Urgent Reclaiming

Heard of the Season of Creation? Well, yes it is harvest time right now, and several of my parishioners are spending Sunday mornings worshiping God on the combine. But matching this glorious abundance of the fruits of the earth is a call from the churches (nine this year) to focus our worship specifically on the created world. This new liturgical season, inserted into Ordinary Time, began on September 1, the World Day of Prayer for Creation, and goes until October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. During this time our prayers, hymns, Scripture readings and preaching are to assist the faithful to reflect on the gift of creation, the perilous state of our natural world today, climate change and the urgent call to a radical shift in lifestyle and economic priorities for the sheer survival of the planet and all living things.

In a way it seems odd that creation needs a special season to get our attention. For the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that tender and loving stewardship of all living things on earth is our duty and our purpose. But we have been so enamoured with modern living, consumerism and materialism that the intimate bond with creation is in dire need of serious repairs. Even scientists are beginning to acknowledge that the environmental problem is much bigger than they can address from their vantage point: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (Gus Speth, environmental scientist and advocate)

We have so betrayed God’s original Biblical command to care for the earth, that those seeking a spiritual connection to the land and ecological living now often turn to non-Christian sources of inspiration and support. Last winter a radio program featured an Anglican priest who embraces certain aspects of pagan spirituality in an attempt to restore the Biblical imperative to commune with nature. The interview caused a stir among well-meaning Christians, who seemed completely unaware that this priest might be motivated by a deep desire to bridge the divide between Christianity and ecologically-minded adherents of pre-Christian and non-Christian religions.

Incredibly sad and even dangerous, that too many of us fail to reflect in our daily living a deep and reverent connection with and responsibility towards the created order. Anyone delving into our Christian heritage will discover that there are many connecting points between the demands of Christian stewardship of creation and pre- and non-Christian paths which emphasize the same.  Spiritual paths that place care for creation front and center need not be mutually exclusive. The problem with Christianity is a massive neglect and collective amnesia on such matters, matters which now push us to take note for the sake of the planet’s sheer survival. For example, many elements found in neo-paganism are/were at one time part of the Christian understanding of the universe/creation but have been buried, neglected and forgotten. The book Saving Paradise provides a fascinating, and sad, account of how we lost touch with the beauty and splendour of God’s creation.

Written into creation and the created order is the challenge to live respectfully together on this planet, and to care for our common home. God has given us this challenge. Scripture tells us that when God created the natural world, he saw that it was good (Genesis 1:25). It has long been a fundamental teaching of  Christianity that the physical universe plays an important role in God’s plan. Our faith in spiritual things does not mean a rejection or devaluation of material realities. Christ came to raise up humanity, and all of creation with it, to the Father. As human beings created in God’s image, we have a unique responsibility to safeguard the created world and to treat it with respect. This fact lies at the centre of our obligation to lovingly tend and treasure both creation and each other. Unique among the creatures of our planet, we are created to be, and to love, like God. We manifest this love towards our fellow human beings and towards every creature God has made.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si – On Care for Our Common HomeWe forget too easily that we ourselves are dust of the earth, our very bodies are made of the same elements as all living beings. We breathe the same air and we receive life, refreshment and nourishment from the Earth’s waters and vegetation. 

What will it take to reclaim these elements pertaining to the stewardship of God’s world in our own Christian tradition? Besides a growing, albeit slow, awareness that we do need to turn the Titanic of unbridled consumerism around, leading theologians and church leaders are increasingly joining the calls from scientists and environmentalists. Quantum theology and a new cosmology are being explored by scholars such as Diarmuid O’Murchu and Illia Delio. Theologians are taking a new look at the works of Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, who was also a biologist and paleontologist, and whose insights the church and world were not ready for in his lifetime. But we can go back even further than that, to beloved saints such as Francis of Assissi and Hildegard of Bingen? What can we learn from them as we hold them up to the neo-pagan understandings of creation?

I see a most fertile field of research and reflection here. Is it possible, for example, to communicate neo-pagan concepts using such Christian voices? Would such an exercise create more openness and understanding between Christian spirituality, neo–pagan practices, and other non-Christian paths that foster an intimate bond with the created world ? For the sake of the planet’s health and survival, for the sake of Christianity’s integrity and authority, this seems to me to be a most pressing task.

Our collective ignorance of our own Christian theology, history and spirituality is now rapidly creating a noose around our fragile planet, ready to choke life itself. Our great and loving God has written a most precious book called Creation. From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe, continuously revealing the hand of Divine origin. To sense each creature singing the hymn of its own existence freely and without concern is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope, towards God’s purpose and meaning.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, we are people of the Incarnation  – do we really realize the consequences of this statement of faith as it relates to the entire animated world/creation? When it comes to lovingly stewarding the created order, the command of our Lord to serve and care and restore and heal applies equally to creation. Genesis One and Two together provide the spiritual foundation to do so. The care of creation, our common home, is to be intimately near and dear to our faith. Our worship and work and witness will be incomplete until our responsibility to care and cherish, to restore and conserve the glorious, God-given diversity of the earth’s creatures becomes second nature.

