Edward P. Echlin imbibed earth knowledge growing up among the trout streams and pine trees of Michigan. Jesus also, he says, imbibed his earth connection as a craftsman and food grower in Nazareth; risen now, he invites us to befriend the earth and heal the cosmos.
160 pp, Columba Press, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie .
1. Introduction: Where on earth I am
2. Our way of proceeding
3. What good can come out of Nazareth?
4. The cosmic Jordan
5. Galilee to Jerusalem
6. Cosmic cross, cosmic circle
7. Liturgising the plough
Some useful resources
Chapter 1 – Introduction: Where on earth I am
In colours of such simple creed
All things sprang at him, sun and weed,
Till the grass grew to be grass indeed
And the tree was a tree at last.
(G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse)
I imbibed earth knowledge as a boy, growing up among the translucent trout streams, black and gloomy pine trees, and warm golden sands of Michigan, my native state and boyhood home. Michigan is no longer as fresh and pristine as it was when I grew up in that water wonderland. Winterised second homes, with central heating, line the shores of inland lakes through which I travelled on ‘canoe trips’, as a boy at summer camp. The speckled and brown trout, the rainbows and graylings still swim in the rivers. But they are fewer, as are the porcupines and black bears along the banks, and the rivers less biodiverse. People need the companionship of the porcupines and the bears, the trout and the rivers, and the whole soil community of creatures, as did the woodland Native Americans, who lived sustainably with Michigan’s biodiverse creatures before the couriers de bois, the lumberjacks, the settlers, and then the developers arrived. Now that we humans are here, in Michigan and everywhere, in immense numbers and with chainsaws, the earth community needs a responsible humanity if earth life is to survive. At present rates of consumption of non-renewable, and even renewable, resources, we would need two or three additional planets to accommodate us. We are rapidly quenching earth’s biodiverse exuberance. Grizzlies and moose have long disappeared from Michigan. This sober context is where earth spirituality is literally vital. This book centres earth spirituality in Jesus, Lord of the rivers, the animals, and the land. Jesus, the earth, and the church are inseparable. They are symbiotic; they go together like a speckled trout, glinting in the morning sun, and the shining river through which it moves. As the Creator God, incarnate and risen, as God’s presence on earth, Jesus is within the earth community, inviting his human creatures to take responsibility for the earth’s welfare, and to conduct earth’s symphony of praise of God. Earth’s welfare is holistic: it includes animals, peace among people, liberation from injustice, and, in brief, sharing earth’s gifts, sustainably and especially locally, so that wars, human poverty, earth abuse, and extinction of other creatures are eliminated.
A few years ago, as the second millennium slipped into history, I wrote a book about earth spirituality, which touched more lives than some other books I have written. I write articles, booklets, and books — this is my sixth book — because, like most writers, I want some thoughts to ‘get around’ as only writing does. Sometimes an article or book, like Dutch beer, reaches places other messages don’t. How, where, and why a book travels is fascinating, and would stretch the skills of good detectives. In my experience, a book, especially these days, gets to most places on earth. In its wake it invariably brings work, in the form of lectures, seminars, panels, consultations, interviews, correspondence, and eventually demands for another book. I intended Earth Spirituality: Jesus at the Centre to be my last book, if not last word. I am writing this one which, with more conviction, I intend to be my last, because so many who read Earth Spirituality requested another book.
Fortunately, those of us who are Christians who care about the earth are not alone. Others too care, who live within what Jacques Dupuis SJ, calls ‘a superabundant richness and variety of the self-manifestation of God to humanity’. I have worked with some of this ‘richness and variety’, especially among Jews and Bahá’í. I have learned, and profoundly appreciate, that environmentalists of other religions respond to God’s disclosure in different ways, and that they too care about the earth. This book, however, is not directly about inter-religious ecology as such, welcome though such books are. My primary concern is with God’s disclosure in Jesus Christ. In subsequent chapters I shall discuss Jesus in his years at Nazareth, and in his period in the Jordan wilderness, in his public ministry, his climactic days at Jerusalem, and as risen Lord of the cosmos. In this introductory chapter, and in a conclusion, I describe some of my own experiences in this new millennium, in which I have been engaged in earth spirituality, theology, and practice.
God is present in the evolution of our cosmos, in the whole evolving earth community, in which we are embedded members, and for which we are responsible. Just as we need reconciliation, so does the whole earth community, which is affected by all that we do, and fail to do. To heal and reconcile people is to heal the earth. The central point of this book is that God so loves the material world, this earth in which we are embedded, that in Jesus he lives in the midst of the earth community. In Jesus God’s Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, reconciling the whole creation. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says, ‘The heart of the Christmas message is that God takes our material world completely seriously. He doesn’t just send a message; he comes to live in the physical world in the flesh and blood of a real person, Jesus.’ I hope these pages will speak to Christians, including young people who are uncertain about the Christian way and its relevance to their lives and to ecology. I hope it will interest others walking what Dupuis calls different ‘paths’ or ‘ways’. I also welcome other earth committed people, such as deep ecologists and eco-psychologists I have met, who profess themselves ecological and spiritual, but not religious.
