During Lent this year I have been looking at the Celtic understanding of penance and how it is rooted in desert tradition of Evagrius and Cassian. Today I would like to turn my attention towards something incredibly important in the modern world which no one talked about in the ancient and medieval worlds – environmental destruction. To start with, I would like to look at the example of one of my favourite saints, Brigit of Kildare.
Brigit lived her life in this mystical state of union with Christ. For her, the call to compassionate action extended beyond humanity and into the needs of all God’s creatures. There are many examples of the way that Brigit cared for animals and how they in turn loved her, understood her words, and contributed to her work of loving service. Once, a wild and angry boar came out of the forest and into her pasture. She blessed the boar and it became calm and lived with her pigs for the rest of its life.
On another occasion, she saw a beautiful bird flying above her and invited it to land on her arm. The bird gladly accepted and she petted it for a while before sending it off again. The depth of Brigit’s spiritual life was demonstrated by her ability to understand the natural world and all the creatures in it as well as their ability to understand her.
This is an aspect of the Christian faith which we have often forgotten in our modern world. Holiness is revealed not in a forgetting of the natural order but by an embrace of it. We can see the face of Christ in a fox just as well as we can in a human being. The lives of the Celtic saints testify to the fact that the virtues of humility, love, apatheia, and recollection are proven in a person by their gentleness and compassion towards all of God’s creatures.
Our forgetting of this truth has led to the horrific destruction of earth’s natural ecosystems which we see today. We have neglected the needs of God’s creatures for our own selfish gain and if we do not repent we will die along with them. Protecting the environment is a laudable way to engage in Christ’s commandment to love our neighbours. Contemporary Celtic Christianity has a clear emphasis on environmental stewardship for this exact reason.
Medieval Celtic Christianity, however, had a different sort of relationship with nature than we do in the modern world. They were still oblivious to the realities of environmental destruction, it was not something they even knew was possible, and so they did not speak to the issue directly. They did, however, have lots to say about how we can appreciate nature and encounter God in the beauty of Her creation.
Like the rest of medieval Europe, the Celts had a stream of nature mysticism which ran through their poetry, theology, and sacred stories. Perhaps if we recapture some of the traditional language about our spiritual relationship with nature, we will begin to shift our society towards concern for this beautiful and surprisingly fragile miracle we call the planet earth. If we can begin to embody the compassion towards the natural world we see in the life of Brigit, we will be able to repent and change our ways before it is too late and the planet no longer sustains human life.
We are destroying the earth because we have become disconnected from the natural world. We do not appreciate the marvel which is the created order because we often only engage with it in limited ways. We have created our own world of technology and it is in this new world that we spend most of our time.
This is good and beautiful in and of itself, because our creative endeavours are a reflection of God’s eternal creativity, but it does have the potential to make us forget our place in the ecosystem of life. This forgetting of our true nature and our interdependence with all life on this planet, may well be part of the reason why we are so lackadaisical about how our technologies are affecting the environment. What we need is a new way of seeing. We need to open our inner eyes so that we can see the sacredness of this magnificently beautiful planet of ours.
When I say that we need to repent, that’s exactly what I mean – we need to new kind of thinking, a spiritual transformation that will help us see the errors of our ways and begin to move in a better direction. I believe that the spiritual medicine we need in order to heal this blindness of our inner eyes is to immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature. If we look at a tree or a river or a flock of birds and we see the face of God, we will no longer disregard the environment the way we are doing now.
Our religious devotion is often divorced from the world. We seek divinity in books and talks and workshops but we do not do as Christ taught and learn lessons from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. There is a teaching in the Christian tradition that the first and oldest bible is the cosmos itself. The oldest source for this teaching which I have found is in a book of Evagrius’ sayings called Praktikos.
The word praktikos is equivalent to the modern English word practice. Praktikos is essentially the same set of spiritual practices and teachings which the Celtic monks called penance, both are about repentance. It is interesting that Evagrius included the following saying from Abba Anthony as part of his practical instructions because it shows the connection between penance and the contemplation of nature.
“A certain member of what was then considered the circle of the wise once approached the just Anthony and asked him: ‘How do you ever manage to carry on, Father, deprived as you are of the consolation of books?’ His reply: ‘My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God.’”
What Anthony is saying is that we can use nature as a tool in the healing of souls in the same way that we use the written word. Praying the scriptures is an important part of the practical life. The main tool which Evagrius employed in his spiritual practice involved repeating short scripture verses from the little book of the bible. We can also be healed by entering into a participatory knowing with the forms and beauty of the created order. If we go out into the wilderness we will be able to pray the scriptures of the big book as well.
If we have eyes which can see, the natural world around us will show us nothing other than the God who created it. If we see the face of God in the squirrels and the ragweed and the mosquitos, then we will be healed of our sin of pride and we will repent of our destructive ways. The medicine we need will be found in the very thing we are about to destroy. Lord have mercy. Amen.
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