Bishop Mark MacDonald wrote a poignant reflection on this urgency.

A new concept of “Wild Church” is developing

A lovely account of an event in Saskatoon

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TOB and Ordination II

Back in September 2015, I was one of three Canadian women presenting at the International Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia on the question:
Theology of the Body – Friend or Foe of the Ordination Question?
This is Part II of four — Part I can be found here.

Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. This is clearly the message JP II transmits through his Theology of the Body. While completely unintentional on the part Pope John Paul II, it is our conviction that in this firm claim by the Holy Father lay the beginning of a reversal of church teaching on the ordination of women.

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. It is fascinating to think that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time those who are pregnant grow another human being. The new life generated by sexual intercourse is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.  When she said yes, Mary became first in offering the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, Mary, and every woman with her, can grasp a bit of the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life —a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own son Jesus. I wonder if we have really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological “transubstantiation” called pregnancy, whether we have personally experienced it or not.

Herein may lay a promise and potential of powerful witness through the ordination of a woman because of her gender. A woman priest, simply by being female, subverts the outdated and prejudicial associations of male-only priesthood. Women carry powerful symbolic associations with bodiliness and earthliness which are crying out to be reclaimed for the sake of the fullness of God and now also for the sake of the healing of “Our Common Home: the Earth.

After opening his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si with quotes from The Canticle of St. Francis, Pope Francis then immediately states:  This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf.Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

It is a chilling exercise to substitute the word “women” wherever Pope Francis refers to the earth. Chilling indeed to apply his words to the many and varied ways women and female ways of knowing and living have been “used and abused of the goods with which God has endowed us.”

A priesthood of different genders can affirm sexual difference (in positive and negative ways): women and men are equal but not the same, much in the same way as the TOB claims. Each brings different qualities and values attributed to God, embodied and symbolized in both male and female. There are several strengths in a priesthood of both women and men:

* An increased capacity to bring to Christian life and worship all the gendered ways  of being and symbolic meanings of the divine as reflected in both male and female;

* A restoring of the fullness of the principle of sacramentality which has to include male and female embodiment;

* A fuller expression of the meaning of the Incarnation, i.e. the Word becoming flesh in Christ Jesus.

* A fuller manifestation of the very Theology of the Body as articulated by St. John Paul II, in the fact that a priesthood of both sexes is a more honest reflection of the TOB claim that both women and men are first and foremost a human body in their fullest and most fundamental sense which is then subsequently expressed in male and female.

From cover to cover, the Theology of the Body is focused on human beings, male and female, as images of God that fully share one and the same human nature as “body-persons.” John Paul’s entire treatise is devoted to showing that Trinitarian communion becomes more clearly visible when man and woman, being of the same flesh, live in communion with each other and become “one flesh:” in marriage by sharing the gift of love and the gift of life; in community by holding all things in common and live in mutual love and mercy; in celibacy by giving one’s best self spiritually “for the sake of the kingdom.”

God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food and drink, ordinary events and ordinary situations into  the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world.

Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments. Despite our glaring flaws and shortcomings, both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, we make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in the marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

To be continued …

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The Universe Story in Us

I wrote the reflection below in January of this year. I am bringing it back now in light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si. When new insight or conversion cuts deep into our hearts, there is one question that spontaneously jumps from our enlightened spirit and that is, ‘What then must we do?’ It is the question that sprung from the hearts of those who heard John the Baptist preach (Luke 3:10). And so, for those whose hearts are moved with this renewed desire, the Pope’s encyclical contains many practical tips on how to adjust and simplify our lifestyle. Check this article: The Pope’s Practical Tips for helping the environment.

The reason for this re-posting is not to position myself as having “all the answers” and as in any way superior to others. Please do not draw that conclusion. What I want most is to show in a small way that lifestyle choices can be made responsibly without succumbing to almighty consumer pressures. While I may have been choosing simplicity for most of my adult life, I am a pilgrim on the journey like everyone else. Part of being human is to accept there are many times where I stumble and fall, give in to temptation and damage the earth with foolish living. May this re-posting be a reminder of our common ecological vocation and an encouragement for us all:

Moving from the densely populated country of the Netherlands, from a home above a store surrounded by bricks and cement, to a farm on the Canadian prairies at the end of a dirt road, 6 km from the nearest school, church and store had an earth-shattering effect on me. I knew the theory well – living off the land in harmony with nature, following the rhythm of the seasons. At the time of my pioneering on the Canadian prairies I had the fledgling spiritual underpinnings of a cosmic worldview, arising directly from my Christian/Catholic faith and Scripture itself. The very notion of God as Trinity, God’s incarnation in Jesus and the Church’s sacramental theology, worldview and practices helped me to expect everything in creation to bear not only God’s imprint (image and likeness) but also as capable of communicating God’s holy and loving presence. I gave myself completely to what Gerald Manley Hopkins captures so eloquently in his famous poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (1877)

