-active religious?
- Advocate: The coordinators of justice, peace and the integrity of creation of the Congregations in the Sisters of Charity Federation are currently discussing ways in which we can use our corporate voice to draw attention to climate change and its effects on the lives of the poor. The first to suffer are poor women and children the traditional focus of the ministries of the Company of Charity. Can each of us thing of a way to bring the issue to the table of the various groups to which we belong– in our parishes, with our families and friends, with our governments? Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Include the well being of Earth frequently among the intercessions at Mass. Do an earth audit of your house, ministry, parish– what are concrete steps that you can take to live and work more sustainably…and probably save money in the process?
Among the many consciousness changing tools available, the following are particularly powerful:
- Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium.
This is a powerful and engaging seminar consisting of videos, group exercises and discussions which gathers people around three goals: to bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on this planet. www.awakeningthedreamer.org
- The “Transition Community” Movement.
This social movement is founded on the idea that climate change can be addressed not just at the national and international levels but also by local communities. Its primary focus is not campaigning against things, but rather on creating positive, empowering possibilities and opportunities. www.transitionnetwork.org
- Perhaps the most valuable tool for a change of consciousness is a prayerful and reflective study of Pope Francis’s extraordinary encyclical Laudato Si’. A particular strength of the encyclical is the link Pope Francis makes between ecological degradation and those made poor. The Company of Charity cannot help but find in Laudato Si’ profound insights into its deep story and compelling motives to actions. The Charity of Christ, incarnate in Earth, compels us!
Fr. Terrence J. Moran is the Director of the Office of Peace, Justice and Ecological Integrity of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, Convent Station, NJ.