An Orthodox Statement on the Environmental Crisis
“Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee”
With these words, the Liturgy captures the heart of the Orthodox vision and understanding of our relationship both to creation and creator. Creation- ourselves included – is of God. We do not own creation but are the free agents through whom creation is offered to the creator.
An Understanding of Creation
The purpose of creation is summed up in its worship of the creator. This is most beautifully expressed in the Christmas Hymn.
“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sake was seen on earth as man? For everything created by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee their hymn; the heavens, the star; the Magi, their gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, the cave; the wilderness, the manger; while we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us…”
(Hymn for vespers, Christmas Day)
The whole of the universe worships and offers gifts to its Creator. In the very shape of the churches and the placing of icons, mosaics or frescoes within them we find a microcosm of the universe which clarifies the role both of humanity and the rest of creation in relation to God. For it is an expression not just of what is on earth today, but of what exists in heaven and what is to come – the eschatological promise and the redemptive transformation of all creation through the salvation wrought by Christ Jesus. This is expressed by St Paul in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 8. As the Greek Fathers have also taught,
“God became man so that man can become God, while creation can be transfigured by the action of the uncreated energies of God (St Gregory Palamas).
In worship, the Orthodox Church conveys this profound understanding of creation. In particular, the role of humanity as the priesthood of creation is most clearly shown. For instance, the prayers and psalms tell us of the sanctification of all creation. Every day in our Vespers, we sing Psalm 103 which says:
“Bless the Lord all his works. In all places of his dominion, bless the Lord O my soul.”
It is captured in our blessings for all manner of elements of creation. The blessing of waters shows us the sanctifying and redemptive power given to an element of creation through the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the Church. The blessings for all manner of natural elements such as the fields, vineyards, first fruits, wheat etc, show how the Church recognises the transformation of all aspects of creation through the salvation and glorification of humanity and thus of all creation.
“Therefore, O King who lovest mankind, do Thou thyself be present now as then through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water.
And confer upon it the grace of redemption, the blessing of the Jordan.
Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remission of the sins, a protection against disease, a destruction to demons, inaccessible to the adverse powers and filled with angelic strength: that all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for the cleansing of their soul and body, for the healing of their passions, for the sanctification of their dwellings, and for every purpose that is expedient.
For thou art our God, who hast renewed through water and spirit our nature grown old through sin. Thou art our God, who hast drowned sin though water in the days of Noah. Thou art our God who, through the waters of the sea, at Moses’ hand set free the Hebrew nation from the bondage of Pharaoh. Thou art our God who, has cleft the rock in the wilderness: the waters gushed out, the streams overflowed, and thou hast satisfied Thy thirsty people. Thou art our God who by water and fire through Elijah has brought back Israel from the error of Baal.
Do Thou Thyself, O Master, now as then sanctify this water by Thy Holy Spirit. Grant to all those who touch it, who anoint themselves with it or drink from it, sanctification, blessing, cleansing and health.”
(Prayer for Blessing of Waters and Theophany)
A Celebration of all aspects of the Senses
Orthodox worship is about the celebration and thus the use of all aspects of the senses. It is about sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. It uses and appreciates the material - be that wood and paint, writing materials, bread and wine or burning incense.
“I shall not cease reverencing matter. By means of which my salvation has been achieved…”
St John Damascus “On holy Images” 1.16
In iconography it takes the material and sanctifies it. The use of materials to make icons and the presence of elements of the natural world in most icons – animals, plants, countryside, mountains, rivers – all affirm the God-given nature of creation; its transfiguration and its place with us in salvation. The anti-gnostic teachings of the Church mean that the material world is held to be of God and is thus, in its essence, good.
In a similar way, Byzantine Churches were built in harmony, one might even say communion, with their natural surroundings. The art and architecture were not autonomous, but together with iconography and chant they contribute to the ethos of worship, giving it its physical, material expression. Thus it was natural that absolute symmetry was usually avoided; each architectural feature retained its own character while maintaining complete harmony with the overall conception.
The Centre of Worship
At the centre of worship is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is also the most sublime expression and experience of creation transformed by God the Holy Spirit through redemption and worship. In the form of bread and wine, material from creation moulded into new form by human hands, is offered to God with the acknowledgement, spelt out in the words that started this Orthodox Statement:
“Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee”
- meaning that all of creation is God’s and that we are returning that which is His - in the sense that this captures the primordial relationship of Adam to both God and Creation. It is a sign of the restoration of that relationship and even more than that a foretaste of the eschatological state of creation. When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, God meets us in the very substance of our relationship with creation and truly enters into the very being of our biological existence.
From this, we know that humanity occupies the most special place of all creation - but that it is not the whole of creation. We know that, since everything comes is from God (as is revealed for the instance in Job 38-39) we must respect creation and acknowledge that we are not its owners, but only the ones who may enhance it with the use of our technology and skill so as to offer it again to its creator. There is no escape from the conclusion that we are responsible before God for the care of creation. It is our responsibility to protect its extraordinary richness and conserve, through wise use, its resources, not least that of the greedy exercise of that power.
Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessing of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God’s grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God’s deliverance for all creation.
