Earlier this week, we celebrated the feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks. St. Kateri is the patroness of ecology and the environment, a tribute to the reverence Native Americans have historically shown to the created order.
For this quick reflection, I want to begin by sharing the initial lines of the prayer most associated with Kateri, who, though she never entered a formal religious community, was a virgin and dedicated herself completely to prayer and contemplation. Here it is:
I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love.
St. Kateri is often associated with a love for nature and the created order, but is it a contradiction that she herself claimed to love nothing but Jesus, God Incarnate? Have we been hoodwinked into having a Manichean, matter-loathing gnostic as the patroness of the environment?
Hardly so. In fact, it is because of St. Kateri’s deep and undivided love of God that she can be held up as a model of how we are to care for creation. For we care for creation not for its own sake, but because it is a gift, freely given from our Father. We love God and neighbor by loving the beautiful, life-giving earth he has given us.
Saint Francis of Assisi–Saint Kateri’s co-patron of the environment–demonstrates this even more clearly with his beautiful Canticle of the Sun. Here are the first few stanzas (with my emphasis added):
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Saint Francis loved nature, to be sure, but he loved it because he loved God first. The incredible thing about God, who sustains all of creation, yet transcends it, is that loving Him does not mean we cannot love anything else. God is not a competitor with creation, in some mutually exclusive relationship with the earth and its inhabitants. In fact, it is only through loving God completely and utterly, as Saint Kateri Tekakwitha did, that we can properly order our love for created things.
This is a truth that those of us dedicated to care of creation need to constantly remind ourselves. Too often our passionate issue advocacy, our lobbying for policy changes, our personal commitment to treating the environment with reverence, can become ends unto themselves. When this happens, we have made care for creation an idol, and our work becomes spiritually dry and disordered.
Loving God first and foremost doesn’t prevent us from loving our earth and those around us; it properly orders our love, transforming it and imbuing it with the selfless love of Christ.
Let us ask Saint Kateri Tekakwitha to intercede on our behalf, so that in our tireless efforts to care for God’s creation, we may always stay grounded in a deep and abiding love for our Creator; for He must be our only love.