Our New Context
As awareness of earth abuse gradually increases, even among politicians and journalists, so paradoxically does relentless and avoidable – exploitation. As awareness and exploitation increase, so do demands on the minority of Christians engaged in earth care. They are a minority, fortunately growing. Recently, when a Catholic bishop said to a lay friend, after a lecture, ‘We’re all green now’, his lay friend corrected him, saying, ‘Catholic Christians still have a way to go before we are fully reconciled to the fragility of our earth, and its limits.’ But he later observed that, in fact, his bishop friend had moved: although he ‘didn’t know what he was talking about’ when he said all Christians are now ‘green’, at least he no longer thinks earth concern an aberration, to be feared. With encouragement and nurture he may actually become a green bishop! This uncommon incident illustrates our changing context. The bishop and his friend illustrate the presence of God’s Spirit in the whole Christian community, gently inspiring us to accept responsibility for the earth, created and reconciled in Jesus. To recycle a groovy word of the sixties, if we listen to each other in ‘co-responsibility’ for the earth, we may also hear, and be able to reach, some sensitive young people. We can learn from them, and they from us. In recent words of Bishop James Jones of Liverpool, ‘If we wish to engage with a new generation we have got to recognise that Jesus has gone ahead of us, and is already by his Spirit, unknown to them speaking about his concerns for the future of his creation.’
In lecturing and listening to different groups, and to individuals, throughout the British Isles, I am struck at the awakening of many, in almost ‘Damascus Road’ experiences, to the fragility of the earth, and our responsibility to heal and conserve it. People are also discovering that ‘sustainable development’ or, better, sustainable sufficiency, is a massive challenge, which demands sacrifice. Creation and redemption go together. The blessing includes the cross, the cross the blessing. In words of a joint statement by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and Pope John Paul II:
A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act.
Such unavoidable change does not mean gloomily surrendering what is necessary for happiness. Indeed, in the Christian tradition, sacrifice is joyful. Joyful sacrifice now includes treading more gently on the earth. It requires a more responsible and respectful attitude to the earth’s limits and restraints than has been prevalent since World War II. In Britain, for example, successive governments propose patently unsustainable airport expansion with little responsible opposition from other major parties. An earth and climate bashing ‘freedom to fly’ group, demanding ever more runways, blends exploiting captains of air industry with politicians from all the major parties. The reason given for such massive, and irreversible, damage to soil, aquifers, wildlife habitats, climate, and quality of life is human’ freedom to fly’. Britain must be ‘competitive with Germany and France’. Simon Jenkins writes:
The external costs of this mobility are high. We are burning up so much fuel, polluting the atmosphere, we are stressed, crowded, and no-one’s at home. We should be using the tax system to encourage people to move less, or at least to bear the real costs of movement. But the government is not listening. I’ve never known a government so vulnerable to expensive lobbying as this one (1).
Meanwhile, France too expands airports, damaging uniquely precious garden France, its countryside, biodiversity, and climate. Environmentalists in both countries respond that co-operation, not competition, with less addiction to fossil fuel, is the only sustainable way forward. A helpful example is a major French food multiple which claims that, since 2002, 95 per cent of its merchandise is grown and processed in France. Only 5 per cent, such as tea, coffee, bananas, and chocolate, is imported. This is a grand step towards localisation, eliminating unsustainable air freight, that other multiples, and shoppers, hopefully may follow.
In this challenging context, I suspect I would be fully engaged in earth ministry even were I not an earth theologian. For nothing is more urgent than reversing the destruction of the earth, and rehabilitating the earth community which people have damaged. Earth ministry, from horticulture to conservation to campaigning, including the ministry of ecological theology, must keep adapting to changing environmental contexts. To cite a seismic example, in the late eighties Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s now famous’ green speech’, acknowledging human induced climate change, was a startling context shifting event, like Chernobyl and September 11th, only different. That green speech left even articulate environmentalists muttering ‘blimey’. For a prominent world leader to do what Mrs Thatcher had done was a marker in the human relationship with the earth. Politics, at least the way politicians talk, has never been quite the same since.
