And God Saw That It Was Good…
I love the changing seasons, the beauty, the wildness, the intricacies and surprises of nature. As I write, it is grey and cold outside, but we have had our first hints of spring in the Midwest and the promise of new life, blooming plants and the greening of our fields and forests. It is easy to envision a beautiful summer just around the corner and the lush colorful growth that we expect to accompany it. At the same time, the news tells us that our waters and the air we breathe continue to be polluted at alarming rates. Earth Day, April 22, invites us to both rejoice in God’s creation and to look closely at those things that imperil our earth and all who live upon it.
As people of faith, educators and justice workers, we can easily list a myriad of environmental issues facing our world. Genetically modified foods, clear-cutting of forests, the loss of topsoil, global warming, air and water pollution in our communities, and even power struggles and wars fought over the earth’s resources at the expense of human life and denigration of our planet …..the list seems endless. Earth Day offers us an opportunity to look again at what our Creator has called “good” and to commit ourselves to base future decisions on good stewardship. Catholic social teaching calls upon us to protect the earth and all who live on it by recognizing that we are in relationship with all creation—the earth and our sisters and brothers all over the world. Respect for creation interweaves with our respect for the dignity of all persons and their rights to the earth’s resources. Along with our rights come responsibilities; many of our personal, business, and political choices will have global environmental implications and at times perhaps conflict with our values of human dignity, respect for creation, solidarity and an option for the poor and vulnerable of our world. Yet we are called to hold all these values in tension as we seek to interweave all of them into the core of our lived faith.
Earth Day can serve as an invitation to your students to explore the wonderful gifts of creation with which our Creator has blessed us and also serve as a vehicle to identify environmental issues and to renew our commitment to care for God’s gifts. In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Peace With God the Creator; Peace With All Creation, the late Pope John Paul II pointed out that a lack of respect for nature fuels disrespect for others and breeds insecurity. He also noted that the notion the earth is “suffering” is shared by people of various faith traditions and that the ecological crisis is a “moral problem.” The earth is literally the common ground of all. The message is easy to read and not long. It could be used to launch discussions on various environmental issues such as the need to change prevailing lifestyles in order to lessen the burden on the earth, the role of aesthetics or an appreciation of the beauty of creation in our spiritual lives, and the need to look at structural forms of poverty on a global basis as we address the ecological imbalances of our time. The complete text can be accessed at:
-The earth is our common ground. We are used to looking at issues from our Catholic Christian lens, but how do other faith traditions view the earth through their faith lens? Perhaps different groups of students would be interested in researching and presenting how the followers of Judaism or Islam view care for creation.
-Catholic social teaching tells us that our relationship to all creation is important and vital to our relationships with God and our brothers and sisters around the world. How might a disregard for the environment spill over and reveal problems in our relationships with God and other persons?
-In Genesis, we read that God created man and woman and gave them “dominion” over the creatures of the earth. For too long, the word “dominion” was taken as free reign to ravage the earth with no regard for the consequences. Does it matter how we interpret words? Does having “dominion” mean absolute power over the earth? Does it mean disregarding others’ needs or the earth’s future? How would this interpretation of power impact our relationships with other people? Is there a moral obligation to be good stewards of God’s gifts? What difference would it make to see the earth as having an integrity of its own due to its being God’s creation? What if we saw ourselves in relationship with the earth and respectful of all creation? What if we accepted the “empowerment” or responsibility to be co-creators? Part of the United States Bishops Conference environmental justice page, the article Ecological Spirituality by Rev. Joseph A. Tetlow SJ would be good reading prior to discussions on the meaning of “dominion” or the relationship between an ecological spirituality and the choices we make. Access it at http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp/background/articles/ecological.html
-The earth sustains us physically, but what about emotionally or spiritually? What role does nature play in your students’ spirituality? Do they have a favorite landscape that moves them into deeper relationship with God or a greater recognition of the earth as God’s creation? Do they have a favorite place to pray in the outdoors? The gospel speaks of Jesus as going off to a lonely place to pray, do your students have such places, and do they recognize this need in their spiritual journey? Are there places so awesomely beautiful they help students transcend their everyday concerns?
