The C r y of the H e a r t*


John Chryssavgis In responding to the theme Earthkeeping as a Dimension of Christian Mission, I wonder how it is that, despite the alarming – truly terrifying – statistics and information that we have at our disposal, we appear to be all the more distant from any solution. While we are so much more articulate about the contributing factors – addressing the subject from diverse perspectives – the situation is in fact deteriorating. From an Orthodox spiritual viewpoint, I know that my Church tells me to stop and reflect. That is, I think, what we are doing at a conference such as this. That is, I feel, what I am called to do as an Orthodox theologian and clergyman. So allow me to respond by doing what I am ordained to do: by preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by proclaiming the power of silence and tears, and by sharing the sacraments of life and death. I believe that it is just as critical to speak authentically from one’s own perspective as it is to learn from one another’s perspective. And my personal perspective is the liturgy. In fact, that is precisely where my mind drifts when I hear the notion of “con-serving.” I think immediately of serving at the altar of the world, of con-celebrating what Maximus the Confessor in the seventh-century called “a cosmic liturgy.” In that world-view, everything bears a sacramental seal and significance. There is a moment in the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, where the deacon stands in the middle of the temple and – in almost apostolic conviction – chants aloud: “Let us stand well; let us stand in awe.” He is not reminding people to be upstanding; he is saying: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” Before we can act – and we should recall from time to time that it is our “acting” that got us into this mess in the first place! – we should refrain from acting. We should contemplate and meditate on the way we are living. If we are going to reverse the environmental crisis and change our lifestyle, we must first of all transform the way we perceive our world and ourselves; we must change our world-view, our “icon” of the world. It calls for a change of heart. We must admit, then, that our treatment of the earth is based on rigid assumptions and dogmatic presuppositions about the created world – as both religious and non-religious people. This is why I am somewhat uneasy about placing science at the head of any model for a “stewardship framework.” “How the world works” will depend on “how the world looks;” it will reflect our world-view and world image. That is also my criticism of the term and concept of “stewardship.” There is an inherent danger in presuming that the world somehow awaits our proclamation of Good News. If we are going to “bear” Good News, then we first of all have to hear what I call … (i) The Cry of the Heart Think of it in this way. I cut down a tree. I want, in all fairness, to be creative and productive. But, simultaneously, I am creating a problem. So, in making a table or cabinet, I have also – perhaps unwillingly, even unwittingly – prepared a coffin. Excuse my crude imagery. This normally assumes a more subtle form: like the paper used for a book, or the expenses for a conference. In cutting down a tree, I have cut down also the level of oxygen. I have buried not just the tree and the earth, but life itself and my very own child. I now behold my own soul and my own child laying in the coffin – the very earth’s soul and existence. How dare I hastily speak of solutions – ecumenical or missiological – when I am perpetuating the vicious cycle! Salvation is indeed healing. Yet, how dare I speak of healing unless and until I have understood the hurt that I have inflicted! Instead, I must – first – be silent. I must kneel silently. I must weep. I must want back my child. This passionate desire for a change of heart – what my tradition calls “erotic desire” (eros) – is itself the overture to paradise. It alone can recover that which is lost. To use modern psycho-babble, I must grieve the loss, perceive the sin, sense the decay, sincerely want back my life, my child, even the tree. I must ask for forgiveness. This is my only hope of resurrection. Paradoxically, death is teaching me about life. That is the way of nature. That is the way of God. Then, I own my sin; I assume responsibility. You see, when they tell me there is a hole in the o-zone, I may feel nothing … unless I sense that hole, unless I grieve the missing link, unless I recognize my child buried in that hole. Only then can God’s hand reach out through the hole. Only then is this emptiness transformed into an openness that reflects the open tomb of Christ. So it is only when I see in the face of the world the face of my own child that I can further discern in that face, the very image of the risen Christ, the face of all faces. The eighth-century poet and artist John of Damascus observed that “the earth is the living face of God.” Only then can I also recognize in each tree a face, and a name, and a time, and a place, and a voice, and a cry that longs to be heard. Now, I no longer act as if the world will always be there, relating to the natural world in a self-centered way, locked up in a selfish world-view, from which I can neither communicate nor even appreciate the way that nature enhances my soul. I know that I should not treat people like things – that is the basis of any ecumenical or missiological effort. I need now to learn that I should not treat even things like mere things. Then, the cry of the earth is deep inside of me. The cry of the heart becomes … (ii) The Cry of the Earth I am not, therefore, offering a solution. I am offering a cry, a confession, an expression of another, liberated world-view. If the cry of the heart is a painful admission of my wrongdoing in relation to the earth, then the cry of the earth itself is also “a groaning in labor pains for liberation by the children of God” (Rom. 8.22-23). “Can we ask,” writes Augustine in fifth-century Africa, “for a louder voice than that?” The earth’s cry comes because we are primarily invested in producing for human consumption, in reducing the world and humanity to our needs. In this reductionist world-view, we are overlooking the larger