Nevertheless, even in the rippling wake of that speech it remained difficult to convince Christians, not least those in Mrs Thatcher’s ‘friends of the car’ party, that climate disruption has anything to do with the Christian religion. When, after her speech, I sent a small cheque to my diocesan bishop to support the diocese’s earth ministry, my cheque was returned politely with the explanation that the diocese’s mission was ‘to the spiritual and social needs of people’. Small wonder that the first lady Prime Minister soon disassociated herself from the passion of her own speech, and realigned with the three ‘grey’ parties (as disempowered Greens call them), and their reckless demands for more ‘economic growth’; ‘predict and provide’ roads, houses, and runways; privatisation of rail, water, and services; ‘rationalisation’ of family farms; and dependence on imported food and pharmaceuticals. We are still in the wake of that momentous speech. Christian environmentalists, including some diocesan bishops and free church leaders, are increasing, and beginning to offer a significant contribution of earth inclusive justice and peace, concern for animals and biodiversity, responsibility for the earth’s future, and sustainable sufficiency; in a word, earth spirituality. The Christian contribution is one of many contributions. It is distinctive because Christians who care about the earth are committed to God present in Jesus, ‘the first born of all creation’ (Col 1:15), incarnate and risen, Creator and Saviour, who emptied himself into our earth. Through, with, and in him, all creatures in heaven and on earth, and beneath the sea, glorify God in a cosmic alleluia (Phil 2:6-10).
Stewardship or Responsibility?
Since the Renaissance, and especially the scientific awakening of the seventeenth century, Christian thought about the earth has combined ‘natural theology’, or reasoning to God’s presence and might from ‘the things that he has made’ (Rom 1:20; Wis 13:1-9), with some selective biblical texts. Frequently used texts include the Genesis creation narratives, the perennially popular Noah story, the Psalms and prophets, and some Pauline hymns. It has been argued that people are’ stewards’ of the whole earth community. The ‘stewardship’ model is now deeply ingrained; it is even within our liturgies. While stewardship can be useful and has a biblical resonance, it easily lends itself to a detached, manipulative view of creation, with humans as chief players, and the rest of the earth community ‘resources’ for human use and enjoyment. With the widely adopted stewardship model, exploitation and dismemberment of the earth has persisted, not least among Christians. Richard Bauckham, of St Andrew’s University, says stewardship ‘has a biblical and Christian ring to it, which no doubt helps to commend it to us. But it is not a term the Bible itself uses of the human relationship to the rest of creation, nor was it used in this way by the Fathers, the medieval theologians or the Reformers’ (2).
Stewardship has not moved hearts. It has permitted what John Papworth calls ‘profit and power people’ to justify exploitation, from the Arctic wilderness to the Persian Gulf because, they argue, people are God’s stewards. Nor has stewardship moved the hearts of young people. Even with the environment embedded in the curriculum, and included in RE, teenagers show little enthusiasm for taking responsibility for the earth. Recent surveys confirm unsuspected lack of interest in the environment among the 18 to 35 age group. In writing and lecturing, I have questioned the adequacy of the stewardship model. (3) We need models of the human presence, dominion if you wish, drawn from imaginative contemplation of the Bible, the church ‘in its teaching, life and worship’ and from the earth itself. The earth almost palpably celebrates soft rain, clear rivers, biodiversity, open spaces, woods and wilderness, and the bounteous gifts of harvest. Trees that bear apples are an annual miracle climaxing every autumn. We notice in the Bible that people are God’s representatives within all this beauty, his image, here on earth, in a community of creatures. In the Holy Saturday ‘Festival of Lights’, in the Exultet hymn, we consciously praise God with other creatures. When we place a lighted candle in water, we celebrate Christ’s reconciliation of the whole cosmos. We rejoice as the explicit voice of all creation’s praise, ‘Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne!’
A curious phenomenon often occurs after green gatherings, which my wife Barbara calls ‘the revivalist syndrome’. That is, at conferences and immediately after lectures and discussions, people voice impressive resolutions. Sustainability takes a small step forward. But then people return home. As after Mrs Thatcher’s green speech, or an Earth Summit, nothing much seems to happen – at least nothing like those impressive resolutions. Occasionally, I have asked secretaries of groups, whether they have noticed increased support from regions where recently I had lectured. Sometimes the response is encouraging. More often it is relatively slight, a few enquiries, perhaps a new member or two, but little more. When later I meet people who once resolved vocally to run with the torch, the flame sometimes seems smothered by the socialisation of re-entering a home community. Yet, there is movement, at least beneath the surface. A few intercessions find their way into services, a few more fruit trees are planted, a few more vegetable beds dug and cultivated, sometimes with children participating, more locally produced food bought, fewer flights booked, more resistance to militarism and, most significantly, support for Christian environmentalists not only increasing but what Samantha Chandler of ASWA (Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals) calls ‘workers’ offering their services. People rarely mutate ‘once in a flash’ like Paul approaching Damascus, but take small steps, which is better than stunning politicians and media with an electrifying speech, only to blend back into long grey ranks. Despite the ‘revivalist syndrome’, more people are realising the connections between Christianity – and all world religions – and responsibility for the earth.