The plants and animals, the seasons and tides of creation have been spiritual muse, emotional compass and daily mentor for much of my life, affecting every detail both practical and spiritual. From my teenage bike rides in the forest to today’s baking of bread, I have always felt that my place in the universe and my responsibility in it necessitated careful discernment in life choices. Fostering freedom from a consumer mentality was grounded in a commitment to care for the earth. Choosing a natural method of family planning was grounded in a profound respect for the gift of life, the refusal to pollute our bodies with artificial hormones (as well as the land with chemicals) and the need to live in harmony with our human capacity to co-create with God. Living without modern conveniences was motivated by a desire to let nature mold and guide our daily family rhythms with the accompanying tasks of freezing, canning and storing the winter supply of food. Literary companions, such as Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography played pivotal roles in my ability to place our little individual lives tucked away at the end of a dirt road firmly and deeply into the Saskatchewan prairie soil and against a wider cosmic backdrop (greatly aided by the stunning beauty of the natural setting with bush and fields, hills and lake, blue herons and pelicans …).

I give a lot of credit to Jim, my gardening and seed-growing husband, who has lived an intimate connection to the earth all his life; he taught me so much about the wonder of nature and the need to reverence all living things (even when seeds seem to take forever to germinate – don’t ever give up!). Yes, he does talk to all his plants with profound love and respect … Even now as we have moved into a more urban setting and our three children have been launched into their own cosmic orbit, creation continues to help us navigate life choices respectful of the earth’s well-being and remains a source of profound spiritual nourishment and guidance. It’s simply a deep part of my/our identity.

My first book entitled Finding the Treasure Within – A Woman’s Journey into Preaching (2002, Novalis) includes the following words as I share about the choices Jim and I made from the day we married:

        We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating. William McNamara’s spirituality became real for us: I share the secret of the child, of the saints and sages, as well as of clowns and fools when I realize how wondrous and marvelous it is to carry fuel and draw water. Once the spiritual significance of such ordinary earthy acts dawns on me, I can skip the yoga and the koans, the mantras and the novenas. (p. 56, Mystical Passion, William McNamara OCD, Element Books Ltd., Rockport, MA, 1991)

As I reflect on the extent that creation/nature and an evolving cosmic consciousness have been an integral part of my living and growing for the better part of my adult life, two things stand out. First of all, the cosmic story touted today as “new” cosmology is really not that “new.” All of it is present in the Biblical writings in both Old and New Testaments, in the life-teaching-suffering-death-resurrection of Jesus, as well as in our own Church’s understanding of the Incarnation and its sacramental life. I saw, heard and tasted it there, I was captivated by it in those sacred words, understandings and practices many years ago already, before I knew much  about the great scientific discoveries of the universe as we now understand it.

Having said that, I know all too well the struggles and challenges of living thoughtfully in cosmic consciousness while failing miserably — often.  And even in living the fullness of a cosmic consciousness, human tendencies of rigidity and deceit, judgment and clinging, laziness and sloth remain alive and well, reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s astute observation that upon entering the monastery he wasn’t any holier than anyone else: ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  (The Seven Storey Mountain)

I am merely questioning the “newness” claimed by those now doing theology from a renewed cosmic awareness informed and formed by present scientific insights and discoveries. Mystics in all religious traditions have always and everywhere accessed this cosmic consciousness throughout history. Maybe a better way to describe the newness is that the unitive consciousness that was once considered the purview of a select few is now the fundamental reality out of which we all must operate if human life on the planet is to continue. This reminds me very much of many of our friends who would admire the life choices we made, ending their praise with: “When the world is going to end, we’ll all move in with you!” In other words, we admire what you do and how you do it, but not me unless I’m forced to. Well, if we care to leave our children’s children a beautiful and sustainable planet, the time has come that we are all forced to …

The Paschal Mystery and the divine Trinitarian community are THE relational and generative paradigm, patterns of Love in both the universe and deep in our soul, making the most deeply personal the most widely universal: life—death—life. Every living thing dies to itself in order to renew life & love.

In periods of painful spiritual dryness, I strive to emulate prairie plants who grow deep roots in order to find water. My spirit sings praise and thanks along with the morning song of birds and joined the pelicans as they soar on the wind currents over my house. Cloudbursts of tears in my heart resemble prairie storms on hot summer days. The labour-intensive and time-consuming tasks of daily living (hauling water, chopping wood and preserving food) indicate efforts needed to feed both body and soul. On days when my spirit matches the cold and dark of winter days, the simple task of gathering wood in the bush and sitting by a warm fire later on soothes my soul, like a child drawn on its mother’s lap after a stressful day. Times of spiritual stagnation find consolation in seeds that take forever to have God’s Life Force crack them open. When newness of life and the pulsating energy of spring leaps into my being, I smile from head to toe like the crocus or cactus blooming on a meadow barely awake from its winter sleep, eagerly waiting to be noticed and bring joy to someone’s heart.  Many a time dancing northern lights in a winter sky help keep the flame of hope and promise alive in my drooping spirit.  And on and on and on …

It is thus that I continue to grow still today into an ever-deeper and sacred intimacy with all living things, learning to surrender to Life itself in the moment – sometimes an easy, colourful and joyful dance, other times merely an intense yet unfulfilled and aching desire – unified by a loving and merciful Creator and by the stardust which makes us all part of all.

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. – Teilhard de Chardin

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