John McKinney – OCP News Service – 17/4/19
On Earth, as it is in Heaven: For the Orthodox Christian, every day is Earth Day. And Great Lent is a great time to re-connect with creation.
During our Lenten journey, we’ve been doing—or at least trying to do with God’s help—a bit of restoration work: on ourselves, and with each other. It’s a good time to consider adding a little more to our Lenten workload: the restoration of a right relationship with Creation.
I began to look at our relationship with Creation in a whole new light while hiking the trails around the Holy Mountain. Wildflowers, waterfalls, glorious sunsets—Mt. Athos is a place of remarkable natural beauty that moves pilgrims to tears.
It was on the Holy Mountain that I met Monk Makarios, who told me how the monks view nature and gave me a new—and then-unheard-of view—of the ecological crisis. It all began with Adam, whose fall and getting locked out from Paradise caused our estrangement from nature, explained the monk. The wealth God has given us, we have wasted in wantonness. The only way for us to again become good stewards of the environment is for each of us to repent for our own sins and, like the monks, take individual responsibility for our actions.
Too often our relationship with Creation is one of conflict, said the monk, and I certainly had to agree. Remember high school English or Freshman Comp in college and the instructor telling you that conflict was a vital part of good storytelling? We were taught that one of three conflicts must be present in a story: man vs. man; man vs. nature; man vs. himself. (Some modern textbooks are adding more conflicts, such as man vs. technology and man vs. extraterrestrials. Man vs. space aliens?!)
Let’s focus on the man vs. nature—or humans vs. Creation—conflict. And let’s start at the beginning. Of Creation, I mean, with Genesis 1-1: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”
Things turned out pretty well, and we are told in Genesis, 1:31: “When God saw everything that he had made, behold it was very good.” Unfortunately, the first couple didn’t realize how good it was, and we’ve had trouble appreciating and caring for Creation ever since.
Like scientists and a significant majority of the North American and European public, Orthodox Christian thought leaders view the crisis as “ecological crisis.” No doubt it is an ecological crisis. Unless we reverse the way we are using the earth’s resources and rapidly address climate change, humanity is in deep trouble.
Yet as Patriarch Bartholomew and other Christian environmental leaders view the crisis, it’s not first and foremost ecological. It’s a crisis in how we view the natural world. We are treating nature in a pitiless, godforsaken manner.
As Father John Chryssavgis, biographer of the Patriarch and a leading Orthodox thinker on the environment puts it: “Before we can effectively deal with the problems of the environment, we must change our world image, which means we must change our self-image. Otherwise, we are simply dealing with the symptoms of the ecological crisis, not with its causes.”
Our concern for the environment, therefore, needs to be more than a practical response. Yes, we must clean up the ocean and stop clear-cutting the rain forest and must hold corporate polluters and government officials responsible for their actions, but it’s also the time that each of us acknowledges our own individual part in the ecological crisis and each of us individually reconnects with Creation.
Church leaders point out that Orthodoxy offers three profound ways for us to connect with Creation—via icons, liturgy, and ascetic practice.
As Orthodox Christians are taught from an early age, icons are a window unto heaven, get us out of the here and now, and help reveal to us the world created and intended by God. Icons help us make the connection between earth and heaven. We need this connection!
What if we looked at the entire world as an icon? If we viewed the earth is an icon, it could be considered sacred—or at least a lot more sacred. Perhaps the strongest environmentalist of all is the Christian who recognizes the whole world as the dwelling place of Christ, suggests Fr. John Chryssavgis.
In the liturgy, we praise God for the fruits of the earth and ask for protection from fire and flood. We are in communion with God, with each other, and indeed with the earth, trying to make a connection here with this world, for the life of which God gave His Only Son.
We repeat: Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. Mercy for us as individuals, Mercy for the community of man, Mercy for all of Creation. Many of the Saints have called for mercy for Creation. St. Silvan the Athonite wrote: “The heart that has learned to love has pity for all Creation.” St. Isac the Syrian instructed us to adopt “a merciful heart which burns with love for all of God’s creatures.”
Asceticism offers a third way to connect with Creation. We participate in a modest amount of asceticism during Lent with our fasting. Fasting offers a connection between our body and the world. The ascetic way is about moderation and mastering self-control. It’s the ability to say “No thanks, I don’t need this,” or “I have quite enough, thank you, and don’t need more.” These are ascetic principles and environmental principles—good for ourselves, good for the planet.
Lent is also a time of repentance. As Patriarch Bartholomew expresses it: “Through repentance, two landscapes, one human, one natural, can be healed.”
Let the healing of our relationship with Creation continue—from Earth Day through Great Lent, and beyond—as we partake of the earth’s many blessings and step up our efforts at better stewardship.
Adapted from “A Lenten Dialogue: Orthodoxy and the Environment” presented 4/3/19 at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Santa Barbara, California.
John McKinney is the author of “Hiking the Holy Mountain: Tales of Monks and Miracles on the Trails of Mt. Athos, Greece,” available from Amazon.
OCP News Service – John McKinney