Walking One’s Talk, and Green Breaks
A frequent sticking point for earth spirituality in consumerist cultures is what liberation theology calls ‘practice’, what environmentalists call ‘walking one’s talk’. Alternative economics has come up with ‘best practice’, meaning when someone gets it right make the practice contagious. Francis of Assisi urged his friars to do the same, praying and studying ‘not so much to know how to speak, but to put into practice what they had learned and, after having practised it, to propose it to the action of others’. (4) To persuade people to love and conserve the earth, environmentalists only ‘after having practised it’, can ‘propose it to others’. Earth spirituality in the abstract can not only be self-indulgent, it can stir resentment. Sustainable best practice reaches more people than a lifetime of semi-detached preaching, writing or lecturing. As the last century ended both Mother Teresa and Pope John XXIII repeated Assisi’s lesson: what one is and does is the best evangelisation. Environmentalists agree.
The demands on time and energies, especially since Earth Spirituality got around, combined with the demands of an organic fruit and vegetable garden, make holidays a rare luxury. Yet everyone – including Barbara and myself – needs breaks from ‘toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing’, from what in the Jesuits we called de more, business as usual. So in lieu of conventional’ full time’ holidays, we sometimes combine meetings, lectures, and conferences in different parts of the UK and Ireland with short breaks, or ‘long weekends’, in these storied islands. We choose venues hospitable to peke guests. Pekes can be demanding, even imperious. But they are unsurpassed visual aids, a furry demonstration of love and interdependence, part of the family, dependent for life’s necessities, such as food, water, and love. A microcosm of how all the world now depends on humans, while humans remain dependent on God the real owner of the earth and its creatures (Is 66:2), pekes, who are lovers of love, are also love’s teachers. They remind us that when we withhold love, when we treat other creatures as ‘resources’, even when we call our exploitation ‘rights’, or ‘free trade’, or ‘freedom to fly’, or ‘progress’, we starve the poor, other earth creatures and especially ourselves, of life’s necessities, of which love is paramount. Perhaps we could assist our children to understand life and love better than we do if we let animals join them more often at school. As Dostoevsky said, ‘Children should be pupils with the animals, with the horse, the cow, the dog. Their souls will be better, and they will comprehend more.’
When we first learned, from Professor John Whitelegg, an early specialist in transport, about the damage of air travel, we abandoned annual trips to Andalucia, and experimented with self-catering breaks in the British Isles. But again we learned, from environmentalists, and from John Gummer MP, when he was environment minister in the nineties, that swelling population, migration, and above all family splintering mean that’ second homes’, even if used at times for self-catering, add to housing shortages, with concomitant pressure for more housing on shrinking green fields, including starter homes in villages such as those in which we self-catered. So we now share roofs, boilers, power, and grounds in guest houses and hotels. Which is not to suggest that these always become sustainable ‘best practice’. They reduce pressure for new houses. But many, with superfluous packaging, laundry, imported food and drink, including distant wine with plastic ‘corks’, and even climate damaging air conditioning, are themselves unsustainable.
Nevertheless, as ‘customers’ we are ‘always right’; we get our chance to write comments at the end of visits. We need more imaginative eco-caterers, who provide regional food and drink, with insulation and renewable energy, and support local growers of organic food and happy animals. Eco-catering is a growing opportunity for family business. Despite the privatised disarray in which the last Tory government left railways and buses, whenever possible we travel by train. Even in privatised Britain, trains and buses remain, save only foot and pedal, the most sustainable form of transport. Shared transport is relatively fast and safe, and a less stressful way to travel, permitting travellers to read, write, view the countryside, and even dine while moving, which is something no car travel can match. .
Thrice yearly, in awakening March, after potatoes are sown, and migrant birds are on the wing, and in apple ripe September, we enjoy week breaks, often in Celtic Wales or Ireland, or on the continent. Like neighbours and fellow parishioners, living near the south coast, we can easily reach other parts of our heritage, just across the English Channel. The one downside to northern continental visits is that, without vaccination, we cannot take Bertha with us. Vaccination, with inserted chips or weeks caged in quarantine, is for a humanoid peke unthinkable. Pekes, like other pets, are another reason for homeland holidays. When we do go to the continent, we have a friend live in here with Bertha, or take her for a break of her own in a peke friendly home. Both ways she gets prime treatment, even spoiling, but we miss her company. And she makes us feel bad when, as suitcases appear, she retreats disconsolately to her bed.
