Besides heating La Casa del Sol on sunny
winter days, the superinsulated sunspace
makes it possible in winter to grow herbs,
some vegetables and even oranges.
PHOTO BY BRAD SMITH
Isn’t “What Would Jesus Drive?”
an unusual question to be coming from the Evangelical Environmental Network? Not if you
realize that its members are part of a growing movement to help people connect Earth’s
ecological crisis with their faith journeys.
Many Catholics have heard these challenging words from Pope John Paul II’s 1990 World
Day of Peace message: “Christians must realize that their responsibility within creation
and their duty toward nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith.”
Recently, a religious community responded to this by asking me to expand a workshop on
the connection between ecology and faith into a five-day retreat. In searching for a connecting
theme, I was drawn to the most basic guidance Jesus left people for all time: the Our Father.
Father Who Art in Heaven
Except in the Temple, Jesus spoke Aramaic. In Aramaic, Father means much more than
it does in English. I was amazed to learn that when Jesus said,
“Father,” he actually meant, “birther of the cosmos”—a much
more expansive image of the Eternal Creator! In Prayers of the Cosmos, Neil Douglas-Klotz
also tells us that, in Middle Eastern thinking, heaven would actually be the “universe.”
All of creation is the vibration, the “name” which expresses divine mystery
in space and time. Teilhard de Chardin recognized this so well when he said,
“To those who know how to see, nothing is profane—everything is sacred.”
Have we modern-day humans forgotten how to see the awesome world of which we are a part?
When we proclaim God’s name as
“hallowed” (holy), do we recognize the echo of God’s name in the wonder all
around us? Might God be calling us to be co-creators of a transformed Earth, a heaven of
peace and harmony?
In our times we are blessed with the fact that science is constantly uncovering truths
about our magnificent planet. Much is being written about “the New Story,” an
understanding of the created universe as God’s 13.7-billion-year drama: creation.
No longer is the universe seen as finished, with the sun, stars and planets in unchanging
orbits, but as an expanding process of which we are a part. Scientifically, it has become
quite clear that God has chosen an evolutionary mode of expressing divine mystery.
This story, as told from a theological perspective, can be interpreted as “the unfolding
presence of God within the universe,” says Dominican theologian Cletus Wessels. Haven’t
we all been saying this since our childhood catechism days? “Where is God? God is
everywhere.” But have we really believed this?
If we learn to see more clearly through the eyes of faith, assisted by what scientists
discover, we can contemplate “the Word of God being made flesh in space and time”.
During the evolution of human social systems, we have seen a movement away from kingdoms
to more democratic and participative forms of government. Indeed, in countries where there
are still kings and queens, their roles have become increasingly ceremonial.
Perhaps, then, in our times, Jesus would pray that “kin-dom” be what we all
strive toward. Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest who calls himself a
“geologian” and is one of the most influential thinkers in this area, refers
to our little corner of the created universe as the “Sacred Earth Community.”
Surely, such a vision would include the interdependence and collaboration of all God’s
creatures, both living and non-living. This was the vision of St. Francis of Assisi. Indigenous
peoples have an innate understanding of the profound wisdom of this worldview. They often
end rituals with “all my relations”—a kind of “Amen” to the
reality of the kinship which they experience with the natural world.
In today’s extremely competitive and materialistic world, this idea may sound utterly
impossible, but our Scriptures remind us that “nothing is impossible with God.” What
might happen in our troubled world if each and every one of us realized that we are being
invited to be co-creators of a different future, a world of harmony, balance and peace?
God is Spirit, so in this material world the Eternal Creator cannot make the changes which
are so necessary if life on Planet Earth is to continue. God needs us—me and you—to
do this work! The actions we do become spiritual practices, modes of prayer.
Will Be Done on Earth As in Heaven
What might it mean to ask that God’s will be done here on Earth just as it is in heaven?
One of the most striking things about our magnificent world, studied from a scientific
perspective, is the marvelous order that is evident everywhere.
