Humanity, nature go hand-in-hand

  • August 28, 2007
{mosimage} My old friend Julia was describing her battle with her body. Conflict between body and spirit is often part of physical illness. Sometimes it seems the body is attacking us, as though it were the enemy.

Julia certainly feels that way. She's endured sexual abuse, self-abuse by way of alcohol addiction and suicide attempts, and recently a radical internal surgery that leaves her in constant pain and frustration. She's not sure why she doesn't return to alcohol or suicide.

A strong spirit, Julia has. A strong body too, for though much weakened by all its suffering, it's carried her through everything. And she can still shout across a crowded room more effectively than anybody I know.

How do we live the friction between body and soul, matter and spirit? Much of our pain, and our joy, come from this tension. I read this truth in Julia's experience, and I read it in the words of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.  

Bartholomew was speaking not of human illness, but of the suffering of creation through the actions of humans who harm rather than protect it.   

He writes that humanity's double existence, matter and spirit, means we must co-operate with nature. God asks us to partake in and have responsibility for the created order. We're given this special place, not to control nature, but to be its servants. We can't do so except through prayer and relationship with God; on our own, without God, our power becomes destructive. It's an invitation to transcend ourselves, to exercise 'œresponsible synergy' with the Creator so all creation might be sanctified.

It's a disarmingly simple concept which has serious meaning for us in every moment.    

Bartholomew observes that our treatment of creation and our treatment of one another are connected. When we violate the sacredness of creation, we disturb the harmony God desires us to uphold. We're violent with the earth as with one another. We become egocentric, selfish and self-reliant, trying to become God instead of letting God bring us into union with Himself. That's why ending war and poverty go together with doing good, instead of harm, to the environment. It's a package deal.

Christians, says Bartholo-mew, have three responses. First is prayer. In 1989, his predecessor, Dimitrios I, declared Sept. 1 a worldwide day of prayer for protection of the environment. In the Orthodox Church, Sept. 1 is the first day of the new year. Every September, Bartholomew issues a new call to draw on the church's ascetic and eucharistic life '” the only way humans can find right relationship between ourselves and the material world.

My friend Julia illustrates. Listening with awe to her heart-rending tale, I realized how bodily anguish has shaped her and strengthened her spirit, though I doubt she would have chosen physical pain in order to have her spirit strengthened. She has borne her cross, or been nailed to it, with surprising grace. She's discovered, at the heart of the pain, a treasure: 'œThe other day, I was talking to God,' she said unexpectedly. 'œI told him I still love Him.' Then I understood better why she hasn't returned to alcohol or suicide, why she's becoming daily more transparent to the divine. She knows the power in her weakness; she knows how the soul helps raise up the body.

The second point is that prayer is made stronger by change of actions. So we pray, but we let prayer help us to act differently. Julia helped me understand this step, too. She's trying to forgive people who have hurt her over the years. Bartholomew names concrete ways each of us can change our actions to be better stewards of creation.

The third point is repentance: change of attitude and mentality. In the current situation, Bartholomew notes, words and small sacrifices aren't enough; we need 'œcourageous acts and large sacrifices.'

We ourselves, through such actions taken in prayer, become different, become more like God, co-creators rather than destroyers, servants rather than tyrants. We abandon selfishness for generosity, egocentrism for a capacity to love, violence for harmony. These aren't just pretty words that make us feel better. It's asceticism, repentance and holiness, the path of the cross.

Bartholomew issued with Pope John Paul II a Joint Declaration on Environmental Ethics (June 2002), from a common theology of humanity as 'œstewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom.' This connection illustrates Bartholomew's conviction that restoring right relationship with the environment, and restoring right relationship among humans, go hand-in-hand.

'œToday,' writes Bartholomew (2004), 'œwe stand at a crossroads, namely at a point of choosing the cross that we have to bear.' In September, both communions celebrate the feast of the Elevation of the Cross (in the Catholic Church, called the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross). Through the cross, body and soul are raised together to new life.    

(For Bartholomew's writings, go to 'œEcological Activities' on