In May or September, or sometimes in June when the garden is planted and occupied, we have travelled by train to the Low Countries, Germany, and France. If a country’s wealth is ultimately in its soil, its aquifers, and climate, and transmitted rural wisdom, then garden France is undoubtedly one of the richest biosystems on earth. But soil is also fragile. France’s precious soil now suffers from expanding airports, roads, second homes, agribusiness, and internal migration of young country people, detached custodians of centuries of rural wisdom, to car-cluttered cities. Peasant wisdom, and traditions, still linger in France, but the soil and cuisine lore is dwindling, to the loss of the whole world. Possibly France which, paradoxically, is not known for its animal welfare, should follow Dostoevsky’s advice, and introduce animals to classrooms. France, like most other countries, developed and developing, seems to have listened too uncritically to modern economists, of whom Kirkpatrick Sale writes:
Economists are taught to measure the value of 100 bushels of wheat coming off a farm, but have no way of factoring in the topsoil eroded or poisoned in the process, the damage to the surrounding ecosystem, the effect of toxic run-off from fertilisers in streams and bays, or the enormous environmental costs of mass producing artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and high-tech farm machinery. Economists ignore this information not because they are idiotic, cruel or dumb, but because they are conditioned by their training to see the natural world only as resources; they do not understand the complexities of the science of ecology (5).
We enjoyed a fleeting March week at Chartres, above the IIe de France and the Beauce, ‘the golden granary of Paris’, visiting twice daily in gradually lengthening light the cathedral’s teaching in glass and stone. The glass, especially the blue pierced with light, the stone, the cathedral itself, rising like a prayer on its ridge, are a visual gospel. The whole of salvation history, and salvation ecology too, unfold in Chartres, beginning with the oldest Genesis creation story. In the north aisle, the famous Noah window portrays the rainbow covenant between God and people and animals. The Jesus history includes the animals at the manger, the Nazareth years, Jesus’ parables and ministry, the cosmic cross, and Jesus risen, king of the universe. When in France, we attend Mass on Sundays and, when possible, during the week. Cathedral communities are usually larger than villages, probably because there are resident priests, and the worshippers, who include visitors like ourselves, come from a larger, more populous catchment.
After Chartres, we visited in bright June Laon, the hilltop cathedral town, or ‘crowned mountain’ where, as at Chartres, a great medieval theology ‘school’ of masters and students flourished for a time. John Scotus Eriugena, a Celtic light of darker ages, lived and studied there, centuries before the Laon medieval school. Anselm and Ralph of Laon, the outstanding medieval scholars there, made Eriugena’s writings widely known. Another luminary, Peter Abelard, briefly studied there under Anselm, raising questions that would be debated for centuries. Apart from memories of the school, Laon is especially memorable for its hilltopper oxen on the cathedral towers, a touching tribute by medieval masons to these sturdy companions, who dragged large stones to the hilltop, as no horse could do. There the masons fashioned the oxen’s burdens into a cathedral crowning the hill. American visitors, especially from the Midwest, appreciate Laon as the birthplace of Jacques Marquette, who may have been baptised in the cathedral, and certainly, as a boy, wondered at its hilltopper oxen, outlined against the sky. As Pere Marquette SJ, with Louis Jolliet, Marquette was among the first – perhaps the first – Caucasian to view the Mississippi. Marquette noted along the banks of ‘old man river’, wild buffalo grazing free on the prairies, similar to the hilltopper oxen above Laon. His descriptions of these animals, preserved in Jesuit Relations, is perhaps the first time those animals entered written history. It would not be the last! Marquette died, on a canoe voyage of discovery and evangelisation, on Lac Illinois (now Lake Michigan). Consummatus in breve, trusted by the Indians, whose language he could speak, Marquette was only thirty-eight years old. Jacques Marquette still has collateral descendants in Laon, named Barbiere. He himself lives on in a memorial park, and Rue Pere Marquette, in Laon; and, in the New World, in towns, buildings, a railway, a great university, and even a lecture series, in the Great Lakes bioregion where he was based. Marquette did not live to see what the lumberjacks, the settlers, and their growth-obsessed successors would do to Illinois culture, to the free-range buffalo, to the lakes, and to the Mississippi. As Robert Frost, a twentieth-century New England poet, remarked pithily, ‘It doesn’t take long to destroy a continent.’
