What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.


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  1. Pax Christi Metro New York had their annual retreat on Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry, focusing mainly on Thomas Berry and the themes you mention. I had never heard of him, but had a great retreat reflecting on all that, missed you! Sr. Kathleen Deignan and Francis Gargani, C.Ss.R. worked together to present the material and it was powerful. I am glad I have that reinforcement for your article, it may get me to read up on him, though I favor murder mysteries and sci fi. Nowadays, sci fi is becoming reality. Thank you!


  2. Thanks, Marian. I think that the future of our planet is the primary spiritual issue of our time and it’s the issue that all of us, sisters and brothers around the world, have to respond to globally. Can’t imagine why more religious leaders don’t get onboard!


  3. Very interesting take on the readings you cite, Marian. Thank you.

    As I understand it from my Bible footnotes (but I don’t know Hebrew), the word in Genesis translated as “dust” is “adamah” — a play on words: the first man’s name and his being shaped from the earth/soil/dirt. However, your point still holds. We SHOULD use dirt for Ash Wednesday — Dirt Wednesday!


  4. Thanks Marian, as always your thoughts suggest new work to be done in the Church. Here in Bosnia, a place where environmentalism is not just unmentioned, but scorned, I am discouraged. But we will continue to preach and preach and preach with the hope that by our lives (and our words) we might make a difference. Kirsten


    • Thanks for this clarification, Rosemary. And yes, let’s smear on that earth!


  5. Marian, Excellent and most helpful responses to the Lent texts — Yes, I concur that dirt/soil rather than ash would be most helpful on Ash (Dirt) Wednesday. Also your understanding that the birds of the air are indeed as much value as we larger critters. Thank you! Barbara T.


    • Thanks for responding, Barbara. And happy Easter in advance!


  6. Thanks, Marian. PCMNY’s retreat was indeed powerful and got me back on track in terms of reflecting and acting on these issues. For me it is growing in the consciousness, conscience and actions (Sr Kathleen sharing on Merton) of a more mature humanity purposely adopting lifestyles that secure the sustainability of the entire earth/universe community and the working to minimize the effects of climate change.
    It would be good if our clergy and episcopal leadership were putting the energy into these things that they should. However, history shows that this is the exception. It is the enlightened, faith-filled laypeople who make the significant changes in the Church and world. it is up to us to get the fire started as you are doing with this blog.
    In regards to Ash Wednesday, I always understood the ashes to be symbolic of the sackcloth and ashes that are the traditional garb of repentance and the “you are dust and the dust you shall return” as a reminder to get the proper perspective – we are humble, fragile humans that need God for everything – and thus prod us to repentance.
    Thanks for the bit of information on the 15 year window. of opportunity and for this blog. Looking forward to more on this from you.


  7. Agreed, all the way! A few years ago I saw a film shown at an UU church — Thomas Berry – The Great Story. It’s available here, really worth seeing. http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/tb.html


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