Change is slow but worth it.
A friend commented to me the other day that my environmental work is like a ministry. It was such a wonderful thing to hear. For me, raising awareness of our environmental crisis is a calling. That doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes it feels like I am pushing an enormous rock uphill on ever-shifting ground. Just when it seems I’m making headway, something happens and I have to redirect my efforts. Working for social change is slow-going and often feels like you’re going backwards. It is important to take the long view.
Back in August, I was feeling crushed by the enormity of the problems we face. My efforts are so small, the problems so large. Still, so many do not understand. Why should I continue to put myself out there for the Earth time and time again with so little progress? I went to Mass alone, annoyed. The first reading began,
“You duped me, O LORD . . .
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.”
Yep. I thought. That’s just how I feel right now. I’m done trying to help others see the importance of conserving our resources. The reading played right along with my thinking but the ending changed the tune:
“But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”
Pictures flashed through my mind of children living off our wasted excess, turtles nearly cut in half by plastic rings, birds with stomachs full of plastic detritus. I am overwhelmed. I recalled my friend’s comment that my environmental work is like a ministry. How can I help others see what she sees, that our faith directs us to care for the Earth; that our throw-away culture affects the poor – precisely those who we are to protect; that simple actions can make enormous impacts? How can we renew the face of the earth? I snapped back to attention in time to hear this in the second reading:
“Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect.”
Most likely, I was the only person in the church reeling through these readings – at least from the environmental perspective. I recalled Pope Francis’s recent statements about throwaway culture and ecological sin as “the sin of our times.” I reflected on my deeply-held beliefs that we must care for creation to preserve life on Earth. It is all-too easy to get caught up in consumer culture and keeping up with the Joneses, but our addiction to stuff is depleting natural resources, polluting the air and water, and resulting in enormous piles of trash that will litter the Earth for hundreds of years. I recalled a powerful statement by Sr. Miriam Therese MacGillis who wrote, “Resist the lure of ‘House Beautiful’ marketing which amplifies the disparity between rich and poor, and demands enormous use of Earth’s materials.”
What is the will of God when it comes to “this age” and how can we renew our minds to understand what is good and pleasing and perfect from an ecological perspective? The Gospel reading provided an answer:
“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
The sermon expanded upon the idea of thinking like a human being vs. thinking like God. Fr. Mike commented that you can quickly learn what thinking like a human being is by watching television. He offered several topics for thinking like a human being: beauty, pleasure, money, health, power. As I was listening, I distilled human thinking down to a simple truth: Human thinking is temporally limited. My life – my things, my health, my family – all of these are high on my list of priorities but they are all short term in the grand scheme of things.
Human thinking focuses on “the now” or at least the relatively-near-to-now. This short-term thinking is what allows us to pollute water sources (“I still have clean water.”), to fight carbon regulations (“I need to make money now.”), to consume resources unchecked (“There is plenty for me.”), and to embrace the disposable lifestyle (“It’s so easy!”). Considering that we are short-timers on the planet, this limited thinking is understandable – but the long-term environmental implications are staggering.
If there is one thing that I know for certain about God, it is that I do not know anything for certain about God. However, I assume that God has a much longer view of things. In the Gospel, Peter is worrying about losing Jesus in this life. He is focusing on the short-term while God, apparently, is taking the long view. I will never begin to fathom the way God sees our current predicament, but I can focus on the long view as much as I am able. In my own work, I can focus on the success, the positive steps, however small. I can educate others on the long-term impacts of their choices. I can have patience and hope and trust that all shall be well.
During that Mass, I heard something new that gave me motivation and strength to carry on. I heard what I needed to hear. Just a few days later, we established an Earth Care Committee at our parish – something I had hoped to see for years – years when it felt like I was pushing that rock uphill only to have it roll right back down to squash me time and time again. This time, something shifted, and now I am overwhelmed by the joyful success of our progress to promote environmental awareness in our parish and to be wise stewards of the Earth.
[Rachel Myslivy, M.A., conducted the Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project documenting the environmental activism of Catholic sisters in Kansas. She is involved in a number of Catholic and environmental organizations and runs a family farm.]