We also visited Paris in March. Paris, which enjoyed space for expansion which the hilltop cathedral schools lacked, succeeded Chartres and Laon as the premier medieval school. It held its pre-eminence, eventually becoming a great university and cultural city. Despite subsequent wars and revolutions, industrialisation, cars, suburbs, and tourists, Paris still exudes culture. A visitor barely touches the surface of Paris, its museums, churches, townscape, history, river walks, and restaurants, in a week, or even in many months – but to sojourn in Paris, even for a week in spring is, as Ernest Hemingway said, a moveable feast, something you always take with you. To walk around Notre Dame before breakfast is to experience a ‘built environment’ about as fine as our species has fashioned. To attend Mass at Notre Dame, with Parisians, and other visitors, is a privilege. The numerous exhibitions – and resident masterpieces – in Paris museums each deserve hours of study. The townscape, river walks, trees, parks, and boulevards help to make Paris liveable. Even now some restaurants still struggle to promote regional meals, with regional recipes, produce, and wines, prepared and presented with Gallic finesse.
Another stunning cathedral we visited is St John the Baptist at Amiens, on the sombre but still fertile Somme. The cathedral honours its patron, and the baptism of Jesus, with splendid carvings of Jesus, with John and his followers, as northern European carvers envisioned those wilderness scenes. Jesus’ baptism is important to salvation ecology, with our imminent water crisis, because Jesus sanctified the waters by his presence as our ancient liturgies still testify. Amiens majestically commemorates and symbolically perpetuates that ecological event, which is the topic of chapter four of this book. Unlike Chartres and Paris, Amiens old town was devastated in the last world war. The bombers spared the cathedral itself, but the leaded glass, dissolved in the inferno of a burning city, was totally destroyed.
Another sobering cathedral town, and testimonial to medieval – and Renaissance and baroque – architecture, is Avignon in Provence, the fourteenth-century residence of seven popes. Avignon must be visited in cooler months, of shorter days, for it has become a tourist and performing arts centre. The medieval streets, and the remnants of church buildings and religious communities, are a sombre reminder of where the church went wrong in some ways, and of the anarchical violence of which people are capable. When we forget we are a servant church, we and our leaders the Servant Christ existing as community today, inevitably the world finds us unappealing, even unpleasant. To recall St Francis – and Mother Teresa and John XXIII – again, our servant lives are our first evangelisation.
Green Breaks and White Monks
So much of our better agriculture, our food, farm animals, forestry, wines, and, in general, ‘soil community’ wisdom derives from the early Cistercians, that a visit to their remains is something of a green pilgrimage. The medieval Cistercians, remote though their houses were, left traces in some cathedral cities, including the remains of their first college at Paris, and another, St John’s at Oxford. The early Cistercian lifestyle was what our time would call sustainable: prayer, study, manual work, manuscript preservation, experiments with food and drink, stock rearing, and work in the gardens, fields, orchards, vineyards, rivers and woodland, all near the home abbey, or at nearby granges. To work is to pray, Labore est orare, is a Cistercian adage forever relevant when that work is ecologically sustainable and glorifies God. Animal breeds and lore, notably sheep and cattle, are Cistercian legacies, as are forestry techniques, aquaculture, fruit growing and selection, northern irrigation, mill races, and viniculture. Wines we take for granted, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chablis, Mersault and Ruislip, with cider blending, are Cistercian contributions to the joy and warmth of the human heart. So is the ‘greenhouse’ which prolongs the growing season in northern climes. There is perennial wisdom that needs recovery in the Cistercian balance of prayer, study, and manual work, and in their adage that to work is to pray, especially when that work is with the soil. The Orthodox theologian, Vigen Guroian, gardens holistically, like a Cistercian, with prayer, tripods, and vegetables:
Peter, when he saw Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah, had wanted to build three tabernacles, to contain the light. In my dark spring, without even knowing it, I had fulfilled Peter’s wish. In August the naked tripods I had built in the paschal season were transformed into translucent tents of woven green life, suffused with resplendent dappled light timeless, uncontained, and superabundant. Now I stood amidst them in the garden bathed in the light of the sun and filled with the Spirit of God. And with Peter I uttered, ‘Lord, it is good for me to be here!’ (6).
