“The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Romans 8:22).
The word ‘ecology’ was coined about a century ago by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel. It is derived from the Greek ‘oikos’, which means house or habitation. He wanted to focus on the relationship of living things to their environments. Everything in this world is related in some way to everything else, and we human beings are part of the great web of life on this planet. We have sometimes imagined that we can live as if were not part of it, but rather above it – subduing it, using it, abusing it. But today we are aware that this cannot go on forever: the earth is not an infinite resource, and we are destroying our own environment, our ‘house’, by the way we live. We are not the only living things in the world, and what we do to nature we do to ourselves; as we destroy nature we destroy ourselves.
Some ancient peoples worshipped trees, or regarded them as sacred in some sense, or saw them as “external souls.” I don’t imagine that trees are waiting to be worshipped. They, like us, are straining for fuller life. It would be enough to treat them with respect and care. Instead, we often treat them destructively, considering only their commercial value. This says a great deal about us. Hear Thomas Merton: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness.”
I know a man who bought a chainsaw, and to “try it out” he cut down the only tree in his garden. This says a lot about our infatuation with machines and our disregard of the living world around us. ‘Environmental awareness’: those are two long words, and they make the subject seem a rather abstract one. So it would be good to bring it down to detail. Start with the tree in your garden or near your house. Sit with it and let it teach you.
When people try to teach us to meditate they usually tell us to go into our inner selves and fall silent there. This is not as simple as it seems, because our inner selves are often restless and tortured places, and what we find is the restless heave of emotions and memories; or just scraps of conversations and television ads – the debris of the whole world that has been blowing through us. As an alternative try this: sit with a tree, or in plain view of one; listen to its silence, be one with its innocence, its truthfulness, its stability, its patience…. Then be aware that if these same qualities were not also in you, you would not have seen them in the tree. The tree becomes a mirror of our own deeper self. It is teaching us how to enter that silent place in us, setting aside all the chatter of the superficial self, the ego. A tree can be our best teacher.
In a remarkable prose-poem, Hagia Sophia, Thomas Merton wrote: “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness…. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility.” (See ‘Wisdom Line’ for a longer extract.)
Creation, said St Bonaventure, is a revelation of God; it is God’s first book. All creation is groaning in labour pains; and as we struggle to be what we are in God we have a multitude of companions. How sad and lonely it would be if we were entirely on our own!Donagh O'Shea