-What are some ways students and their families have chosen to lessen their impact on the environment? Cutting down on the number of weekly car trips, using canvas totes instead of plastic or paper bags, choosing environmentally safe paints and avoiding water waste are a few possible ways families can directly help the environment. Chances are good that our students are more environmentally aware than we are and will have good suggestions for helping the earth.
Use the following scripture, prayers, poems or quotes to introduce a reflective moment on our understanding of our relationship to the earth or have your students choose one and write a brief reflection.
-Gen. 1: 1-31 the first story of creation
-Gen: 9:8-17 the covenant with Noah
-Ps 8:1-10 Divine majesty and human dignity
-Mk 1. 35-39 Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray
-Mt 6: 25-30 dependence on God
-Francis of Assisi The Canticle of Creatures available at http://www.ofm.org/1/info/INFcant.html
-Hildegarde of Bingen:
“The earth which sustains humanity must not be injured, must not be destroyed” or
“The soul is a breath of living spirit, that with excellent sensitivity permeates the entire body to give it life. Just so, the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful. Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it.”
-Angela of Foligno “This world is pregnant with God.”
-Therese of Lisieux “Jesus set before me the book of nature.”
-Thomas Berry “The earth is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
-Gerard Manley Hopkins God’s Grandeur
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh morning at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Activities and Projects
Nature has recurring patterns: spiraling (as the pattern in a pinecone), radiating (as dandelion seeds or petals on the dandelion flower), meandering (as a woodland stream), pack and crack (as in earth stomped down and cracking in a drought), and branching (as a vine or tree). Ask your students which pattern best describes their spirituality at this moment and have them illustrate the pattern either by photographing, drawing a creek or other image, pressing a flower and gluing it to paper, or gluing a small branching twig to a piece of paper etc. Perhaps a short poem or reflection to describe their relationship to God and nature could be added to the artwork, or an explanation of why they chose radiating, meandering etc. (Thanks to an activity suggested by John Buscemi)
http://kinderart.com/recycle/ Craft ideas. Perhaps older students could hold fun fair with eco themes for younger students
http://www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat/creatinghabitatsites.cfm National Wildlife Federation encourages schools to set up outdoor classrooms and provides resources to help you do it. Local forest preserves, county and state parks and other outdoor oriented educational programs may have similar resources as well as staff available to oversee the project. Or perhaps your students could plan and plant a butterfly garden by researching online, at the library or through a local garden shop.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers several documents on the environment including the following:
http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp/ United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Environmental Justice Program, Caring for God’s Creation offers background information and many examples of various projects already up and running.
http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/globalclimate.htm#changeGlobal Climate Change:A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good. This 2001 document offers an example of how to use the vocabulary of Catholic social teaching in discussing the environment. Scroll down to “Global Climate Change and Catholic Social Teaching.”
http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp/bishopsstatement.htm#1Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching The 1991 publication is formatted into five sections (Signs of the Times, Biblical Vision of God’s Good Earth, Catholic Social Teaching and Environmental Ethics, Theological and Pastoral Concerns, and God’s Stewards and Co-Creators ) Use it to promote an understanding of
-how we move from seeing and naming the signs of our times to reflection and action.
-how we ground our reflection and action in scripture
-how the various values of Catholic social teaching are interwoven
-how each of us --student, teacher, parent, citizen etc-- has a role in creation’s care
-how rights and knowledge bring new responsibilities
Older students could break into five groups with each group providing a summary of one of the subheadings of the text and/or reflection questions for the rest of the class.
http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Apr2002/Family.asp “Earth Day: Caring For God’s Creation”, Susan Hines Brigger Faith Filled Family column
http://americancatholic.org/Messenger/Apr2001/feature3.asp#F4 Another piece by Susan Hines Brigger points out that “dominion” is not the same as “dominating” The article also includes possible projects at the parish or school level.
http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/SFS/an1003.asp Elizabeth Johnson on spirituality and ethics of stewardship
http://fssca.net/peace/project/general/how.html features Chenco Alas’ work in the Mesoamericas to build peace zones bringing together people from various traditions to work on their “common ground” of this earth. Click on “earth and ecology” on the left to learn more.
http://www.nrdc.org/greensquad/intro/intro_1.asp a link to the Green Squad, a project of the Natural Resources Defense Council in collaboration with the Healthy Schools Network Offers ways students can work to make schools ‘greener’ and safer.