We began to retrace White Monk footsteps where it all began in 1098, at Citeaux itself, where the mighty movement gathered, where Robert of Molesmes and a handful of followers, including Stephen Harding, settled in the dark forest of Citeaux, in Burgundy. After nearly a thousand years of prayer, work, decline, and dissolution, Citeaux was refounded on that same hallowed spot, by modem Cistercians in 1898. The fertile topsoil, hedges, remnant orchards, vineyards, dyers, woods, and outlying granges, which the white monks and the lay brothers tended, are lovingly cultivated again, a Cistercian legacy to the whole world. When the fertility of well loved soil is cherished, the wise French dictum is very true, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Irish farmer and poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who found infinity in small things, expresses the same truth; there is ‘undying difference in the comer of a field’. After Citeaux, we visited its ‘four oldest daughters’: La Ferte, whose guest house remains; beautiful Pontigny, in Chablis vineyard territory, with its photogenic chapel, still in use, its mills, fields, and vineyards; Morimond, including its pews, screen, and pulpit, now safe in Langres Cathedral; and finally Clairvaux, where, in 1115, Citeaux sent a young Bernard of Fontaine to found a fourth daughter in the valley of the Aube, which Bernard characteristically called Clairvaux, a name which was to be forever linked with his own. Bernard of Clairvaux became one of the towering figures, perhaps the towering figure, of the twelfth century. His influence, and the gale of his eloquence, continues still. Sixtyfive daughter abbeys, including Rievaulx and Fountains, are descendants of Clairvaux, a testimony to the magnetism of Bernard. On a farm in Nidderdale, formerly a grange of Fountains Abbey, an ancient cooking apple clings to life, which, according to a local antiquarian who was born there, is a descendant of a tree planted by medieval lay brothers of Fountains. Citeaux, through the magnetic reach of Bernard of Clairvaux, has left traces even in the English apple.
Cluny and Bulwick
The Cistercians had an older sibling, a Burgundian rival which we also visited, founded in southern Burgundy in 909, with a different interpretation of St Benedict’s rule. Cluny dominated western Christendom in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and rivalled Citeaux in the twelfth. In its medieval prime, with many benefactors, a splendid, towering basilica, long hours in choir, and five successive charismatic abbots, Cluny founded and ruled many, finally too many, daughter priories, of which St Pancras, in Lewes, was Britain’s first and finest. Cluny, like the St Pancras ruins today, is sobering. Standing at the west entrance of the once dominant church, one looks down upon a car park. Like Shelly’s pyramid of Ozymandias, ‘nothing beside remains’, save a few stones, and foundations, some towers, and almost audible presences of monks chanting psalms for departed benefactors, under the fatherly care of Abbots ado, Odilo, Mayeul, Hugh, and Peter the Venerable. In the south transept ruins, a plaque commemorates Peter, who was a local man, as “one of the purest spirits of the Benedictine order’. It sometimes befalls pure and great men to preside over the decline of once proud and useful movements. Peter the Venerable was one of these men.
That touching plaque to Peter the Venerable curiously recalls Mervyn Wilson’s organic fruit and vegetable garden at his Georgian rectory, in Bulwick, Northamptonshire. In Britain, not only empires decline, so do irreplaceable Georgian and Victorian rectories and gardens. On two trips to nearby Oundle, once to speak to Peterborough clergy on a post-ordination course, and again to preach at Oundle School harvest, we were able, in late autumn, to combine these October lectures with a visit to Mervyn’s garden. At that season many of the vegetables, and the early fruit, are already harvested, their remnants rapidly becoming humus on the compost heap, but Mervyn’s later apple varieties are literally falling from the trees. On our second visit, we took with us some bags for windfalls, and back home distributed to bemused, and grateful, neighbours Annie Elizabeth, Pitmaston Pineapple, White Magnum Bonum, Adam Pearmain, and a plethora of late keepers, and cookers, of which few had heard. Even in this fertile corner, the lush south-east, local shops stock mainly six boring, chemical saturated, even imported, varieties, their glossy uniformity betraying numerous toxic sprays, perhaps as many as sixteen in a season, sometimes followed by artificially ventilated storage, and air and lorry transport. According to DEFRA, around 150,000 apple acres have been uprooted since 1960. Lush, fruit-friendly Qevon alone has lost 95 per cent of its orchards (7).
Living Sustainably Locally
The key to personal sustainability, to healing, restoring, and conserving the earth, letting God’s glory through in preparation for God’s kingdom, is earth spirituality locally. Local sustainability challenges. Reigning corporate chieftains, their politicians, and trivialising media would have us think, and live, in too globalised a manner. Living, purchasing, gardening, holidaying, and consuming locally, by which I mean, at least, bioregionally, is possible, healthy, sustainable, and even exciting. Living sustainably locally is anything but selfish. Far from depriving developing peoples, our local living helps others conserve, appreciate, and improve their own bioregional fertility, instead of industrialising their local soil for cash crops – degrading their soil fertility and ‘virtual water’ (to export avocados is to export water) – in exchange for dependence on consumer things and American grain. Lester Brown writes of the peril of dependence on grain imports, ‘The risk for the low-income, grain-importing countries is that grain prices could rise dramatically, impoverishing more people in a shorter period of time than any event in history (8). Closely related are the two fatal fallacies in globalised ‘trade’: 1) that fragile soil can be intensively industrialised for export crops (and virtual water) indefinitely; and 2) that there will always be abundant food to import for fossil fuel dependent peoples. Several times, for example, in Israel I said to Israelis working on the land, ‘You’re destroying your soil.’ The reply, echoing the current wisdom was invariably the same, ‘That’s alright. We can put a factory here for exportable things, and import American food.’ Living and exchanging locally, in developed and developing worlds, secures the climate, and the future, not least the future of our children. Unrestricted, or ‘neoliberal’, trade means more food miles, with immense damage to biosystems and climate, and the whole fragile global environment. Edward Goldsmith notes, ‘The real cause of the pervasive environmental destruction is economic development, and unfettered trade which seeks to maximise development, and to which all considerations today, however important, are ruthlessly subordinated.’
