If Catholics think we corner the market on fulfillment and welcome as we watch Pope Francis in his historic visit to the United States, we are mistaken. Even the American politicos who cluster to hear him — and hope for a photo op — when he speaks to Congress, visits the White House and mingles with the faithful in the nation’s capitol aren’t the most dedicated audience. Especially the climate change denying legislators, but let’s not go there. Neither are the international leaders whom he will address at the United Nations in New York at the top of the fan list.
It’s people who identify as ecologists, environmentalists, conservationists, anyone who embraces the “malama the aina” concept in whatever language, who are the most avid aficionados of this modern-day prophet for his message about the stewardship of our planet.
Be they scholars, teachers, hikers and tree-huggers, these are the folks most likely to have actually read the Pope’s encyclical letter charging humans to be responsible for all creation and stop messing it up.
That was “Laudato Si’,” better known in English as “Praised Be: On the Care of Our Common Home.” It came out in June so you’ve read it by now, right? And you’ve heard it proclaimed from pulpit in your parish church, too, huh? Well, never mind, there’s no immediate quiz on it coming up, but sooner or later, we will be tested. There’s lots of crib sheets online: check Catholic.com.
Dozens of events were planned to link the timing of the pope’s visit with demonstrations, prayers and downright lobbying for environmental actions. This was the “Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice” in the nation’s Capitol with everything from a multi-faith, all-night vigil at the Lincoln Memorial hosted by the Franciscan Action Network, to a musical rally on the National Mall, an interfaith leaders gathering of speeches, etc. at the National Cathedral, the Episcopal Church headquarters.
There’s an interfaith “Light the Way” festival and vigil outside the U.N. headquarters in New York. And gatherings galore across the country, prayers at a Baptist church in Denver, a vigil at a United Church of Christ in Oakland, a candlelight vigil in a Madison, Wis., city park and at the Rhode Island state capitol lawn, many of them sponsored by a nationwide environmental activist group called Interfaith Power and Light.
Of course, scads of Catholic communities across the states have events planned, too. If there is anything at all on at Hawaii churches or other local venues, perhaps there was mention elsewhere in the media so that all alert and aware Catholics concerned about our treatment of God’s creation can get in step. Hard, though, yah? What with the hot weather and the comfortable couch to watch from afar.
The communion of beings
Meanwhile, apart from the papal hoopla of this week, a class of University of Hawaii at Manoa students gathers every week to study and discuss a subject elementary to Pope Francis’ vision of Mother Earth. Anthropology professor emeritus Leslie Sponsel has taught the class on “Spiritual Ecology” since 2003. It’s a topic broader than any particular religious belief; anthropology being the “scientific study of the origin, behavior and the physical, cultural and social development of humans.”
The idea of spiritual ecology “emphasizes the unity, interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings and things, as does Buddhism, as well as western science of biological ecology,” wrote Sponsel in an article in the current journal of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. “Spiritual ecology is predicated on the spiritual, moral and intrinsic values of nature. It advocates and facilitates respect, affection and reverence for nature with caring stewardship and benevolent coexistence.”
Sponsel said the idea of interconnectedness of all creation is a basic tenet of his Buddhist belief. It’s also a common element in most belief systems, be it the ancient people, who found spirituality in trees or mountains or specific critters, or Jewish, Christian and Muslim who have a more complex story of God creating all things. The professor taps Catholic theologians in his class. One is the late Catholic theologian Thomas Berry of Fordham University, a pioneer in spiritual ecology, who wrote: “The universe is a communion of beings, not a collection of objects.”
Sponsel, author of “Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution,” is one of several international scholars who lecture, write and advocate about the subject. His book, published in 2012 by Praeger publishing house, is still available from Amazon and as an e-book. Alas, if only there were a paperback edition, it might find a wider audience in the wake of Pope Francis’ forays into the field of spiritual ecology. The book includes essays from the thoughts of different ecology minded folks, from the famous conservationist John Muir to poet laureate M.S. Merwin, now of Maui.
Radical then, radical now
Sponsel devoted a chapter of his book to St. Francis of Assisi, and his class includes a powerpoint session on the medieval monk who died in 1226. “I have been fascinated with St. Francis for decades,” said the professor. “For medieval Europe, he was radical, and remains so to this day. For Catholics, Francis is the original spiritual ecologist.” Sponsel said the saint, known to us as the founder of the Franciscan order and author of the “Canticle of the Sun,” which we hear in church in hymn and prayer, is “widely recognized and appreciated beyond Catholicism” and was included in the book “Fifty Key Thinkers on the Environment.” Pope John Paul II named Francis of Assisi the patron saint of ecology in 1979.
Sponsel’s students are taking a longer view of mankind’s finding spiritual elements in viewing the natural world, but this is a class with a sense of urgency about the present, and the sorry state of the planet. You don’t just come away with “what must I know,” there’s a sense of “what must I do.”
If a student raises to that awareness and leaves with a sense of activism, it’s clearly a reflection of the teacher. Sponsel is absolutely passionate about the need for nations and people down to the grass roots to get it and do something about climate change. He was hoping and cheering for the pope to tackle that uncomfortable topic in his Washington and United Nations speeches.
“A lot of people in the United States are deniers of climate change. They attempt to discount what the pope says, bring out the label socialist. That’s so selfish, so short-sighted. Climate change will not only impact our grandchildren, but generations to come. It will take millennia to reverse,” Sponsel said.
By the way, if those skeptics say the pope should stick to the Bible, Sponsel suggests an online search for “Green Bible,” which “highlights at least 1,000 Bible passages that are about ecology, nature friendly, stewardship of the earth.”
Where do you start?
Where to start to practice spiritual ecology, step in the big footprints of Francis and Francis?
“Start by turning off the lights if you’re not using them,” said the professor. He’s also displeased that turning off the air-conditioning when the breezes are blowing is not even an option where the windows are sealed shut. “To me, if you want to talk about a sin, we should talk about the big SUVs, the fuel they consume, the pollution.”
“In Hawaii, we could reduce the impact on the planet, one by one. Isn’t that the Catholic belief, that salvation is an individual thing?”
“People tend to think action must be from the top down. But it also has to come from the bottom up,” said Sponsel.
The annual observance of St. Francis of Assisi’s liturgical feast day on Oct. 3 is coming soon. It’s traditionally celebrated in a feel good ceremony of bringing pets to be blessed at church — more often in Protestant than Catholic churches.
Maybe this would be a good year to follow in the wake of our environmentalist pope and his sainted namesake with something more, well, spiritually ecological.
Off with the lights, or better yet the all-day television. Open a window. Plant a tree. Sit in the shade of one to contemplate nature. Oops, but don’t do that in a public park unless you’re relatively well-dressed or you may be arrested.
Say a prayer for poor old Mother Earth as she suffers her pains and hot flashes.