As in all justice work, our actions are energized by our prayer. Invite your students into prayerful reflection on the environment, relationships to God, human beings around the world, and all creation. Help students through the art of prayer to articulate their desires to live more justly in terms of their relationship with the earth.
You will need
-prayer table with candle and bible
-A place to put your finished covenants (perhaps a branching piece of a tree in a bucket of sand or a poster of a tree)
-Tape or twist ties or paper clip “hooks” to place the covenants
-A CD or tape of soft instrumental music or nature sounds
-A CD or tape player
-The music and words to Marty Haugen’s Canticle of the Sun or other appropriate music
-Copies of the prayer “Walking Gently on the Earth” adapted by Sharon Rae McCarthy OSM from a ritual prepared by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and
available at http://www.hillconnections.org/rr/walking2mr.htm
-Covenant form for each student:
I, ________________________, prayerfully declare my recognition of the earth as God’s creation and promise to respect the integrity of all creation in all that I do. I recognize __________________as a sign of our times and realize it endangers our earth and therefore endangers each of us and all of us. To correct this imbalance I promise in the coming months to __________________________. The sign below will remind me of my covenant with my Creator God, with the earth, and with all my sisters and brothers around the world. _______________________________ signature and date
As human beings, we are in relationship with God, other persons, and all of creation. God used the rainbow as a sign of covenant with Noah. We too can use a sign to show our intent to respect God’s creation. As a group, save your students reflect upon the signs of our times and what they see as pressing environmental issues. (air pollution, ravages of war, water shortage and pollution are a few issues) Discuss what small daily life choices might have global impact. (Consider recycling, turning down the thermostat, giving up pesticides or lawn chemicals, avoiding water waste, insulating our hot water heaters, shortening our showers, walking or biking instead of driving, using cloth napkins, turning away from a consumeristic lifestyle…). After the discussion, pass out the covenant forms. Invite your students to center themselves in God’s love. Light the candle. Read Gen.8-17 aloud. Play soft nature sounds, or whatever will add to the student’s reflection time. Invite the students to prepare their covenant statement and to embellish it with a sign from creation such as a flower, rainbow, sun, waterfall etc. Give them time to complete their artwork. When they are done, invite them to come up and tape or hang their covenants on a tree, bulletin board, poster or whatever you’ve chosen. Together, stand around the covenant display and pray the prayer ritual “Walking Gently on the Earth.”
April Calendar from the Center of Concernswww.coc.org
2 - Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 7 In addition to looking at the World Health Organization, check out Partners in Health at http://www.pih.org/index.html. Older students may also enjoy reading the biography of Paul Farmer Mountains Beyond the Mountains by Tracy Kidder. A good point of discussion for the day might be to discuss how decisions regarding our national budget impact health care in this country and in other parts of the world.
April 11 See the text of Pacem in Terris at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html On the 40th anniversary of the text, in 2003, Pope John Paul II pointed out the increasing gap between those living extravagant lives and those still struggling for basic needs such as potable water. See Pope John Paul’s letter at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_20021217_xxxvi-world-day-for-peace_en.html A reading of these two documents could add to a discussion of our role as stewards of creation and how environmental issues are related to war and peace.
April 24 Check out the Cesar Chavez website at http://www.chavezfoundation.org/ for current news on the legacy of Chavez. In addition, find out if your students are aware of Chavez’ drawing upon a faith tradition in using pilgrimage as a means of social protest and a means of raising awareness of issues.
As our Lenten journey draws to a close, may you and your students realize the call to service modeled by Jesus when he washed the feet of his disciples. May you recognize Jesus on the cross today and be present to those suffering and in need in this world now. And may you know deep joy and sing praises with all creation at the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this Easter. Peace and blessings, Colette Wisnewski