Having identified the ecological crisis at the beginning of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis then explores the Church’s theological vision of creation in chapter two. As rich as this chapters is, there are many directions one can take in analyzing the theological vision of Pope Francis. For the sake of brevity, I will focus upon connections identified by others in the writings of Romano Guardini (which is also consistent with the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien). In addition to Guardini, I will also point to an author who was seen as one of the most important “bridge figures” between Eastern and Western Christianity in the late patristic era, that being Maximus the Confessor. From there, we will identify key passage of Laudato Si’ to get our theological bearings.
In his short article, Laudato Si’ and Romano Guardini, Fr. Robert Barron argues that, in order to properly understand our latest Encyclical, we must familiarize ourselves with the writing of Romano Guardini, specifically his Letters from Lake Como. I have not read this text, but I was able to find a very interesting presentation on the Letters from Lake Como given at World Youth Day 2013 by Historian Christopher Shannon. Combining Fr. Barron and Dr. Shannon’s reflections, we get a picture of Romano Guardini lamenting radical changes to his favorite vacation spot: Lake Como near Milan. Guardini reflects that, when he first started visiting this region, the homes on the lake were built to respect the natural landscape, creating an atmosphere of humanity living in and with nature. In time, however, the new homes increased in size and began to change the natural flow of the shoreline, creating an atmosphere of humanity trying to dominate nature. In an effort to clarify the “natural” relationship between humanity and creation in contrast to an “unnatural” relationship, Guardini used an analogy of how a boat and an ocean liner create two, distinct relationships between man and the world. The smaller boat allows the navigator a more natural relationship with the world as the boat follows the rhythms of the lake. The ocean liner detaches the sea fairer from the natural world to the point that the sea is forgotten while on this technological wonder.
As I read these reflections of Romano Guardini, my mind is taken to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Church Father, Maximus the Confessor. In all three of these authors, similar to Guardini, the Biblical understanding of an intimate connection between humanity and creation is on full display. In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, for example, the novice may see a fictional story of young children with over-active imaginations, playing in a wardrobe, daydreaming about talking animals and hybrid human/animals. The seasoned Lewis fan will see a biblical allegory in which the progression of the story shows, as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si’, how there was an intimate connection between everything in creation at first, but Original Sin slowly creates division within the world. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes reference to Cain and Abel, and how envy not only lead to sin between the brothers, but also lead Cain to forsake his vocation to care of the land (Laudato Si’ 70). When I think of C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, I see this slow erosion between humanity and creation symbolized in Lucy’s return to Narnia in Prince Caspian. She approaches a bear that, in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, would have befriended her and spoke to her. Now, a few hundred years removed from a more pristine relationship between humanity and creation, Lucy’s experience with the bear is more like an encounter we envision today: an encounter you run away from out of fear of death.
Similar to C.S. Lewis, we also see the relationship between humanity and creation on full display in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings. In another tale that includes trees and animals that commune with humanity, there is a dramatic break in the relationship between humanity and the rest of the created world, in which the Ents (fictional stewards of the forest) come to realize that the wizard Saruman has destroyed much of the forest to create his “genetically altered” army to hunt down Frodo and his friends. How do the Ents respond to this misdeed? Nature retaliates against humanity, echoing Pope Francis’ reflection on how God forgives, but when we misuse creation, the natural world is often unforgiving.
Now, I hope it goes without saying that Pope Francis probably didn’t have the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia in mind when he wrote his Encyclical. I raise these points, first, as an acknowledgement of what others are seeing in the text, but also to demonstrate that when we explore an authentic vision of creation in Scripture, we do not find a call to exploit creation for our own good. Rather, we see an awareness that we, too, are a part of this creation and though we are made unique (in God’s image and likeness) there is a clear moral responsibility we have toward creation. When reading Pope Francis’ reflections on Genesis (Laudato Si’, 65-69), I recall the sixth day of Genesis and two terms that Pope Francis identifies as commonly misunderstood.
Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth. God also said: See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food;and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26-31)
As we read this text, the two words that jump out in relation to the environment are “subdue” and “dominion.” When doing a quick check of the footnotes in the New American Bible on Genesis 1:28, what we find is that the word “subdue” actually means to take possession of a territory, similar to the children of Israel seeking to take possession of the Promised Land. Further, the word “dominion” points to the kingly language of the biblical world. Our modern mentality tends to be repugnant to the idea of kingly rule, painting kings as corrupt exploiters of the people and lands they ruled. Of course, there are historical examples of kings that support this image, but, in Scripture, the ideal sense of kingship was not rooted in corruption and exploitation. Rather, the ideal image of a king was as a good steward, protecting his people, providing for their needs, and making sure the kingdom is healthy for future generations. A kingship of self-obsorbed rule leads to the ruin of the people, the kingdom, and the land – threatening the very future of all three. To the kings or “shepherds” who live for self and not for other, the Prophet Ezekiel offers this chilling commentary.
The word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to them: To the shepherds, thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? You consumed milk, wore wool, and slaughtered fatlings, but the flock you did not pasture. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. They were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; over the entire surface of the earth my sheep were scattered. No one looked after them or searched for them.
Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live—oracle of the Lord GOD—because my sheep became plunder, because my sheep became food for wild beasts, for lack of a shepherd, because my shepherds did not look after my sheep, but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep, therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD: Look! I am coming against these shepherds. I will take my sheep out of their hand and put a stop to their shepherding my flock, so that these shepherds will no longer pasture them. I will deliver my flock from their mouths so it will not become their food.
For thus says the Lord GOD: Look! I myself will search for my sheep and examine them. As a shepherd examines his flock while he himself is among his scattered sheep, so will I examine my sheep. I will deliver them from every place where they were scattered on the day of dark clouds. I will lead them out from among the peoples and gather them from the lands; I will bring them back to their own country and pasture them upon the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and every inhabited place in the land. In good pastures I will pasture them; on the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down on good grazing ground; in rich pastures they will be pastured on the mountains of Israel. I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest—oracle of the Lord GOD. The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal; but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd them in judgment. (Ezekiel 34:1-16)
This passage leads me to conclude my thoughts on chapter two by combining a section of Laudato Si’ with one my favorite Church Fathers, Maximus the Confessor. In paragraph 79, Pope Francis expresses a clear sentiment of the connectedness of all creation and our call to participate in this creation.
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation. This leads us to think of the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops. Faith allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding. We are free to apply our intelligence towards things evolving positively, or towards adding new ills, new causes of suffering and real setbacks. This is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or lead towards decadence and mutual destruction. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time “she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction”. (Laudato Si’, 79)
This call to participation, similar to the first images I presented of Romano Guardini speaking of humanity living in and with nature versus a relationship of dominance over creation, sparks in me the Liturgical language of both Guardini and Maximus the Confessor. Maximus the Confessor, as mentioned earlier, was one of the most significant “bridge figures” in the early Church between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity. One of his central works is “The Mystagogy of the Church,” meant to instruct those who have just received the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. In it, he presents a vision of the Mass in which every aspect of the liturgy has a symbolic connection with the natural world. One only needs to read the chapter summaries of “The Church’s Mystagogy” to see this intimate connection between God, humanity, prayer, and the created world. (What follows is a summary of themes in: Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings; from The Masters of Western Spirituality, pages 183-197.) Before one approaches the liturgy (or synaxis in the language of the east) the Christian is to view the Church as an image of God, bearing God’s imprint. The Christian is then to see the Church as representing the world that is both visible and invisible. Finally, the Christian is to see the Church as representing the sensible world and humanity itself. This combined with viewing Scripture as the living Word of God prepares the soul to fully participate in the Liturgy (which has its own set of symbolic connections). Combining Maximus’ Mystagogy with Guardini’s understanding of participation in the Liturgy, we discover an “Earthy Mass” in which our participation is to lead us to participation in the prayer of the Liturgy itself, participation in the very life of God along with the Communion of Saint, and participation with our neighbor and world, living out the Biblical call to be good stewards of creation, patterned on the Good Shepherd of Jesus Christ.
Discussion Question: This chapter on Theology and the Environment begs a “spirituality of creation,” in which we are called to participate in creation, care for creation, and view creation as gift. Pope Francis is very clear to avoid the trappings of viewing the world as God (the heresy we name Pantheism), but calls us to revive an authentic Biblical view of the created world. What are ways you can think of to enter into this “spirituality of creation?” How can this spirituality lead you to participate in, care for, and accept creation as gift? Write down your thoughts and, if you need a little help, here is the hymn composed by Saint Francis of Assisi that the Pope used as the title of this Encyclical. Enjoy a little time of prayer with this hymn!
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather
through whom you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong”.
(Canticle of the Creatures: Saint Francis of Assisi)