When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said: “I am God the Almighty. Walk in my presence and be blameless.”
We are told that when God first created humanity, God would walk with them each afternoon. Before the experience of the fall, before we lost our “original innocence” and integrity, we lived in the light of God’s presence. When Abram is called by God into a new covenantal relationship with God, God tells Abram, to become Abraham, to walk in God’s presence once again.
After sinning, Adam and Eve hide from God. One of the most poignant lines in the scriptures is God’s calling to Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Adam and Eve have, by their own choice, ceased to walk with God, and so are cast out, living then at a distance, from the sense of integration and wholeness that comes from knowing ourselves as a part of a whole. In God’s call to Abram, we see that God never ceases to seek the reunion with us, the communion, that is our true destiny. When we walk with God, we realize the truth of who we are and our connection with all that is. We are a part of creation and we have no real life at all separate from the entire created world of which we are a part.
Yesterday a friend passed a book my way entitled The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology by Douglas E. Christie. In chapter three of that book, Christie speaks of “penthos” the gift of tears. He begins the chapter by quoting Aldo Leopold who wrote: “We only grieve for what we know.” Immediately I was struck by the deep pathos of that line. I began to wonder about how it is that our planet, “our common home” as Pope Francis calls it, can be falling into such degradation and I, and most of us, do not grieve it with a grief that could purify our lives and intentions and transform our way of being, that could enable a graced response? And, thanks to Leopold and Christie, I realized that in large part it is because I do not know the world as deeply as I could.
In our early days of religious life we often heard the phrase that we were to be “in the world but not of it.” It is, of course, a very valid directive when seeing “the world” in the scriptural sense of the summons to conformity to a less than fully human way of being. Yet, too often I have found myself failing to recognize how I am “of the world,” or better, “of the earth” in a deeper sense. Living in what we call a highly “civilized” society means that we are often very much removed from contact with creation. Moving from air conditioned home to air conditioned office by means of an air conditioned automobile in which I am usually the only passenger allows me to pass the day pretty much unaware of the creation that surrounds me. I am dependent on the trees for oxygen, the clouds, rivers, and lakes for water, the earth for food and yet I have very little immediate contact with, and so awareness of, them. I am made of the same elements as every aspect of creation and, yet, I have no felt sense of my intimate connection with them. As Adam and Eve hid themselves from God, I largely hide from my consciousness the external world. It is the thoughts of my own mind, the strivings of my “self” that preoccupy my consciousness. The created world is largely absent to me — or, more accurately put, I am absent from the created world.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus relates how the priest and the Levite passed by “on the other side” of the road from the man who needed them. In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Jesus speaks of how Dives, the Rich Man, never even saw Lazarus outside his gate. I fail to grieve what I should be grieving, about the human and the natural world, because I am locked behind my gate or because I distance myself by walking on the other side of the road. That gate is almost always some form of self-preoccupation. In our own minds where we are busy with our own self-creation, we fail to be put in and to know our true place in the world. St. Francis of Assisi praised God for everything that God made, reverencing everything in God’s world as his brother and sister. He realized that he was very much “a part of the world.” From that place he knew that everything was, as he himself, a gift of God. It was to be reverenced and cherished, and its loss was a loss to be grieved, a loss not only to but of himself.
Responsibility is not an abstract experience. We are responsible, we feel responsible for what we know and love. A few evenings ago, I saw a news story about air pollution in Atlanta, Georgia. The story centered around a very young boy who was not able to go out of his house because his serious asthmatic condition could not survive the level of pollution in that city. It struck me that I and we have the power to help that boy, and every other person in Atlanta. We have the power to prevent the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from degrading further and thus to prevent the catastrophic results it would mean for our planet.
As we see pictures of the Arctic sea ice melting and cracking, how is it that we feel such a personal distance from it? How is it that our common home is being degraded, perhaps beyond a point of no return, and we are not grieving for it? Perhaps, it is in part, because we are not fully occupying it, that in the deepest sense of personal knowledge, we do not really know it as we should. “We only grieve for what we know.”
One of my favorite prayers from the liturgy, one we no longer say, is the Alternate Prayer for Trinity Sunday.
God, we praise you:
Father all powerful, Christ Lord and Savior, Spirit of love.
You reveal yourself in the depths of our being,
drawing us to share in your life and your love.
One God, three persons,
be near to the people formed in your image,
close to the world your love brings to life
We ask your this, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
one God, true and living, for ever and ever.
The significance of this prayer for me is that at moments of deeper awareness I realize that I live most of my life at a distance from life, from others, from the created world. I reach out but occasionally from my hiding place, from the other side of the road, from behind my gate to touch the real world, the real life of others that truly exists outside of my own head. I don’t love more, and so grieve more, because I don’t know the reality of others and the world as I could were I closer to them and to it. We pray to God to be near us human beings and the world because it is we who are not near. To receive God’s invitation to walk with God would be to walk with, to be a brother and sister to, all that is. We would then rejoice in the life of all that is given to us and we would grieve, with a potentially transformative grief, over any part “of us” that is lost. All comes and goes, but it is not in our power to give life or to destroy it.
Living at a distance, hidden from the world and cramped behind my gate, my heart has no room to expand. Our planet is suffering, and perhaps dying, because our hearts are too small. We fear fully living and feeling life, knowing true joy at life and suffering profound grief at death and loss. As we receive God’s invitation to walk with God, may be come to be “near to the people formed in your image, /close to the world your love brings to life.”
“We only grieve for what we know.” So claims Aldo Leopold in his ecological masterpiece The Sand County Almanac. The immediate context of this remark is Leopold’s reflection on the increasing rarity of a once-abundant species of prairie wildflower, the cutlleaf Silphium. How could this beautiful plant have come so dangerously close to extinction, he wondered? Why did its impending disappearance from the world not provoke a stronger response? Why was there no expression of grief? More than fifty years later, amidst ecological degradation far more extensive than anything Leopold could have envisioned, these questions still reverberate. Grief over losses in the natural world has become a common part of our personal and collective emotional landscape. At the same time, the very depth and extent of these losses has produced, for many, a kind of psychic numbing, resulting in an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge or respond to this loss lest it completely overwhelm and perhaps debilitate us. There is too much to grieve. Still, Leopold’s observation raises important questions about the role of grief in shaping our feeling for the natural world, as well as its place within the larger effort to develop a coherent and meaningful ecological ethic.
Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, p. 70