From the movements of the stars and galaxies to the ecological communities in which all
life forms exist, all operate according to certain laws of nature. What will it take for
today’s humans to see ourselves as a part of nature, not over it?
If we saw everything around us as sacred, how would we act toward the sun, air, water,
soil, animals, plants and humans? With deep reverence! St. Francis lived this way. What
a contrast with the attitudes and behavior of today’s consumer-oriented societies. Pope
John Paul II addressed this in his 1990 New Year’s message:
“If one looks at the regions of our planet, one realizes immediately that humanity
has disappointed the divine expectation. Above all in our time, humanity has unhesitatingly
devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the Earth’s habitat,
made the air unbreathable, upset the hydrogeological and atmospheric systems, blighted
green spaces, implemented uncontrolled forms of industrialization, humiliating the Earth,
that flowerbed that is our dwelling.”
It seems clear that we are saying “Thy will be done” with our lips, but not
with our actions. Because of this, there is a growing sense of malaise around the globe.
Let us listen to the opening words of the Earth Charter: “We stand at a critical
moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.”
This important document, which has been compiled by thousands of persons of all religious,
philosophical and ethnic backgrounds, provides “values and principles for a sustainable
It could be very enriching to the development of the spirituality needed in our time if
Christians and other believers would study it together through the eyes of faith. It is
a wonderful guide to how we earthlings could live our prayer, “Thy will be done....”
Us This Day Our Daily Bread
When you pray this phrase, which word do you tend to stress?
Give? Us? Daily?
I believe that, if Jesus had chosen to come and live here on Earth in our times rather
than in first-century Palestine, he would be a global citizen. So, when he would pray to
the Father, “Give us...,” he would be asking in the name of our 6.6 billion
human sisters and brothers. Many of these are hungry and oppressed—even here in our
own very rich country.
One of the reasons Jewish leaders constantly criticized Jesus was that he hung around
with the everyday folks, whom most aristocrats saw as impure and below them. Jesus’ message
of equality, compassion and love for all began to look dangerous to those who feared losing
some of their power.
And so it continues today. Those in power in the international community, national governments,
corporations, even the various faith communities do not identify with the majority of other
people as sisters and brothers. How can we continue saying “Our Father” unless
we increase our solidarity with every human on the planet?
Will our plea for “daily bread” continue to be only for ourselves? Do we see
all of God’s living creatures as needing a place at the table? Will we continue to forget
that we are dependent for our very life on the plants, animals, microbes, rivers, sun,
soil, air and water? If so, we will continue to forget that we are members of the Sacred
Us As We Forgive
One must only scan the daily newspaper or watch the TV news to realize that humanity finds
itself in what may be the most dangerous time in human history. The evidence is reported
Social unrest, war, violence in the human community, climate change, drought, intense
storms, melting glaciers and loss of species diversity happen across the planet. Much of
the damage which is causing these conditions comes from a domination of nature, especially
since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—about the last 160 years!
If we did an examination of conscience about our ecological sins, most of us would be
alarmed to find that we Americans are using six times as much as Earth can provide over
the long term.
This is what Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees report in their sobering book Our
Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. They calculate the resources
needed to sustain the consumption and waste disposal of different lifestyles and state
them in acres.
Earth’s “ecological capacity” is 5.3 acres per person (decreasing each year
as new people join the human community). The average U.S. footprint (31 acres per person)
contrasts dramatically even with that of Europeans (15 on average), making it clear that
the rich world lives at levels three to six times what Earth can afford.
But how can this be? Obviously, it is only because the footprints of countries in the
developing world are so low. Think of India, which has over one billion people (nearly
one sixth of Earth’s population), where the average footprint is only two acres. Knowledge
of these disparities is awakening movements toward ecojustice all over the planet. Clearly,
this should be a mandate for anyone who wants to be called Christian.
The cover of Radical Grace—the newsletter of Richard Rohr’s Center for Action
and Contemplation—states this challenge clearly: “Most of us would like to
see the poor get more. It comes as a shock to realize this will require that we take less.”
