Embracing an ecological spirituality … where less is more

The sixth and final chapter of Laudato Si, the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical on the environment, touches on ‘Ecological Education and Spirituality’.

Aug 06, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
The sixth and final chapter of Laudato Si, the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical on the environment, touches on ‘Ecological Education and Spirituality’.

Markets today are bombarding us with corporate media propaganda to entice us to consume more or to upgrade to the latest smartphones and laptops while downplaying the harmful effects of this lifestyle.

So many wrongly believe they are free “as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume”. But the reality is, those who are really free are “the minority who wield economic and financial power” i.e. those who profit enormously from this culture of consumerism and accumulation.

This highly individualistic consumerism makes us self-centred and greedy while our sense of the need to contribute to the common good evaporates.

As the Low Yat violence demonstrates, “an obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction”.

We are called to shun this culture of consumerism, to overcome individualism, and opt for what is meaningful. We are called to reach out to the other, to rise above ourselves and make a fresh start.

This means changing our lifestyle, making it simpler — it is, in fact, our social responsbility — and this could bring “healthy pressure” on those who “wield political, economic and social power”. When business earnings are affected, firms will have to find a way to be more environmentally responsible.

To help move away from extreme consumerism and to restore ecological balance, we need to broaden our education goals. These should include “a critique of the 'myths' of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)”. Environmental education should enable us to appreciate the transcendent which gives meaning to ecologicial ethics.

We badly need to “make a selfless ecological commitment” and work to reestablish harmony with ourselves, with others, with Nature and with God. We can make simple choices like using public transport or car-pooling. We should not think that these small gestures are meaningless and won't change the world. Every bit counts! Even though we may not see the result, it brings forth goodness, which can spread.

Ecological education can take place in schools, in the media, in catechism classes, other Christian communities (e.g. formation houses and seminaries) — and most importantly, in the family, where we learn common courtesies that allow us to live a shared life and promote respect for our surroundings.

Most importantly, we need an ecological conversion, grounded in our faith, to motivate us to be more concerned about the environment. This commitment “cannot be sustained by doctrine alone” but needs an ecological spirituality to inspire us, a profound interior conversion.

Our encounter with Jesus Christ should become evident in our relationship with the world around us. We would then feel compelled to live “our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork”. This is essential, “not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience”.

We would thus come to realise that “a healthy relationship with Creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion...” But that is not enough to deal with the global environmental crisis, which can be beyond mere individuals to confront. We also need a community conversion as “social problems must be addressed by community networks”.

This ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiam in resolving the problems of the world. This Christian spirituality will lead us to an alternative understanding of the quality of life. Freed from our obsession with consumerism, we will feel encouraged to pursue a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, capable of deep enjoyment.

Enjoy what? Does a constant flow of consumer goods provide lasting satisfaction? No. Instead we need to feel content in the conviction that “less is more”. This return to simplicity will allow us to cherish each moment, the small things in life, each touching gesture, each person we encounter, especially the poor.

Moving away from the mere accumulation of pleasures, we will learn to be spiritually detached from what we possess and not succumb to sadness over what we lack. All this sounds very Buddhist to me. Yet, it is also rooted in the Gospels and is liberating. Remember what Jesus told the rich young man? Remember how Jesus told us to contemplate the sparrows and the lilies of the field?

By removing the tentacles of acquisitiveness, we find a new way of living life to the full, rooted in a new (and yet ancient) “ecological spirituality”. This is a path removed from the burdens of consumerism — and the unsatisfied needs that come with it — that makes us so weary.

It is not enough to only speak of the integrity of the ecosystems, we need to cultivate healthy humility. We need to speak of “the integrity of human life”, to unify all the great values, says Francis. “Once we lose our humility and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace Him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.”

But before that, we have to find inner peace, and this is closely related to care for the ecology and the common good, a balanced lifestyle. We need an “attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God, to be lived to the full”.

Finally, we have to cultivate a social love that is key to authentic development. People can take part in working for the common good (including protecting the environment), not only through politics. They can also participate in countless other organisations and movements working for change. These movements encourage the bonds of solidarity, not only with one another, but with all Creation.

When we call God our Father, as Jesus taught us, we are able to call not only our fellow human beings brothers and sisters, but also all others in the realm of Creation too; hence Brother Sun and Sister Moon. The Eucharist itself is an act, a sign of this cosmic love and communion as heaven and earth are united.

So, we are called to move out of ourselves, to live in “communion with God, with others and with all creatures”. Everything is interconnected and we are invited to “develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity”. This sums up the glorious vision projected in Laudato Si, a watershed document in the life of the Church that will resonate throughout the world as we confront a social, economic and environmental crisis.

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