By NEIL VANEY
Beauty in the Scriptures
Those who reflect on the nature of God consider that our universe proclaims three great truths about its creator, that is, God’s goodness, truth and beauty, and that these are echoed in the beauty of our universe and of the earth, which is our home.
Laudato Si’ 72 highlights how the psalms exhort us to praise God just as nature does (Ps 136); likewise, we read in psalm 19, “The heavens are telling the glory of God. One thing I asked of the Lord . . . to behold the beauty of the Lord and look upon his temple.” The prophets also spoke of how God’s majesty is on view here on earth, for example, in a restored Jerusalem: “You will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord.” (Isaiah 62:3) The books we describe as wisdom literature, such as Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, are full of such reflections, “Look at the rainbow and praise him who made it; it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.” (Sirach 43:9-12) Jesus himself continued this sense of God’s beauty visible in this world in one of his wisdom sayings, “Consider the lilies; how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Luke 12:22-27)
In Laudato Si’ 79, Pope Francis points out how our deeper scientific experience now highlights the complexity and beauty of our universe even more clearly, “. . . 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”.
Hymns of gratitude
Opening our eyes to the beauty of creation leads naturally to praise and gratitude. Pope Francis insists that, when we see how deeply human life is enmeshed in the goodness and beauty of the world, we should be open to “gratitude and graciousness, in recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.” (LS 220). The encyclical also states that “each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us”. (LS 221) What distinguishes us from other creatures is that we have this sense of beauty and awareness of our duty to preserve this for future generations.
The need for ecological conversion
The idea that all of nature is there for human use and is basically an economic asset is so common that, to free us from its shackles, Pope Francis proposes that each of us, and societies in general, need to pass through an “ecological conversion”. This would parallel the moral, intellectual and religious conversions previous theologians have highlighted. It would encompass perceptions, values and emotions.
He explains how this attitudinal change is essential for all Christians, “What they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in the relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our creation.” (LS 217)
The Pope also goes on to state that, if the world is going to change, this will involve much more than isolated individuals; it needs community conversion. (LS219); In this area, we need to heed the importance of the images that fill our screens and imaginations. Because of the intensity of the enhanced images pouring out through a multitude of devices, we are constantly being bombarded by glamorous images of food, clothing, furniture, cars, etc., urging us to buy, eat or update without any reference to the ability of the earth to sustain this continual assault. The outcome is to reinforce the image of the human as being essentially a consumer.
To fight against such trends, it is critical that we are constantly seeing counter-images – such as natural beauty and landscapes. It is also equally critical that we are able to visit and walk in, not too far from where we live, parks and reserves that give us some sense of the world that existed before its transformation by human need and greed. We also need to revisit and soak up the vision of the great saints and mystics of nature such as the Celtic saints, Kevin and Brendan, Francis of Assisi, and modern lovers of simplicity and nature such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
In the face of our consumer–driven world, the Pope also exhorts all of us to ponder if we should move to a simpler life-style. (LS 225-26); “Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry, which in turn leads them to ride roughshod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment.”
Once again Francis places this within the need for a sense of wonder. “If we approach nature and the environment without . . . openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” (LS 11)
Wider dimensions of justice
Pope Francis is under no illusions as to how difficult such a change of direction would be, since it involves not just individuals, but long–held patterns of global economics and cultures, especially in economically advanced nations. Because natural resources have been seen purely as economic assets, this has led to struggles which have “engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful”. (LS 82); The Pope underlines the need for comprehensive solutions that would take into account human rights, and cultural and spiritual values, not just economic considerations. (LS 139) Adding weight to such an integral solution, he underlines how all of us on the planet today need to imagine and visualise how life will be for generations to come, our children and grandchildren. Will they be faced with survival on a barren and hostile planet, stripped of the beauty of forest, wild beasts and untouched wilderness?
- Fr Neil Vaney, SM, is pastoral director of The Catholic Enquiry Centre NZ. This is the third of four reflections by Fr Vaney on Laudato Si’ published in NZ Catholic this year. The final one will be published in September.