BY Ryan McDougall | February 28 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

page 17

Called to enjoy God’s creation with responsibility

In the first in our series following the online Lent Retreat created by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow, Susan Mansfield finds new ways to look at our relationship with God’s world

Towards the end of the 1980s, a book called Too Busy Not To Pray became very popular in Christian circles. Ironically, I never had time to read it, but I have often pondered what truth there might be in its premise.

As Christians, we need to practise some form of regular contact with God, that much is obvious. Is it also the case that, as we get busier, the need to maintain that connection increases?

When asked about the leading spiritual disease of our time, the American trappist monk, writer and scholar Thomas Merton had one answer: efficiency. “From the monastery to the Pentagon, the plant has to run… and there is little time or energy left over after that to do anything else.”

Finding Time for Prayer

Life, work, family, church, all of them good things, easily start to feel like a great machine which requires all our efforts to keep it going. Even in his vocation, Merton found that he was not immune.

I’ve been thinking about these things this week as I chase around attending to the various demands in my own life while trying to make daily time to spend in prayer and reflection on the online Lent Retreat offered by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow.

I’ve pondered them as I sit with the ISC booklet on buses and trains, in a cafe between meetings. It might not be ideal, but St Ignatius was a pragmatist as well as a visionary. He understood that giving what time you can in prayer is more beneficial than giving none at all.

Lenten Retreat

This year’s Lent Retreat is based on the material of St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, the programme of prayer he developed for his own followers in the 16th century, and which is undertaken today by a wide range of people, religious and lay, Catholic and non-Catholic.

Ignatius doesn’t start small. He begins with the big picture, an invitation to reflect on creation and our place in it.The first passage of Scripture offered for reflection in the Lent Retreat is from Genesis 2.

This is a creation story, describing how God formed man from clay and ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ Seeing that the man is alone, which is ‘not good,’ God decides to make him ‘a helper as his partner.’ Then God brings all the living creatures of the earth to the man, and he gives names to them.

Creation Story

It’s the best kind of story, one in which the scenes take shape immediately in our imagination. We don’t have to take it literally for it to carry profound and important truths, particularly about the nature of the Creator. Anyone who has tried to fashion anything out of clay will know it is a tactile, intimate act. Then God breathes His own life into the figure’s nostrils to make him live.

This passage speaks of a tender, creative God who wants to have a relationship with the people He has created, and wants them to have good relationships with one another and with His world.

In the light of this passage, I realise that the creation story from Genesis 1—the Scripture for the next day—feels very different. Here, the scale is much bigger, full of drama and mystery.

Beloved Creatures of God

The earth is ‘a formless void,’ there is ‘darkness over the face of the deep.’ This is a God of power rather than intimacy, who calls the sun, moon and stars into being and who deserves our praise and reverence. Yet, the two passages don’t cancel one another out. Together, they seem to offer different insights into an immense and multifaceted God.

The poetry of Psalm 104 enriches this picture. The God who is being praised here is a God who cares for his creation. In the Psalm, God makes streams flow and crops grow, makes sure the wild donkeys have a place to drink and the birds have tall trees in which to nest (and sing).

It’s a vision of a well-resourced world, one in which human beings have food and wine, oil and bread. In Pope Francis’ words, a world in which ‘we are beloved creatures of God, who in His goodness calls us to love life and to live it in communion with the rest of creation.’

Caring for our Common Home

Yet, in the 21st century, a shadow falls on these images of plenty and wellbeing. The retreat captures this too, as the passage offered for reflection on the next day is not from Scripture but from Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for our common home.

The text chosen is about the loss of biodiversity, stating: “The earth’s resources are… being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production… Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animals species which we will never know… The great majority becomes extinct for reasons related to human activity.”

The world in which the book of Genesis was written, in which God grants human beings ‘dominion… over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ was one in which such damage could not have been imagined.

Abusing Earth’s Resources

Small communities cultivating crops and tending flocks and herds could not abuse the earth’s resources. The relationship was mutually beneficial, stewardship on a human scale.

Now, we might feel uncomfortable with that word ‘dominion,’ and perhaps rightly so. Industrialisation has changed our capacity to damage the planet, its infrastructure and climate, and evidence of that is all around us. With greater power comes greater responsibility.

This is a helpful insight, but reflecting on Laudato Si’, I quickly become downcast. I do what I can to try to help the planet, recycling waste and trying to eat less meat, but I still drive a car, and buy vegetables which have been flown halfway across the world. I’m still part of a society which remains dependent on fossil fuels, and where large corporations do uncounted damage to natural resources. The changes I can make seem both difficult and ineffectual.

St Ignatius’ Teachings

St Ignatius teaches us to recognise the shifting moods which happen in prayer, and now I’m heading for what he called ‘desolation,’ a downward spiral into heaviness of heart. I remind myself that what Ignatius is inviting us to do in this part of the Exercises is, in part, to use our imagination to consider the earth from God’s perspective.

From there, while the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change are no less true, the situation feels different. I can imagine sorrow in the heart of God at the mindless damage being done, and anger at the fact that some of the world’s poorest people are having to bear the brunt of that damage.

And yet there is also joy at the beauty and plenty which continue to exist, the work of those who care for the earth, the modern developments which mean diseases can be prevented and cured, and communication and transport resources can be used to help the world’s poorest people.

Our responsibility

Yes, we are being asked to understand our responsibilities in God’s world, but we also being encouraged to take joy in its beauty, to offer praise for its splendour, to enjoy its resources, while using them appropriately and with consideration for others. In reflecting on this, the facts do not change, but the heaviness has gone. It becomes possible to consider some of these difficult questions without losing hope.

To take part in the Lent retreat and receive a daily email, register on under “retreats”. The printed booklet can be downloaded from the website, or to obtain a printed copy or any more information, contact ISC at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077.

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