“He who speaks contemptuously against the humble man and does not consider him an animate creature, is like one who has opened his mouth against God. And through the humble man is contemptible in his eyes, his honour is esteemed by all creation. The humble man approaches ravening beasts, and when their gaze rests upon him, their wilderness is tamed, they come up to his as to their Master, wag their heads and tails and lick his hands and feet, for they smell coming from him the same scent that exhaled from Adam before the fall, when they were gathered before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This was taken away from us, but Jesus has renewed it, and given it back to us through His Coming. This it is which has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men.”
Homily 77 from: The ascetical homilies of S.Isaac the Syrian.
A very different picture
But when we look today at our world, we see a very different picture. Humanity’s rebellion, pride and greed has shattered the primordial relationship with Adam. It has ignored or discarded the Church’s understanding of our role as priests of creation. For now we behave like the exploiters and robbers of creation. By doing so, we have brought not just species but entire eco-systems to destruction. Our world is facing a crisis of death and corruption to a degree never before experienced. The Fathers of the Church, while being able to recognise sin as the basic cause, never had to experience such all-embracing and life-threatening consequences of sin to creation as we do today.
Ravaged, Ravaged the earth,
As Yahweh has said.
The earth is mourning, withering,
The earth is pining, withering,
The heavens are pining away with the earth.
The earth is defiled
Under its inhabitants’ feet
For they have transgressed the law, violated the precept,
Breaking the everlasting covenant.
So a curse consumes the earth
And its inhabitants suffer the penalty,
that is why the inhabitants of the earth are burnt up
And few men are left.
Throughout the world, forest are being destroyed by fires and logging; wetlands are being drained for development and agriculture; species are disappearing as a result of greed and ignorance; natural resources are being wasted faster than they are being replenished; waters are being soiled and skies polluted. The global crisis is threatening the very world upon which we human beings depend.
We must attempt to return to a proper relationship with the Creator AND the creation. This may well mean that just as a shepherd will in times of greatest hazard, lay down his life for his flock, so humans may need to forego part of their wants and needs in order that the survival of the natural world can be assured. This is a new situation – a new challenge. It calls for humanity to bear some of the pain of creation as well as to enjoy and celebrate it. It calls first and foremost for repentance – but of an order not previously understood by many.
“Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly, more and more everyday. And you will at last come to love the whole world with an abiding universal love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and untroubled joy. Do not therefore trouble it, do not torture them, do not deprive them of their joy, do not go against God’s intent.” Fyodor Mikhail Dostoevsky
But repentance – words- without action are meaningless. As Christ says:
“Many will call me ‘Lord, Lord’, but only those who do the will of my Father shall enter heaven”
But we must call for an approach to give expression in our everyday life, to this repentance.
Insights from the monastic tradition
The monastic and ascetic traditions of the Orthodox Church have important insights for us.
• 1. They develop sensitivity to the suffering of all creation. There are many stories of great saints living side by side with other creatures, sharing their everyday life.
• 2. They offer a celebratory use of resources of creation in a spirit of “ enkrateia” and liberation from the passions. Within such a tradition many human beings have experienced a more profound joy and a more lasting satisfaction than the ephemeral and illusory pleasures of a consumer society would lead us to consider possible.
• 3. The emphasis on community rather than individual in the cenobitic monastic tradition is central to a balanced understanding of our needs
It is in this asceticism that many of us will experience the pain which is that of the shepherd willing to suffer for the sake of his flock. For without substantial changes in how we live and what we expect from life, we will fail to fulfil our God-given role in creation.
Plundering God’s creation
Many, too many, of us have allowed greed, selfishness and simple ignorance to alter our world and the way we relate to it. Our agricultural land, once clean and productive, has been spoiled by excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By burning out fast-disappearing forests, unscrupulous land grabbers are destroying a fragile resource simply to gain illegal title to land. Developers who dump raw sewage into our once crystal-clear seas and who build haphazardly on out beaches are attacking not only those of us who are content with living in harmony with nature, a nature that is fast vanishing, but are attaching so many aspects of creation as a whole.
We cannot continue plundering God’s creation without reaping the results of its eventual destruction. We should also note that we cannot look at creation and decide what is useful, what is not. Jesus taught us that it was through those things which men call foolish that God has often spoken to us. The weak, the ‘useless’, the foolish, the broken, have to be taken as part of the whole of creation, for through them we can often glimpse more of God than through the great, the powerful and the useful.
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Who on earth would look at a pink, tiny forest flower and guess that the rosy periwinkle is responsible for virtually eradicating childhood leukaemia? Should the needs of sea turtles to nest and reproduce on Zakynthis and Akamas - virtually their only Mediterranean nesting sites - be recognised as fully as those of the tourists to enjoy themselves? Nature abounds with thousands of examples of seemingly useless or even harmful pests, reptiles, plants and mammals. Yet when examined more closely, what is harmful or useless to some species maybe crucial to others. We are in no position to make that judgement. He who is has not set a sliding scale on the value of that which will be allowed to survive and that which will not.
We need to constantly encounter and be challenged by the profound teachings of the Church and by the cry of creation. It is the flock over which we have been set but which now lies victim to our faithlessness. Our model can only be the One who came to be the shepherd: Jesus Christ.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, 1990
Assisted by WWF, with the translation and publication in a booklet made possible by Theodore and Margarita Samourka, and the Samourkas Foundation.