A Conversation on Ecolog ical Conversion – December 22, 2021
I’d like to thank Father Charlie Rodriguez for inviting me to be part of this conversation on Ecological Conversion. The invitation stems from an article I published in The Way for April 2020. But, rather than summarize that article, let me begin by asking how we’ve arrived at this point in history where we can now talk about ecological conversion. It marks, in fact, a new awareness, a new level of consciousness – an ecological consciousness. And just as there are stages in the development of consciousness – so also there are stages in the development of ecological consciousness.
I SOME HISTORY
The first stage was Conservation. We’ve always known that the natural world can be life-threatening as well a lifelife-sustaining, and that human beings need protection from the natural world, from wind and cold and wet. But in the middle of the XIX century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a new awareness arose: The natural world needs protection from human beings. And so Yellowstone National Park – the world’s first national park – was established in 1872. The conservation movement thus marks the first stage in the development of ecological consciousness. In 1881 the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, put this question:
What would the world be once bereft
Of wildness and wet? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet.
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. (from “Inversnaid”)
In 1962 Rachel Carson published The Silent Spring, a study of the effects of DDT on birds. This was another turning point. It led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and to a ban on DDT in 1972. And so, thanks to Rachel Carson, the environmental movement was born, marking a second stage in the development of ecological consciousness. Its focus was not just on the preserving of certain parts of the natural world (for instance, the Grand Canyon) but on preventing the pollution of the whole of the natural environment.
The third stage in the development of ecological consciousness followed shortly after the environmental movement, with a shift in focus from the natural environment to life itself and the interconnected systems that sustain our life. Ecology is a branch of biology, the study of life, and the ecological movement emerged as an effort to counter the threat to the continued existence of our life on Earth. There was also a new awareness of changing climates, that is, of long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns since the 1800s, indicating that the continued warming of the atmosphere of planet Earth was approaching a point where this might become irreversible.
In a talk on Catechesis in January of 2001, Pope John Paul II first called for “a global ecological conversion.” And in Laudato Si’, Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis called for “an ecological conversion that is also a community conversion” (n. 219). Where does all this leave us?
First of all, we have to ask: what do we mean by conversion? I like Bernard Lonergan’s definition: “By conversion is understood a transformation of the subject and his world … It is as if one’s eyes were opened and one’s former world faded and fell away” (Method in Theology, 130). A transformation of the subject – of myself – as if my eyes were opened. And a transformation of my world – as if it faded and fell away.
If we apply this definition of conversion to Saint Ignatius, we can ask, In what did his conversion consist? What faded and fell away? Was it the ducal court of Navarre? Was it his womanizing? Or was it his cultural Catholicism? It was all of the above. How was Ignatius himself transformed? Well, from being a gallant knight Ignatius became a humble pilgrim, and he set out to replace the world of the court, in which he had served the Duke of Navarre, with the world of the Holy Land. This was a very clear and firm decision. But at first, his transformation involved little more than exchanging his fine clothes with those of a beggar, and, in a kind of comedy of errors, the beggar was then arrested for theft.
The transformation of the subject refers to one’s inmost self, to one’s habitual way of thinking and feeling and acting. This didn’t happen overnight with Ignatius. In what’s called the Autobiography, Ignatius relates his conversation with a Moor while he was on his way to Barcelona and the Holy Land. The Moor questioned Mary’s lifelong virginity and then rode off leaving Ignatius alone. Suddenly his cultural Catholicism kicked in, demanding that he avenge Our Lady’s honour by catching up with the Moor and stabbing him – killing him. But this didn’t seem in keeping with what he’d been reading in the Life of Christ. He was quite at a loss for what to do, and so, as he came to a fork in the road, he dropped the reins of his mule, trusting that God would guide it either to follow the Moor or to take the fork to a different road. (Someone has said, we’ve been letting the asses make the decisions ever since.) What’s clear is that Ignatius’ former world hadn’t quite faded or fallen away. He’d been ready to pursue the Moor and stab him if the mule had taken the other fork in the road. But: he was learning to put his trust in God, and to let God guide him by letting God guide the mule. He believed that his mule was more open to God’s guidance than he was: how’s that for humility!
Ignatius’ idea of following Christ was also somewhat naïve: he simply wanted to live the rest of his life in the Holy Land, in the places where Jesus had lived and died. And long after he was forced to leave, the Holy Land became the substance of the vow the first companions made at Montmartre in Paris. I suspect it was likely this intention to return to the Holy Land that drew the first companions around Ignatius and gave them their sense of purpose. Even after his ordination, Ignatius put off celebrating his first Mass, still hoping to do this in in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. He was a stubborn Basque. It was only because war with the Turks prevented ships from sailing to the Holy Land that he finally let go of his first determination (determinacion was one of Ignatius’ favourite words). Following Christ now became a matter of surrendering his plans and his will to the vicar of Christ – to the pope. As you can see, Ignatius’ conversion was a very slow, ongoing process.
III ECOLOGICAL CONVERSION
If we now apply Lonergan’s understanding of conversion to Ecological Conversion, then the transformation of the subject means that our eyes are opened to the reality that our life on Earth is threatened – human life, along with all the interconnected systems that support human life. This means that the world in which we operate in our day to day lives must also be transformed. Thus it calls for a moral conversion as well, that is, for a life based on always choosing the higher good. We cannot go on doing the same old things in the same old way. And so we see people choosing to walk or cycle rather than drive. We see people choosing to live not in suburbs but in cities, where public transportation makes them less reliant on their car and on commuting.
