Eco-Sabbath: in tune with magnificence of nature

By  Simon Appolloni, Catholic Register Special
  • May 12, 2005
It's the first Sunday of the month. Gathered in the chapel of the old monastery wing of St. Gabriel's parish in North York, a Noah's Ark of Christians and environmental soul-searchers, young and old, from all walks of life and places, welcome the awesome grandeur and wisdom of God's creation.

They are searching for inspiration. The intensity and frequency of ecological destruction that we carry out daily on Earth's ecosystems - its waters, air, soil, vegetation, animals and humans - cry out for reflection in community.
"People are troubled by our environmental crisis. It's darn right depressing," explains the Eco-Sabbath's organizer, Dennis Patrick O'Hara, assistant professor of ethics at the Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael's College and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.

They are engaging deeply in questions on the environment and our role in it.

Heather Bennett, who has been attending these reflections for more than a year and has since made St. Gabriel's her parish, explains: "The Eco-Sabbath is an occasion to be inspired by the writings and musical expressions of others' intimate experiences with the magnificence of nature."

She adds, "They are a time to pause from daily activity and to open myself to transformation in my relationship with creation."

This is just what its founders wanted to achieve when they created the Eco-Sabbath Reflection six years ago, says O'Hara. Fr. Stephen Dunn, C.P., professor emeritus at the University of St. Michael's College and director of the Passionist Centre for Ecology and Spirituality at St. Gabriel's, and Anne Lonergan, now deceased, former staff at the Passionist Centre, author and mentor of students of eco-theology, both sensed a need to add an important dimension to our faith life that was not being addressed.

That dimension is the ecological perspective, our love for creation, says O'Hara. By creation, O'Hara does not mean that static mechanical world of Descartes and Newton. O'Hara refers to the universe as dynamically alive and ever-evolving, a 'cosmogenesis,' he says, based on the cosmological vision of Fr. Thomas Berry (also a Passionist) and cosmologist Brian Swimme.

This new cosmological vision is central to the reflections. Such a cosmology, O'Hara explains, creates a context for discerning the sacredness of creation, our communion with the universe and our role within it. How we understand ourselves within this sacred milieu is key.

If the universe is understood as being sacred where the divine presence continually lures all creation to some end, the human cannot be viewed as a mere addendum to the universe. Instead, according to Berry and Swimme, the human is that being in whom the universe reflects back upon itself in self-conscious self-awareness.

The clear conclusion for those at the Eco-Sabbath Reflection would seem to be that we are meant to participate in the celebration of creation and not in its destruction. "The hope is that we reawaken our imaginations to the splendour, mystery and intrinsic value of creation, and especially our intimate relationship with all aspects of God's good Earth," says O'Hara.

Bennett agrees. She feels she is learning to see nature differently with "each element of nature as having its own intrinsic value and right to be."

For Katherine Henderson, a parishioner at St. John's in Toronto, "It is fun and intellectually and spiritually stimulating." Henderson finds the atmosphere welcoming and brings her children with her each month. "I enjoy the opportunity to celebrate, in communion with others, the joy and beauty and power of the cosmos.

"The use of music, poetry, prose, visuals provide an enhancement or perhaps a different type of illumination of the liturgy I have just attended," Henderson adds.

The eclectic array of inspiration is purposeful, points out O'Hara. "It links our knowledge with our hearts and with the sinus of our body.  It's not just an intellectual game. If the solution to the ecological crisis were based on knowledge alone, then we'd have solved it long ago."

O'Hara is quick to point out that these reflections are not alternative liturgies, but continuations of the liturgy of that day. In fact, the Eco-Sabbath Reflections deliberately meet between the 9 and 10:30 Masses so that participants can attend Mass before or after.

The May gathering was the last until next September. O'Hara has no idea what is in store for this budding community.  However, he observes that the reason they now meet in the chapel is because the library could no longer hold their numbers. How long before the chapel itself becomes too small?

<i>(Appolloni is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register and a member of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.)

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