Earth as revelation

by Susan Rose Francois

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“Earth is a revelation of God and the sustainer of all life.” This is the opening line of my religious community’s Seeds of Peace: Care of Creation and Climate Change chapter commitment. These words, and the example of my sisters and lay associates who seek to live with ecological integrity in their daily lives, have helped to reorient my own commitment to care for God’s creation.

Let me be honest here. I’ve never been a particularly good environmentalist. Sure, I recycle and try to be conscious of my water usage.  I’ve even been known to compost . . . when it is convenient. My biggest personal environmental achievement was successfully avoiding owning a car for most of my 20s, using public transit instead. When I reflect back on my motivation, however, I realize it came more from a general sense of obligation – of what I should do – rather than from a virtuous desire to help ensure the integrity of God’s creation.

At various points in my life, I have been fortunate to be in the company of women and men whom I consider to be good environmentalists. The integrity of their lives and consistent green choices cause me to suspect that these friends are not motivated so much by guilt or obligation, but rather by a deep sense of knowing that we are called to be in right relationship with Earth.

Before I became a Catholic sister, I was just a regular young adult parishioner at St. Philip Neri parish in Portland, Oregon, where my friends took environmental sustainability seriously. For example, inspired by the Columbia River Pastoral Letter issued by the Bishops of the Pacific Northwest in 2001, my parish turned a corner of the parking lot into a vegetated bio-swale. Native plants in the bio-swale now collect rainwater and runoff from the parked cars, preventing polluted water from reaching the river. My friends at St. Philip’s also found another creative use for the parish parking lot, hosting a summer environmental festival that drew thousands of people several years running, spreading the good news of the integrity of creation through organic food, workshops and entertainment.

I seem to be a slow learner, however. Even though I helped to plant some of the trees in the bio-swale, on a rainy Portland day no less, I was still mostly motivated by a sense that I should care for the environment. 

A few years later, I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. I was attracted to our vibrant charism of promoting social justice as a path to peace. The example of my friends at St. Philip Neri also helped me to appreciate how the sisters wove the theme of creation into community prayers, documents and activities. As I came to know the sisters better, it became clear to me that concern for the environment was not a recent addition to their lives, nor was it superfluous. Rather, it was central to the way these faithful women responded to the Gospel.

Way back in 1990, when a younger me was preparing to start my first year in college, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace gathered to explore that year’s congregation chapter theme, “One Creation, One Future.” As I wrote in my first column on Global Sisters Report: “A chapter commitment is not to be taken lightly. It is the fruit of prayerful discernment by the entire congregation and a decision made by our highest decision making body.” 

In the statement of direction adopted at the 1990 chapter, the congregation committed to “long-term ecological soundness in lifestyles and structures that reflect respect for the earth.” This has been an ongoing and consistent theme in our community life and chapter commitments ever since. The 1996 chapter recognized “our being one with Earth and with all of creation as peacemakers.” The 2002 chapter endorsed the Earth Charter and committed to focused study and action on the ethics, economics and politics of water. At the 2008 chapter, which I attended as a novice, we committed to respond to the urgent issue of climate change, which is “already affecting peoples and biological systems throughout the world.” 

Our ongoing commitment is three-fold. It is a commitment to prayer, study and action. We are not just another non-profit organization or group of activists but a religious community responding to God who first loved us – and all of creation – into being. This reality necessarily colors our response, which is grounded in our spirituality of peace regarding care of creation.

Our Catholic spirituality grows out of the deep roots of our shared Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cardinal Turkson so beautifully put it in a recent talk he gave in Ireland in anticipation of Pope Francis’s upcoming environmental encyclical: “To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty.” Moreover, as Scripture tells us: “The just person is one who therefore preserves communion with God, with neighbor, and with the land, and by doing so also makes peace!”

As Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, our spirituality regarding care of creation is also informed by the experience of our founding sisters, Mother Francis Clare Cusack – whose very choice of religious name evokes the commitment to creation embodied by Saints Francis and Clare – and her dear friend Mother Evangelista Gaffney.

In 1901, Mother Evangelista reflected in her retreat notes: “Read the first chapter of Genesis: the numbers and varieties of creatures God has made in the mineral, the vegetable and animal creation. And these were made to help me to praise, reverence and serve God.”

Given the theology and practice of her time, her reflections on God’s love revealed in creation are remarkable. She does not look upon creation as mere material resources for humans to use and abuse, but rather as opportunities to praise, reverence and serve God. 

God’s creation is not only beautiful and awe-inspiring, it is also life giving! My experience as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, in particular my own deepening understanding of our spirituality and charism, has reoriented my commitment to care for God’s creation. I am motivated less and less by a sense of obligation, and more and more by a desire to praise, reverence and serve God by protecting creation. I am a slow learner, but thanks to my sisters, I think I am finally starting to get it.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]