This is all very well, but it still leaves more and more people isolated from the natural world. We need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: what are the most important things for our life – for our continued existence? Henry David Thoreau published Walden: Life in the Woods in 1852. After living in the woods for two years, he said there are only four things we need for our life: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. David Suzuki, the Canadian ecologist and TV broadcaster, reduced this to three things. He said recently that, if we start with what is most essential, the first thing we need is air. Without it we’d all be dead in just a few minutes. And so clean air is essential to our life. The second essential thing is water. We can go for a while without food, but not for very long without water. And so pure water is also essential to our life. Finally, there’s our food, which needs to be grown in healthy soil or harvested from uncontaminated seas. Thus the natural world – its air, its water, its soil – is what sustains our life at every moment. And so ecological conversion hinges on the need to preserve what is essential to continued human life, and to take action against all the things that damage the air, the water, and the soil.
To devote ourselves to what is essentially good – good for all of humanity, good for all of creation – calls for a sustained and ongoing moral conversion. Lonergan offers five precepts to help us do this. First, be attentive – attentive to experience, to our own experience of the world around us. Second, be intelligent – ask questions for understanding (What is it? What happened?). Third, be reasonable – ask questions for reflection and judgment (Is it really so? Is it true?). Fourth, be responsible – make decisions and take action. And finally, be in love – in love with the Creator and with creation. He calls these transcendental precepts because they help us to transcend or rise above our tendency to be inattentive or stupid, unreasonable or irresponsible. I suspect that Lonergan discovered this structure (experience, understanding, judgment, decision, action) in his making of the Exercises, as he reflected prayerfully on his own experience in order to understand it correctly, to make good decisions, and to act upon them.
IV SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
And so we arrive at the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In them the focus is on making a decision – a decision free of disordered attachments to riches or honours, a decision made in response to the call of Christ the Eternal King. Your own original decision in making the Exercises as a novice was to join the Society of Jesus. I would suggest that we can also undertake the Exercises with the aim of making an ecological decision, a change of heart arising from love of God’s creation.
When we go through the four weeks of the Exercises, we see that this change of heart could arise during the First Week, from reflection on God’s compassion for creation and God’s mercy on us for our part in the sinful abuse of our home the Earth.
This change of heart could also arise during the Second and Third Weeks which lead us, first, to a deeper and deeper attachment to the person of Jesus, and then to a deeper understanding of his connection to all of creation through his incarnate human nature.
But it’s at the end of the Fourth Week, in the Contemplation to Attain Love, that we begin to see how the Exercises could lead us to a true ecological conversion. There we move from contemplating the gifts of creation to contemplating the dynamic presence of the Creator dwelling in all that he has created – laboring and working, Ignatius says, “for me in all creatures on the face of the earth” (Exx 236). We move from God’s intimate relationship with every single thing that exists, to the intimate relationship that each of us has with everything in which God is dwelling and labouring for us. Normally, love for creation leads us to love for the Creator, but love for the Creator dwelling in creation can lead to a new and deeper love for creation. In either case it’s God’s love that underpins everything.
From this ecological conversion would arise an ecological decision – a decision to serve the Creator in serving creation out of love for all that God has made. It would be a decision to serve Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” as Hopkins put it in another of his poems (“As kingfishers catch fire”). It would be a decision to put creation at the centre of our lives because God is already there at the centre of each and every thing, because Christ is already there compassionating with every creature that suffers. And because the Holy Spirit is already there at the heart of matter, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has said, the dynamic force that is driving creation and evolution to its Omega point.
V COMMUNITY CONVERSION
Finally, how are we to understand an ecological conversion that is also a community conversion? I think the kind of community Pope Francis is referring to is a global community of communities, a multiplicity of organizations and groups all around the world, all focused on ecological concerns, all linked and brought together by the internet and by cell phones. This is the kind of global village that Marshall McLuhan was talking about back in the 1960s.
Contemporary electronic communications offer us the possibility of establishing a truly global community, but a community of individual persons, intent not just on communicating with one another but on saving planet Earth. I think we’re already moving towards this community conversion, toward this global village. This kind of community conversion becomes also a religious conversion when we realize that we stand in need of a Saviour. We cannot save ourselves.
Let me conclude with a distinction between hope and optimism. Personally I’m not at all optimistic that Earth will be spared the conflagration that seems more and more clearly to be coming. Robert Frost has a little verse called “Fire and Ice” –
Some say the world will end with fire,
Some say with ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favour fire,
But ice is nice, and would suffice.
I hold with those who favour fire. Hope doesn’t mean that God will spare us, any more than God spared his own Son. It means that God will be with the Earth in its suffering, just as God was with Jesus in his suffering and death. Only such a hope can empower us to go on acting against the forces of destruction, even when action seems futile, rather than sinking into a desolate slough of despond.
My final words are again from Lonergan: “A religion that promotes self-transcendence to the point not merely of justice, but of self-sacrificing love, will have a redemptive role in human society inasmuch as such love can undo the mischief of decline and restore the cumulative process of progress.” (Method, 54) (Let me repeat …) Thank you for your attention.
[I’ve provided some Questions for Reflection:]
1 You might consider your own experience of conversion on some level: did it come in a flash or did it grow by stages?
2 How were you transformed and how was the world in which you operated changed? What faded and fell away?
3 You could reflect on your own experience of making the Exercises: which of the four Weeks stands out for you?
4 You might also reflect on your experience of working for ecological changes in your own daily life, or in working with others to change the world around you.