I. Introduction

Allow me to take you back on a journey to the story of creation. Whenever we think of the Genesis account of creation, we tend to ignore our connection to the environment. Perhaps it is a natural reaction – or perhaps it is a sign of arrogance – but we often overemphasize our creation “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26) and overlook our creation from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Yet, our “heavenliness” should not overshadow our “earthliness.” Most people forget that we human beings did not get a day to ourselves in Genesis. In fact, we shared the sixth day with the creeping and crawling things of the world (Gen. 1:24-26). There is a binding unity and continuity that we share with all of God’s creation; it is helpful – and humble – to recall this truth.

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Of course, in more recent years, we have been painfully reminded of this truth with flora and fauna extinction, soil and forest clearance, as well as air and water pollution. However, our concern for the environment does not result from any superficial or sentimental romanticism. It arises from our effort to honor and dignify God’s creation. It is a way of paying attention to “the mourning of the land” (Hosea 41:3) and “the groaning of creation” (Rom. 8:22).

This is the reason why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has organized, among other initiatives, a number of international and inter-disciplinary symposia over the last decade: in the Aegean Sea (1995) and the Black Sea (1997), along the Danube River (1999) and in the Adriatic Sea (2002), in the Baltic Sea (2003), on the Amazon River (2006), as well as in Greenland and the Arctic (2007), and most recently in the Saronic Islands (2018).

For, like the air that we breathe, water is a source of life; if defiled, the very essence of our existence is threatened. Tragically, however, we appear to be caught up in selfish lifestyles that repeatedly ignore the constraints of nature, which are neither deniable nor negotiable. There will unfortunately be some things that we learn about our planet’s capacity for survival which we will discover only when things are beyond the point of no return.

II. Three Ways of Perceiving Creation

Orthodox theology presents us with three helpful ways of perceiving the world and of restoring within ourselves a sense of wonder before God’s creation:

  • icons (the way we perceive creation);
  • liturgy (the way we celebrate creation); and
  • asceticism (the way we respect creation).

i. The Iconic Vision of Nature

A sense of the holy in nature implies that everything that breathes praises God (Ps. 150:6); the entire world is a “burning bush of God’s energies,” as Gregory Palamas claimed. When our heart is sensitive to this reality, then “our eyes are opened to discern the beauty of created things.” (Abba Isaac the Syrian)

Seeing clearly is precisely what icons teach us to do. The world of the icon offers new insights; it reveals the eternal dimension in everything that we experience. Our generation, it may be said, is characterized by a sense of self-centeredness toward the natural world, by a lack of awareness of the beyond. We appear to be inexorably trapped within the confines of our individual concerns. We have broken the sacred covenant between ourselves and our world.

Well, the icon restores; it reconciles. The icon reminds us of another way of living and offers a corrective to the culture that we have created, which gives value only to the here and now. The icon reveals the inner vision of all, the world as created and as intended by God. For, by disconnecting this world from heaven, we have in fact desacralized both.

This is why the doctrine of the divine incarnation is at the very heart of iconography. In the icon of Jesus Christ, the uncreated God assumes a creaturely face, a beauty that is “exceeding” (Ps. 44:2), a “beauty that can save the world.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky) And in Orthodox icons, faces – whether of Christ, or of the saints – are always frontal; two eyes always gaze back at the beholder. Profile signifies sin; it implies a rupture in communication. “I see” means that “I am seen,” which in turn means that I am in communion.

In this respect, the entire world is an icon, a door opening up to this new reality. Everything in this world becomes a seed. “Nothing is a vacuum in the face of God,” wrote St. Irenaeus of Lyons; “everything is a sign of God.” Thus, in icons, rivers assume human form; so, too, do the sun and the moon and the stars and the waters. All of them adopt human faces; all of them acquire a personal dimension – just like us; just like God.

ii. The Liturgy of Nature

What an icon does with matter, the liturgy does with time. If we are guilty of relentless waste in our world, it is perhaps because we have lost the spirit of worship. We are no longer respectful pilgrims on this earth; we have been reduced to mere tourists. Our original sin lies perhaps in our prideful refusal to receive the world as a sacrament of communion.

By liturgical, however, I do not mean ritual. I mean dynamic movement. I mean a profound and intimate association between this world and heaven. This means that what we do on earth matters for what we believe about heaven. The way we relate to other people on earth reflects the way we pray to “our Father in heaven.” So we respond to nature with the same sensitivity, the same tenderness with which we respond to human beings. If we have learned not to treat people like things because they are created “in the image of God,” we must now learn not to treat even things like mere things.

Liturgy, then, is a celebration of communion and connection. When we recognize this inter-dependence of all persons and all things – this “cosmic liturgy,” as St. Maximus the Confessor described it in the seventh century – then we will begin to resolve the environmental crisis.

