When I was 20, during the summer at the end of my second year at university, I tested a vocation to the religious life by living in a convent in Spain for a while. The thing that amazed me was how free from earthly cares the sisters were. They never had to think about what they would wear, how they would pay their rent or what they would eat (their meals were prepared for them everyday). It meant that their minds and their time were free to devote themselves to worship and charity.
I couldn’t hack it. It felt very alienating to be so separate from the world of glamourous clothes, fancy meals and entertaining the possibility of getting married. I didn’t have the grace of their vocations. Now in the wake of Laudato Si’, it occurs to me that each sister was a model for the green movement. There was one car between them that was used sporadically, they never wasted food and they wore a very full habit that meant they didn’t have to burn so much fuel in winter.
Throughout the centuries, saintly priests and nuns have been exemplary environmentalists, long before the term was ever invented. St Thérèse of Lisieux is singled out for special praise in Laudato Si’. For one thing, she suffered terribly from the cold in winter, but offered it up. The Little Flower may be the right example for those who follow Pope Francis’s encyclical and want to stop using fossil fuels, and brave the wintry chill without a roaring fire.
In Laudato Si’, St Francis of Assisi and Blessed Charles de Foucald are also recognised for having been kind to Mother Nature. A saint who was also exceptional is St Isidore, the farmer, who would pray when he was meant to be working in the fields. When his master looked for Isidore, he found an angel pulling Isidore’s plough. St Isidore was following Pope Francis’ philosophy in the 12th century. He sought out poor people, sat with them and shared his food, which was a combination of reaching out to the penurious and certainly not wasting food. Being kind to the humblest of God’s creatures, one day it was snowing and Isidore found a flock of pigeons searching for food in the frozen terrain. He spilled half of a sack of grain on the ground for the birds, and when he returned to the mill, the bag was miraculously re-filled with wheat grain, which signifies that God rewarded St Isidore’s act of kindness.
The golden thread that unites such a variety of saints was that first and foremost, it was their love of holiness and above all else love of God which led them to lead environmentally friendly lives. But they didn’t have love of the earth first, and love of God second. There is an incredibly important distinction to be made. In regard to St Thérèse, she made a sacrifice of the long nights spent in the cold convent, offered it as penance and did it out of profound love of God.
My fear with Pope Francis’s encyclical is that people will process its message in a back-to-front way, and love God’s creation first, and God second. I do not subscribe to the dominant climate change theories. But there is a meeting point in the middle for Catholics who do believe in them and those of us who don’t, both camps can take inspiration from the lives of many saints who lived lives dedicated to God but in harmony with nature at the same time.
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