If we can talk about life expectancy for us humans, I think it is also applicable to mother earth. If we ask what is her life expectancy now? In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis gives a clue. He says we do not have much time. A fellow Jesuit pushed it some more without apology, and said “Earth is dying…” I would like to take the theme of ecological conversion which is not aimed at changing the world.
Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change” (Laudato Si’ 202). There is still time, no matter how short, to have a change of heart—ecological metanoia. In Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, there’s an entire intelligence type called naturalist intelligence. Ecological conversion could come as a result of this intelligence type which requires using our mind in a new way. A musically gifted person appreciates music in a whole new way compared to others who may not be as gifted. This is the same with a person who is strong in naturalistic intelligence. He or she looks, feels and thinks about the world in a different way.
How do I know if I have the gift of ecological conversion? There are two ways. The first comes from the American novelist Wendell Berry who says “What we do not love, we will not save.” In the same vein Jean Dorst, a French ornithologist, writes in his book Before Nature Dies published in 1971, I quote, “Man has enough objective reasons to safeguard nature. But in the last analysis it will only be saved by our hearts. It will only be saved if man loves it, simply because it is beautiful…” (Dorst 1971, p 329). Fall in love with someone and surely you will treasure that person over the others. Why is there beauty? Because it is the beautiful that captures, captivates and evokes love. The natural beauty of our world is there basically to call our attention. The moment we start noticing the beauty of the earth, we start loving it, and we start protecting it. But along the way there are inevitable trade-offs.
I never imagined before my life without softdrinks. I thought it was impossible, I did not just drink soda but I loved it to the point of abusing my own body. When I saw back in 2016 how it was taking a toll on my health and the life around me I decided to just stop drinking softdrinks. Someone asked “Will that make a dent in this world?” My answer, “It does not, but it does make a dent within me.”
How do I know if I have the gift of ecological conversion? If you have learned to love nature without being commanded to love. Love is not a matter of obedience or duty. It cannot be commanded by a simple act of will. Love is an emotion that grows up inside us like a plant that grows. When our first parents took their time to learn about each plant and animal they found in the garden their love for all of creation grew spontaneously. It is said love is a good investment. The more you give, the more you get.
But there are also bad investments, e.g., the cost of ecological conversion to happen is very steep. If it took a burning bush to get Moses’s attention, what do you think will God need to do just to get our attention? If I would see a burning bush, I would do what it tells, wouldn’t I? My family who are living at the Western coast in the US told me about how whole forests continue to burn at a rate of one football field per second. We do not feel it here nor do we hear people talk about it. In every investment whether good or bad, we expect at least to get some return, right? We hope and pray that there will be at least one Moses in that part of the world and in our’s here who would hearken to the cry of our dying earth.
I recall one Moses-like experience when I was a newly-ordained assigned in a rural parish in Bukidnon. I was amazed by this chemical that they call glyphosate aka Roundup herbicide. The use of this herbicide is genocide. If humans are like pests and you would like them exterminated, that is genocide. But I believe genocide is not limited to violence affecting humans only. If everything is interconnected starting from humans down to the microscopic organisms, any violence done is genocide. You know, it was hard to believe that right after we sprayed the convent backyard with the deadly herbicide all the weeds just effortlessly disappeared. But when I realized that what we did was like putting poison into the soil and the underground water, I felt so guilty and so horrified. I told myself never again, although, the price has already been paid.
I have another confession to make, I killed at least five fully grown trees when we built our new parish church. We needed to perform a ritual together with the datus or the tribal leaders to ask for forgiveness from Sister Earth and from Magbabaya, Divine Creator. Ecological conversion is absurdly costly. At whose expense, sister earth’s and all of creation’s.
How else can I know if I have the gift of ecological conversion? I come to the second criterion that tells us whether or not we already have ecological conversion. When you see any violence done to the environment you will not find peace. It will be brutally piercing like a sword. Your heart will not just ache, you will be disturbed while you stare at the summary destruction of what you have grown to love. If there is no metanoia, we will not feel anything. I remember the feeling of disgust as it was realistically portrayed in the “Avatar” film. It is a revolting feeling. When you see a precious art work being vandalized you will not be able to sleep. You will go out and demonstrate your revolt. Why so because you have become a part of that natural beauty which you have grown to love and revere. This is when contemplation can be the most powerful tool in cultivating ecological conversion. Recognizing, seeing and loving the beautiful is done only through contemplation.
Frederick Sigfred Franck (1909-2006)—a painter, sculptor, and author of more than 30 books on Buddhism—writes about the essence of “seeing” in his book Art As a Way. I quote: “To Forget ego,” Dogen said, “is to be illuminated by all things.” This thirteenth-century Zen sage also speaks of “putting the whole of your mind-body into the act of seeing” in which subject and object have fused, so that in tree, in jay, in bush and human body I see/draw that Self that is not my private monopoly, but which on the contrary I share fully with that which I am drawing. My eye becomes the mirror in which all is reflected. I am no longer “looking”… I see! I am no longer the observer, the onlooker, am no longer that Me confronting an It, I have become that which I see (Art As a Way: A Return to the Spiritual Roots, Crossroad Publishing Company, 1981, p 93).
It is often said that we become what we contemplate. If this is the case then the way of contemplation is the way of being and this is quite a powerful and limitless capacity accorded to humans. But in contemplation we must forget ego and try to see and embrace the other without being oppressive or exploitative but just be—that blessing like a flower. Pope Francis also said, “Those who contemplate in this way experience wonder not only at what they see, but also because they feel they are an integral part of this beauty; and they also feel called to guard it and to protect it” (Healing The World Series: Pope Francis’s General Audience, September 16, 2020).
For my third and last point, let us ask ourselves, “If there is no ecological conversion in me yet, what can I do?” First we must understand it is a gift, a grace. As what St Ignatius of Loyola always recommends, what we can do is to beg. Just ask ardently. When you beg for something, beg it like you are begging for God’s presence as such. Both the Giver and the gift are never separate. That is the reason why whenever we contemplate creation we contemplate the Giver who is constantly present. An imbalance in our spiritual life occurs whenever we forget God. Our spiritual life gets a fever too when we lose the balance.
In ecology the term for equilibrium is homeostasis. The root word in Greek “ὁμοίωσις” (homoiōsis) means “likeness,” “mirror-image.” Finding the balance in nature is finding God’s likeness. Therefore if you want to find God, just open your eyes for God is everywhere. And at each stage of human history God has been feeling the brunt of all the scandals humans have done against each other and against creation. God is in each part of creation like water, soil and air and so God feels and sees everything that happens to these elements like a blind earthworm. We can hear the cry of mother earth and the cry of the poor to be the genuine cry of God.
I learned when I was in Bukidnon one advantage of the El Niño. How can one find God in El Niño? It is one form of a cry of mother earth and the cry of God. It tells us that the soil needs to rest. It needs to sleep after a couple of harvest seasons and must enter into a period of dormancy for it to be productive again when the rain comes. It seems like nature too has to go through a period of fasting and abstinence. When nature goes through its own lean months without rain, it does it with the purpose of restoring the homeostasis. The changing seasons are God’s constant communication with us.
During this Season of Creation let us feel the texture of the soil and the movement of the passing wind. How does the soil feel in your hand? Sandy or soggy? Parched or drenched? How does the air feel? Torrid or humid? Frigid or mild? What do they say they need at this point? Let us contemplate our Creator whose face is found all around us. Let us hear God begging us to help in the on-going creation. If ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Jesus then ignorance of creation is ignorance of the Creator. Amen