The world in its entirety comprises an integral part of the liturgy. God is praised by trees and birds, glorified by the stars and moon (Ps. 18:2), worshiped by sea and sand. There is a dimension of art and music in the world. Which means, by extension, that whenever we reduce our spirituality to ourselves and our own interests, we forget that the liturgy implores God for the renewal of the whole polluted cosmos. And whenever we narrow life to our own concerns and desires, we neglect our vocation to raise creation into the kingdom.

iii. The Way of the Ascetics

Of course, the earth does not always feel or look like heaven; a quick glance at the suffering inflicted throughout the world is alone sufficient to bring us to our senses. Thus, St. Paul writes:

Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20).

Reference to “the blood of the cross” is a clear indication of the cost involved. There is a price to pay for our wasting. And this is the value of ascesis; and the ascetic way is a way of liberation. The ascetic is one who is free, uncontrolled by abusive attitudes and habits, characterized by self-restraint, as well as by the ability to say “no” or “enough.” The goal of asceticism is moderation, not repression; its content is positive, not negative. It looks to service, not selfishness; to reconciliation, not renunciation. Without asceticism, none of us is authentically human.

In his now classic article entitled “The Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White already suspected – although he did not elaborate on – the truth behind asceticism, noting that:

The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts. The Latins … felt that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in right conduct. … The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge more easily in the Western atmosphere. (Science 155, 1967)

Far too often, we are sure that we have the solutions to the environmental crisis that we face without being still to listen to the earth that we have so burdened and wounded. Let us not forget, however, that it is our very actions that have led us in the first place to the situation we are facing. Paradoxically, then, ecological correction may in fact begin with environmental in-action. This is the discipline of asceticism: of silence, of vigilance and of detachment. It is the way of humility, of learning to tread lightly and gently on this planet. Pride is a uniquely human attribute; it belongs to Adam. Humility through asceticism is able to reconcile a world otherwise divided by pride, to preserve a planet otherwise exploited by greed.

III. Two Models of Caring for Creation

Now, if our ecological prayer is to move from the distant periphery of an abstract theology to the center stage of practical living, if our spirituality is to become “incarnate,” then there are two complementary models that are proposed – and have been tested – by the tradition.

i. The Biblical Model

According to this model, the Church is called to be in solidarity with the weakest parts of the Body of Christ. It must stand for the most vulnerable, the helpless or voiceless elements of this world, which according to St. Paul “groan in travail, awaiting liberation from the children of God” (Rom. 8:22).

This implies a kind of cosmic “liberation theology.” The earth, too, is a member of our body, a part of our flesh, inseparable from our history and our destiny. God hears the silent cry of the earth. This is the Biblical covenant, God’s promise to the people of Israel: God listens to the world; God attends to the world; God tends to the smallest details of this earth.

ii. The Sacramental Model

And Orthodox Christians do this through the sacraments, which have an undeniable and indelible environmental seal. Unfortunately, in so many of our church circles, the sacraments are often reduced to ritual observances. Yet, like renunciation, communion too is much more than a way of inspirational or individual reward. It is the vocation and mandate to share.

We are obliged to recall this sacramental dimension of the world, to recognize that nothing is secular or profane. God is – and is within – the very constitution of our soul and our world. Before Vespers each evening, Orthodox Christians recite the Ninth Hour, recalling our vocation to realize the presence of God “at every hour and every moment, both in heaven and on earth, in all places of his dominion” (Ps. 103:22).

IV. Conclusion

The image of this sacramental communion in the Orthodox Church is represented in color through the icon depicting the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah as they welcome three strangers in the desert of Palestine. This is an icon of the communion between the three persons of the Trinity. The story is related in Genesis 18 of Abraham sitting under the oak trees of Mamre:

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. (Gn. 18:1)

If we pay close attention, not only do the oaks provide refreshing shade for the Patriarch of Israel, but they are the occasion for divine revelation.

By analogy, then, not only do the trees of the world provide sustenance for humankind in diverse ways, but they reflect the very presence of God. Cutting them down implies eliminating the divine presence from our lives. Indeed, the Hebrew interpretation of this text implies that the oak trees themselves – just as the visitors who appeared at the same time – actually reveal God. It was not until Abraham recognized the presence of God in the trees (in creation, or adamah) that he was also able to recognize God in his visitors (in human beings, or adam). Creation, like the human beings who appeared in the form of angels, is the very manifestation of God.

Dear friends, the crisis that we are facing is not primarily ecological; it has less to do with the natural environment and more to do with the way we envisage or imagine the world. We are treating our planet in an inhumane, godless manner precisely because we fail to see it as a gift inherited from above. Unless we change the way we perceive the world, then we are simply dealing with symptoms, not with their causes.

In 2017, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint encyclical—the first ever between the two leaders for September 1st, the Day of Creation—where they emphasized the need to “identify what is really important and what brings meaning to life . . . and for the human family [they said] to act in solidarity and reconciliation in order to halt the destruction of the environment and preserve the diversity of the earth.”

If we have learned something from the current pandemic, it is that the earth can recover when we restrain our actions of domination and destruction. By simply bringing less harm—on creation and on other people—the world can unleash unimaginable healing powers. Let this be the moment (the kairos) that we steer the earth toward such restoration and reconciliation.