Us Not Into Temptation
Surely God would never lead us into temptation. It helps to realize that the more accurate
Aramaic sense is, “Don’t let us be seduced by the appearance of....” In our
frenzied efforts toward progress, many of us have succumbed to the values of our world
today: prestige, money and “the American dream.”
This is a virtually luxurious lifestyle when compared with that of so many of our human
sisters and brothers around the world—and one which the planet cannot afford. If
all 6.6 billion humans today lived with the average lifestyle of U.S. and Canadian citizens,
we would need three more Planet Earths.
A dangerous response to facts like this is denial. It is tempting to entertain feelings
of helplessness and even despair. All such reactions are expressive of a lack of hope,
surely not a stance which should characterize sincere followers of Jesus!
What we should realize is that we are being called to act like societies of adults, truly
to live our Confirmation. Possibly the most important characteristic of an adult person
is a sense of responsibility. The Earth Charter reminds us that “as the world
becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and
We need to see that the glass is half full and spread that attitude! We must develop what
I call “roll-up-yoursleeves”
hope. Every day, along with the societal, political and ecological bad news, there are
growing movements inviting folks to create alternatives.
Energy efficiency, wind turbines, solar panels, hybrid cars, food grown organically and
locally, “green” building, ever-increasing recycling, eco-communities, nonprofit
organizations tackling difficult situations both here and across the planet are alive and
well. We need to pray that we will not be led into the temptation of not becoming the creative,
collaborative people God envisioned.
Pondering this in 1981 led me to “reduce my footprint” by converting an old
chicken barn on our motherhouse grounds into a passive-solar, superinsulated house called La
Casa del Sol (house of the sun). Volunteer help and reused materials made this possible
at a tiny fraction of the cost of regular construction.
On sunny spring and fall days, radiant energy pours in through the glassy sunspace. For
cloudy winter days we use another form of solar energy: wood! Ten years later a garage
became Earth-Connection, “a center for learning and reflection about living lightly
This solar-assisted geothermal building is heated with last summer’s sunshine which is
stored deep in the ground around the building. Also, some of the power for this all-electric
building is provided by solar cells (PVs) which convert sunshine directly to electricity.
It’s amazing what can be done!
Us From Evil
Again, the Aramaic gives us a fascinating way to consider the term “evil.” This
word might be translated as
“unripeness” or “inappropriate action.”
As we agree to join God as co-creators, it is empowering to know that each of us—and
the communities to which we belong—will have the grace and strength to choose to
We can then enthusiastically and energetically make the appropriate efforts which can
move humanity to design a world of justice, peace and ecological harmony. A couple of tips
to keep you from being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task:
• Realize that you can make a difference.
• Commit your energies to one area of Earth-healing.
• Pray to know which area God is calling you to adopt. Then find the groups or organizations
that are doing this work and join them.
Why did I get into solar remodeling? Because I realized that continued use of coal, oil
and natural gas could eventually destroy all life on this planet. I got involved because
so many of my sisters and brothers throughout the world are living at subhuman levels.
I truly believe Jesus when he says, “I came so that they might have life and have
it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
As we join God as co-creators, we will find ourselves developing an integrative, contemplative
spirituality which includes all our efforts as acts of worship. With St. Paul we can learn
to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
The closing words of the Earth Charter could become our anthem as we move toward
a more hopeful future: “Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new
reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle
for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.”
For more information or to calculate your ecological footprint, log on to: www.redefiningprogress.org.
Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Harmony/Bell Tower,
Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words
of Jesus, HarperOne, 1990.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu: Harper & Row, 1960.
Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human
Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, 1996.
Cletus Wessels, Jesus in the New Universe Story, Orbis Books, 2003.
U.S. bishops, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on
Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching, Washington, DC: USCCB Publications,
Sister Paula Gonzalez, S.C., Ph.D., is an environmentalist and a consultant who
is on the board of eco-friendly organizations such as Green Energy Ohio, Cincinnati Earth
Institute and Sisters of Earth. This widely published author, also a designer of solar
buildings, lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.