reality; we are ignoring the divine Economy that incorporates everyone and everything, that embraces all beings and the whole world, that allows space for all – the literal meaning of the Greek word for “forgiveness” (synchoresis). Our economy should accommodate people and animals and trees in such a manner that is – according to Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) – in harmony with or at least does not violate the divine Economy. Herein lies another weakness of the term “stewardship.” The Greek/Biblical equivalent to this term is oikonomia. Yet, oikonomia (or economy) – and, by extension, oikologia (or ecology) belong properly to God. Ours is a response (!) to God’s initiative of economy. Industry and technology must acknowledge the dimension of mystery (what theologians call doxology). We should be sensitive to the ultimate scheme of things (what theologians call eschatology). We must adhere to God’s absolute concern for things (what theologians call providence). Ecology is not an aspect of Christian mission or ecumenical vision. It is the crucial basis and the very method of every Christian mission and ecumenical vision. Our mission is defective when it is not daring and adventurous enough to appreciate the broader, universal relationship of the whole community – and not just the human community. This broader reality, this greater Economy, this ecumenical perspective reminds us that the context is always larger than you or I, always larger than one denomination or faith, indeed larger than the world itself! The earth will always be threatened when we impose a single-minded, a narrow-minded agenda. The proper response, the appropriate remedy for our excess consumption is what the ascetic tradition of my Church calls renunciation. It is the awareness that earth belongs to heaven, the acknowledgment that – to quote Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century – “neither the possessions of the earth, but the very sky, and the air, and the sea, cannot be claimed for the use of the rich few.” The cry of the earth is a call for humility. Pride, you know, is a uniquely human attribute; it belongs to Adam. All other species seem to know – instinctively so – where they fit in the order of things. Human beings alone are unable to accept their place in the scheme of things; we alone just don’t get it, not knowing when to stop, how far to go. We are to “serve and keep” (Gen. 2.15) – a phrase which I like to translate as “serve and preserve.” It is a matter of doing with less, of traveling light. We can always manage with a lot less than we imagine. This is the “sabbath principle.” When we carry less, we are more sensitive to what is lacking in others. We become more attuned to … (iii) The Cry of the Poor The truth is that we respond to nature with the same delicacy, the same tenderness – or lack thereof – with which we respond to people. The ecumenical movement has coined the term eco-justice: all ecological activities, all economic programs, in fact all theological or missiological attitudes are ultimately measured and finally judged by their effect on people, and especially on the poor (cf. Matt. 25.31). “By some connection that we do not recognize, the willingness to exploit one [the earth] becomes the willingness to exploit the other [the human body]” (Wendell Berry). We must allow room for the cry of the poor. We must hear the voice of the poor. We must affirm the dignity of the poor. We must assume responsibility for the consequences of our actions on the poor. Our market is based on exploitation and exclusion. Our technology pushes people aside and away, even outside. The first word in our ecumenical and missiological methodology comes less from the environment, and certainly not from our theology; it comes from our response to the poor. That is precisely what preserves us and protects the poor from the paternalization or patronization. The poor don’t simply have the same legitimacy; they have a greater legitimacy. To this point, the poor have “bought” what we have “sold” to them. They listened to what we had to say. They patiently tolerated what we offered in arrogance. But now the tables are turned; it is the suffering of the poor that now sets the pace. It is their cry that determines the solution. It is their authority that speaks – just as it was death that taught us about life, and the tree that reminded us how to treat creation. I have no excuse not to hear the cry of the poor. For, as we are assured, “the poor we always have with us” (Matt. 26.1). * * * If we lose the forest, we lose more than an aesthetical dimension of life; we lose an essential quality of life. We lose our imagination and inspiration; we lose the mystery of nature and life; we lose our sensitivity and soul. The most endangered species is not the whale or the forest; it is the earth that we share. That is our home (the meaning of oikos in the term ecology), where all of us – whales, trees and people alike – live and die. Such is the cry of the heart. The world is not hungry simply for bread (Matt. 6.10); it is hungry for a sense of holiness and mystery, for a spiritual vision that does not lose sight of the trees, the poor, and the sacred. This in turn endows us with a sense of integrity for life and the natural environment. It bequeaths on us an understanding of the reconciliation of all people and all things. It implies a covenant between heaven and earth, that God’s will may be “done on earth as in heaven” (Matt. 6.10). That is the gift we have received, the promise of new life we have been assured: “God said to Noah: ‘This is a sign of the covenant that I am making between you and me and every living creature … between me and the earth … for all future generations’” (Gen. 9.12-13). That is the treasure I am called to keep. Finally, that is the most precious gift I have to offer my children, and my children’s children. It is, thankfully, far greater than any disgrace or destruction that I have caused. It is the symbol of grace and life.


* Address during the Costas Consultation in Global Mission organized by the Boston Institute at Harvard Divinity School, February 28-March 1, 2003. The Reverend Professor John Chryssavgis is Director of the Environment Office, Hellenic College/Holy Cross, Brookline, MA.