Respect Life Month
October is Respect Life Month! Recently we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Often times this is celebrated, as was done here at St. Bernadette, by a blessing of pets. Many of us know St. Francis as the patron saint of animals and ecology, inspiring us to continue our care for the natural world.
If you have ever been to Assisi, where St. Francis lived and worked, you would very likely find quick inspiration there. Standing in the midst of such vast natural beauty, you might feel your heart quickening, much like St. Francis’ must have when he immersed himself in the wonders of such beauty and peace, where he found solitude to pray and give glory to the creator.
When Francis spent time in the forest (he often slept there, under the cover of the trees and rocks), he was not alone. He was accompanied by a great deal of living matter, some animals large enough to encounter, some too small to even see -- but still present, and an abundance of plant life. Every living being in his surroundings gave life, as it also depended on the other life forms for its survival. Modern science has explored this concept of interdependence and given the cycles that perpetuate life different names and categories, like the nitrogen cycle or the water cycle, for example. It is not necessary to rely on science books to get a sense of life’s interdependence, however. As Francis was immersed in this peaceful, yet very active and alive, surroundings of the forest, he was also accompanied by God. The source of all life and the sustenance of all life, God is expressed through and glorified in our world.
The world has changed a great deal since the twelfth century when Francis lived. Living around Chicago in the twenty-first century, we have to work a little harder to find the serenity of nature that was so readily available to St. Francis. We may feel disconnected from the peace and tranquility of natural environments, and we may have to read about concepts like symbiosis in a science book in order to realize nature’s harmony. We also live in a time when technology has learned how to capitalize on nature’s resources for the benefit of humankind, and unfortunately too often, our Christian teaching has given support to this, saying that we are to dominate the land. Rather, we should remember that we are to be good stewards of it.
In recent decades, we (scientists and theologians alike) have uncovered a few ways we have knocked the notion of interdependence out of balance, and we recognize that our use of nature (or ignoring it altogether) sometimes does everything but glorify God.
A few things must be considered as we respect life in 2014, which have very practical implications on the way we live that go beyond mere “appreciation” of plants and animals, and demand more than hoping that someone else fixes the problems we have created.
- Nature is good for the human spirit. Just as St. Francis’ spirituality flourished when he immersed himself in his natural surroundings, our spirits are made to do the same. God has made human beings to be in an interdependent relationship with the natural world – not only for our physical needs, but there are many psychological and spiritual benefits to turning off the bustle of the world, and immersing oneself in the natural blessings God originally gave to us. When the spirit is fed and we are also emotionally healthy, other great things emerge from us. Studies show that students who are exposed to free play in nature have more overall success in school and have strong imaginations and problem-solving skills. Building respect for nature among children also gives rise to higher empathic skills, meaning children who learn to respect the Earth are more empathetic and compassionate to all life.
- Nature should not only be viewed as something to serve humans, but should be recognized as a gift, and indeed, a treasure. Certainly we must rely on natural resources for our survival, but in our materialistic world with its instant gratification and a clouding of the lines between needs and wants, the natural world quickly becomes exploited. Exploitation of God’s gift is the opposite of glorification of God, and it is the opposite of gratitude. As individuals, we must support organizations and companies who serve and glorify God in their treatment of the natural world. As a society and a globalized community, we must be aware that exploiting nature is one more symptom of the devaluation of life, which contributes to the rampant desensitization to violence and abuse of power over life that is completely dependent, voiceless, and powerless.
- Ecological imbalance is also related to economic imbalance. This is occurring in a few ways. First of all, there is a dearth of natural play space for children living in areas affected by urban poverty. Research has shown a connection between children’s learning and development when they have more exposure to safe, outdoor play space. If children’s and adults’ psychological, emotional, and spiritual balance is impacted by a connection with nature, then people of all economic classes ought to have access to such a resource. We can literally say this is a God-given right; it is given by God, and we are meant to thrive in balance with this gift.
- Exploiting the Earth and its resources also has implications for the global economy and the imbalance of wealth and power among the nations of the world. When wealthy nations or corporations exploit the natural resources and the human resources of a developing nation for their own material gain, this causes several problems. First, it can be very destructive on a community that depends on the natural resources for its survival. Second, it may create a structure of power and dependence, where the developing communities are rendered economically dependent on an entity beyond their control, which can then manipulate the assets, or abuse or take advantage of the laborers. Therefore, we as consumers, may all expect the companies we pay for our goods to conduct their business ethically with regard to use of natural resources and the respect for the good of human work.
Ideas for reflection and action:
- Pray the prayer of St. Francis. Ask God, through the intercession of St. Francis, to make us all instruments of peace. Find it here: http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Francis/peaceprayer.asp
- Put your money (and your vote) where your values are. Research companies that respect life, respect the natural world, and the value of human work. Don’t pay someone who abuses or takes advantage of people of a lower economic class, simply because they have the power to.
- Work in a neighborhood with few natural resources, or help a child or a family to get the opportunity to spend some time immersing themselves in nature. The natural world is not only a physical gift from God, it is a spiritual gift. You won’t have to say a thing; let God’s grace do its work in the quiet whisper of the wind, the rustling of autumn leaves, or the twitter of a bird.
- Make a retreat, even for a few hours. Turn off your phone, tv, computer, and car, and spend some real time in the quiet of the outdoors. Let your children play and pretend in the shade of a tree or in a tunnel made of leaves. Take a walk or sit quietly and reflect on the harmony of the world and all its inhabitants, each endowed with inherent value, simply by virtue of being part of God’s great creation.
- Reflect upon the ideas of solidarity and subsidiarity, two main themes of Catholic Social Teaching, and what our treatment of the Earth has to do with the interdependence of all life and of human relationships. For more info: http://www.cctwincities.org/document.doc?id=13
Dr. Andrea Stapleton,
Director of Faith Formation