“Environmental Sacramentality” – by Fr. Bud Grant
Some time ago, while teaching a course in Italy, I found myself at an evening concert in the crypt of the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. With my students, I had just come from Rome which, for all its wonders, is a hectic and disorienting city. I’d been anxiously at my tasks and was tired enough that I’d contemplated skipping the concert, nonetheless I settled into the creakily uncomfortable wooden pew, expecting little more than a bit of diversion. The chamber was dimly lit and what little murmuring there had been hushed amidst early notes, like candle lights of sound, from instruments warming up. Wafting among them was a residual vestige of liturgical incense. As the music washed over me waves of
indescribable beauty flooded my senses. It wasn’t just the Franciscan hymns played expertly on period instruments. It was also the architecture and medieval frescos that covered every square inch of the vaulting. It was sharing the experience with my students. It was that we were meters from the tomb of the one whom Italians simply call “Il Santo” (The saint): Francis. It was an unutterable blending of aesthetics with ethics, a Franciscan fusion of beauty and goodness. A thought saturated my whole being: “there must be a God to have inspired the creation of such beauty.”
Later, celebrating the Eucharist with my rural Iowa parish, the memory triggered another revelation. Looking at the consecrated host on the altar I uttered a spontaneous creed: “if this is not holy, nothing is holy. Because this is holy, everything is holy.” I saw a vision of all of creation being poured into that wafer, that chalice, not just the good and the beautiful, but also the awful, the ugly, the hurt, the death, even sin…all of Creation is sacralized into the Body of Christ. Later, in that awful ritual that requires the priest to physically break the host in full view of the congregation I realized yet another truth: it is only by His brokenness that we are made whole.
These experiences and the truths they reveal transcend all the rational inquiry that has gone into the crafting of a Catholic Environmental Ethic. They also complete it. Our sacramental lives, the mysteries of Truths revealed and not learned, do not contradict what our minds and morality teach us, even though they cannot be contained within or fully explained by reason. Our great theologians, like St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Thomas Aquinas, insist that faith builds on reason in precisely the same way that reason builds on nature: humans are creatures, but rational creatures. Christians simply add infused truth to the truths taught. So, in addition to all the rational principles that govern a Catholic Environmental Ethic we can add this: creation is sacramental…its beauty and goodness that inform us of the Good and Beautiful Creator.
This is no mere superficial romanticism: nature’s goodness is not ethical: it includes the lion and the lamb, and not only in the Isaiah-esque vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. That lions devour lambs is, somehow, good, even beautiful, because it is part of the harmony, balance, and integrity that is nature’s beauty and goodness. That humans have acquired an ethic of community and are infused with a grace of compassion fulfill not only our natures, but Nature’s.
For Catholics this faith claim is made graphically physical in the substance of broken bread and poured out wine, “fruits of the earth and work of human hands…these will become our spiritual food and drink” as the preface to the Eucharistic prayer puts it. In the physical elements of grain and fruit ground and crushed and remade into bread and wine, then blessed and broken and remade into Christ’s body and blood, we Catholics have the most sublime expression of the innate beauty and goodness of creation. For us, to put it simply, matter matters.
That this is not an all together self-evident faith claim of Christians is due to the tenacity of ancient heretical strains within our tradition which, though alien, still cause many would-be Christians to express deep reservations, if not outright disgust, over matters of the world and the flesh. Secular environmentalists are quick to pounce on their pronouncements as proof that Christianity is fundamentally anti-environmental. The consequence is that to be a sacramental Catholic Christian environmentalist is to be misunderstood both by secular society and by many within our own faith communities. Our nuanced position that creation is good but not God is harder to articulate than a rash and definitive denial of either nature or grace.
But it is exactly between the excesses that Catholic theology has found and maintained its position in the harmonization of faith with reason. We use our God-given ability to hammer out principles of environmental ethics and contextualize these within our faith experience of sacramentality. Rational truth fuses with sublime belief: Nature is good and beautiful. It reflects to us, who are after all part of it, the Good and the Beautiful. Creation reveals the Creator to those who have both minds and faith to comprehend.
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He’s the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose’s environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to Iowa.
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Shirley Schmidt | Sunday, July 17, 2011
As a member of that small, rural Parish in Blue Grass, Iowa which Fr. Bud ministers, I was delighted to read this article. I felt myself sitting along with him and the other students at the concert in that wonderful crypt of the basilica of St. Francis Assisi. I could hear the music and smell the insense by his evocative description. Fantastic!
I can’t believe that I also rememberd hearing him recite that creed at the eucharistic celebration after his return from his wanderings. After reflecting on it for a time that I thought that it was almost as powerful as reading in John’s Gospel of the apostle, Thomas, when he shared that first creed as he said,”My Lord and My God,” after being invited by Jesus to put his hands in his wounds.
By the way, I did not plan to reflect on those words…they chose to return to me during the following week while I was watering and feeding my indoor plants and thinking about nothing in particular. It struck me at the time that we are in in touch with nature as we play in the dirt and plant our flowers, and tend to them.
Now I am reminded that as we have planted our gardens and tended to those wonderful vegetables that are beginning to feed us, we are indeed part of nature and it is holy ground upon which we tread.
Thank you for the wonderful article, Fr. bud.