For living sustainably locally, a useful rule of thumb is Christian Ecology Link’s ‘LOAF’ principles: Locally produced, Organically grown, Animal-friendly, Fairly traded. Some trade is necessary, sustainable, and fair. Northern Europe, for example, depends on other climates, in different ecosystems, for cotton, olives, bananas, citrus, tea, coffee, and cocoa. The ‘locally produced’ in the LOAF principles does not mean total exclusion of trade, but to import necessities from as close to home as possible, thereby reducing transport, especially climate damaging air freight. A translucent example is the mega gift of wine: ‘A day without wine is like a day without sunshine’ says the venerable adage, surely not coined in medieval Scandinavia. ‘Unfettered trade’ in wine and beer can be environmentally damaging, foolish, and unnecessary. In Britain, for example, on the edge of the glorious vineyards of the continent, once Roman vineyards are again green, fragrant, and healthy with vines. In Kent and Sussex, and even in Staffordshire, fine white, sparkling, rosé,
and even some red wines delight local connoisseurs, surprise visitors, and are beginning to rival continental wines. Good red – and white – wines from France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy are available from just across the Channel. English wines are available at several large chains, at vineyards, and in local and farm shops, and farmers’ markets, which also sell local cider, perry, honey, preserves, and meat. When pubs and hotels and restaurants offer few or no English, or bioregional, wines, it sends a message to order a regional beer or cider – and say why! Principal family shoppers realise that purchasing locally, and sustainably, takes time; it means reading labels, asking questions, shopping around, adapting menus, and sometimes paying more. But the time, effort, and expense assist local businesses, reduce ruinous food miles, lead to surprising discoveries, and encourage distant people to live locally and sustainably too, and contribute to local, and global, sustainable sufficiency.
Our Local Homes
Local sustainability obviously includes the homes where we live. The different ways – and means – people use to lighten their burden on the earth, sometimes even to restore their local habitat, are fascinating. We can make our homes sustainable, whether we live, like Mervyn Wilson, in a Georgian rectory, or alone, or in community, in a house, flat, bungalow, or rest home. I conclude this introduction with the recommendation that we bless our homes – with three adaptations of traditional house blessings. First, let our blessings include not just people and ‘built’ environment, but garden, plants, and local wildlife, including the companions living in window boxes, and bird feeders. Second, let our blessings be not just once-only events but a repeated ‘best practice’, perhaps at winter and summer solstice, when we are especially aware of our ‘Brother sun’ who symbolises Jesus, ‘the Sun out of heaven’, as Bishop Melito of Sardis described Our Lord. Third, unless we can borrow a neighbour reader, or deacon, or the like, I suggest that we ourselves bless our homes using a prayer book, or our own composition. We bless our home and garden at both solstices, with our peke on my lap, using a timeworn, somewhat dated, Priest’s New Ritual, from the last millennium. There is scope for creativity. Hopefully when people discover, or compose, a blessing they like, they will share it through a parish newsletter. Our own homes, even if just a room with window boxes, with their plants and wildlife, are the unique, very special micro-biosystem of this planet for which we are uniquely responsible. How we fulfil that responsibility affects the whole earth, everywhere and forever. Every home is a centre of outward ripples. We can leave our domestic biosystems better than we found them.
1. Simon Jenkins, ‘Predict and Provide… ?’, Countryside Voice (Autumn 2002), p. 42.
2. Richard Bauckham, ‘Stewardship and Relationship’, in Caring for Creation, R. J. Berry, ed. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), p. 99.
3. Edward P. Echlin, Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre (New Alresford: Arthur James, 1999/2002), pp. 25-27; d. also Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 51-53.
4. In Mario Masini, Lectio Divina (New Yark: Alba House, 1998), p. 69.
5. Kirkpatrick Sale, ‘The Heart of the Matter’, Fourth World Review, 121
and 122 (2003) p. 12.
6. Vigen Guroian, Inheriting Paradise, Meditations on Gardening (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2001), p. 53.
7. Sally Twiss, Apples: A Social History (London: National Trust, 1999) p.6.
8. Lester Brown, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth (London: Earthscan, 2001), p.167.