A spirituality of sustainability

by David Andrews

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What is spirituality? It is a steepening, like soaking tea leaves. It is a steepening of the mind and heart, body and soul. We are the leaves, the bodies immersed in a broth of mystery, absorbing the way of nature and the way of transcendence.

Spirituality is a way of living. It is an attitude, a motivation, a feeling practiced and a practiced feeling. A feeling practiced becomes a habitual way of feeling. And a practiced feeling points to the recurrence as well as the deepening that comes with a process of valuation, recurrent integration, and sustained conviction. Spirituality is not the end or purpose of living, the goal for which one lives. It is a manner, a style, process or method by which one lives in light of the goal. It is the stuff of character by which one creates character. Spirituality shows itself in the seasoning, which accompanies one's way of being…. like tea, one can be steeped! It is the steepening which gives character to one's spirituality. How are you steeped?

Are you steeped into some tradition, a way of life and being which has informed your thoughts, your words, your choices and actions? How have you steeped yourself? Lightly or thoroughly?

One can be steeped deeply or weakly as tea can be. Steepening is a matter of the mind and heart, body and behavior. It is a deepening, like a descent into a cool, refreshing spring. It is a thickening, like the fashioning of a community. A community can be profound as well as superficial, it can be intimate in its deep ecology and deep economy or it can be all surface. Community is the achievement of common meaning…what meanings are shared among the congregants? Are they developed and fashioned into a depth or are they undeveloped and only surface…like strangers passing in the night? Like a veneer that is removed with ease, that doesn’t get absorbed for longevity and sustainability.

A spirituality of sustainability

We are not alone in our endeavors. This, I believe, is the truth of our existence. We are not alone, solitary atoms. We are part of a community. The poet John Donne wrote: "No man is an island, no man stands alone. Each man's joy is joy to me, each man's peace is my own." Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: "I am a part of all that I have met." We are not alone. We are participants in a communal venture or search. That search for direction in life is something that may be found or missed.

I propose that our finding is one where we discover that we have partners along the way. The search for direction is a partnership: with the energic rhythms of the cosmos, or with the transcendent measure drawing us, luring us, to attunement with itself. So the deepening is a thorough and grounded finding.

For Christians this is the world-transcendent measure incarnate, crucified, and raised from the dead, where the search for the truth about existence finds the searcher becoming the one searched for. "You would not be seeking me had you not already found me." Saint Augustine

A spirituality is a being-in-love. Being in love with nature. Being in love with God. Loving our neighbors as ourselves and including in the circle of friendship animate and inanimate life.

The cosmological way is the way of the earth, the way of kinship with the earth, with the springs, the fountains, the water courses; with the flowers, birds, two and four footed creatures. This is the way of an original blessing, a partnership with the cosmos by which we are part of the garden and learn to "care for and to tend the garden." (Genesis) We are part of all creation which itself “groans for its completion.” We are one with the biotic community: “No less than the trees and the stars, we have a right to be here.” Such a way is at one with the Transcendent Being: authentic partnership with Nature is partnership with God. We are one in the web of life!

The transcendent way is the way of going beyond the senses, the imagination, concepts, judgments to a realm beyond, mystery properly so called. The cosmological way and the transcendent way are not contradictory. Transcendence can encompass the cosmos without disruption. The cosmos is God's word just as Word of God befriends us.

Can you tell, I grew up in the country? Many the day I would walk (or run) well worn paths through ancient New England woods, sit by quiet flowing streams, wonder about the sounds and smells of these terrestrial events, allowing myself to be absorbed by them, perhaps in a way we might speak of as a "nature mysticism"

Today, when I find my way to work, I wind my on bus and subway, noticing the natural landscape as I move, flowers, trees, green lawns and bushes. Our early habitats create our lifelong habits. Here is an example of the nurture of nature.

Such absorption and love of nature at one point gave rise to a poem that spoke itself through me:

Song for a New Creation

I am earth, brown, orange and black. I am red clay.
The grass is my mantle, Lillies form my bridal bouquet.
I want to sing a wedding song, a song of a new creation.

I am earth, mother of all the living.
Spirit, Great One, I desire you.
In our abiding together we can give birth to Beauty.
The energy that flows through me drives also the stars.

Spirit, Great One, seek not only the heights.
Come with me from mountain tops, into the cracks and crevices of creation, among the poor ones, long forgotten.
Come into my unsettled depths.
I will show you the friendliness and companionship of the earth.

I am earth, humble, neglected, bruised and broken.
I am your lover, Spirit, though you fear me.
I want to be your companion. Together we can live one full life.
The energy that drives the stars flows also through me.

Come with me, Spirit, join with Humilis, the earth.
Come, Great One, abide with me.
Let us build together a home.

Broadly speaking, I understand religion as a conscious orientation by human beings toward an incomprehensible, gracious and saving mystery which in our cultural context we usually call "God," but which others may call by different names. Muslims call it Allah, Hindus Brahman, Buddists nirvana or dharma, Lakota Indians wakan, Taoists the Tao.

My own preference is to think of religions generally as ways of orienting us toward the inexhaustable, enlivening, and liberating depth of reality that we may call by the name "mystery." Here is the context of steepening. There is in the world a charged field of love and meaning which we enter through some such steepening process.

For some of us, the contemplation of nature is God's silent communion with us. So that the cosmos becomes a portal for mystery, while retaining its own beauty and attraction. Our care for creation is linked to the Creator's care for the community of the cosmos that is Habitat, home. We Christians speak of a sacramental vision of the universe. A sacramental perspective is a sustainable perspective. "Natural and social ecologies belong together." The web of life is one. Partnership with nature and partnership with God are related elements in an integral spiritual vision. A vision that can be deepened over time and that can sustain us for the long haul as we seek, as Tennyson said “a newer world”

Spirituality for Sustainability

Some of the elements of spirituality for sustainability then, include the following:

Long term perspectives: a spirituality of sustainability looks toward the long term as the focus of one's perspective. Such a consciousness can be immersed in the here and now, but only for the time being, it's general orientation is for the long haul, and the perspective is generational. Striving that the next generation should benefit from earth’s generosity as have previous ones.

Self-Transcendent: a spirituality of sustainability is oriented to personal and communal growth, toward self transcendence and group transcendence, not the exponential growth of markets, but the growth that allows insight and emotion to shift with the broadening perspective of what is for the common good.

Communal: communion with nature, communion with God. The rhythms of cosmic process lose our allegiance completely when our partnership with them is transmuted beyond recognition by our passion for mastery, control, and instrumental exploitation. We need to nurture a meditative spirit, a spirit that balances calculating reason's will to power with the soul’s innate abiding in the beauty that is already bestowed as gift: with friends, family, our garden, our land.

Gentleness: this is captured in the notion that we should walk lightly upon the earth, or live simply so that others may simply live.

Such a spirituality of sustainability can inform our perspectives on agriculture, development and community, as the Bishops of Appalachia wrote (At Home in the Web of Life):

Sustainable communities:

"In our present times, we believe,
the mighty wind of God's Spirit is stirring up
people's imaginations
to find new ways of living together,
based especially on the full community
of all life, including

love of nature, and
love of the poor.

We call these new ways
The rooted path of sustainable communities.

These sustainable communities will
Conserve and not waste,
Be simpler but better,
Keep most resources circulating locally,
Create sustainable livelihoods,
Support family life,
Protect the richness of nature,
Develop people spiritually,
And follow God's values.

Sustainable Development:

In the judgment of many people,
A sustainable society would build primarily
On the rooted informal local economy,
All in communion with the local ecosystem.

In sustainable development,
All businesses new or old,
Local or from the outside,
Need to respect the divine order
Of social and natural ecology.

Sustainable Agriculture:

While agriculture should protect nature,
It should also protect humans.
We believe that agriculture needs
To follow social ecology as well.
So agriculture needs to be

Not only ecologically sustainable
But also socially sustainable.

We can learn to be partners with nature and God; with a spirituality steeped in an integral communion that sees no contradiction between the wedding of Spirit and Earth, a spirituality of sustainability —of communion. This is a good space, for us, to be in.

[Holy Cross Br. David Andrews works with Washington-based Food and Water Watch. He is former director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.]

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