'Laudato Si',' the Whirlwind and Yoga

Cape Cod, MA. Pope Francis’ magnificent encyclical, "Laudato Si'," has already been widely commented on, and receiving careful analysis from many angles. It will, of course, be a topic of conversation, material for study, and implementation globally in dioceses and parishes, as a substantive part of the Church’s teaching in the 21st century. I am just coming off retreat, and have not had time to digest either the encyclical or responses to it, and wish here only to add several comments appropriate to the day.

First, and probably not by any specific plan, "Laudato Si'" fits in very well with the Sunday Gospels for last Sunday (June 14) and today (June 21), from Mark 4. Last week, we heard Jesus explain by way of parables what the Kingdom of God is like; and for this, he turns to the mystery of life in the world around us: how the seed, once sown, mysteriously knows what to do, without human instruction; how the tiniest of mustard seeds somehow becomes a very large bush, resting place for all manner of birds. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus gives a third analogy: the seed grows only if received into good soil; we must be like the earth, of the earth, receiving the seed in our depths, not with a dry or hard response. If we want to know the Kingdom, nature can be a very good instructor. Today’s Gospel, the calming of the storm on the lake (also from Chapter 4), reminds us of the terrifying force of nature; it can overwhelm us even when we have not been degrading nature, tampering with fundamental mechanisms that support life and flourishing. The passage also shows Jesus to be the Lord of nature: he awakens, he calms the storm by his word. They were terrified because they understood neither God nor the sea. This might suggest that prayer is the best way to deal with the unleashed destructive forces of the natural world, since nature large and small is in God’s hands. But today’s first reading, from Job 38, points us in another direction:

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Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? ‘Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? (Job 38:1-11; only 8-11 is actually read at Mass.)

This is but the opening passage of the Lord’s magnificent and terrifying response to Job, such as covers three chapters. At the heart of it, with respect to "Laudato Si'," is that we understand neither God nor nature; we are confronted with mysteries beyond our comprehension, and must learn humbly to respect both. Or as the Gospel puts it: we do not really comprehend our earth, and we do not yet truly know Jesus, this master of nature. However we follow up on the encyclical then, let us remember that we are entering upon two great mysteries. Humility first.

Second, then, even if it is surely by coincidence that Sunday June 21, the first day of summer, is the first annual Day of Yoga, it is highly appropriate in light of the encyclical. Prime Minister Modi of India had urged this annual observance upon the UN when he spoke there in the fall, and General Assembly members readily assented to the idea. And so, particularly in India but also widely across the world, special events are marking the practice and virtues of yoga today. As Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, put it,

Yoga offers a simple, accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being. It promotes respect for one's fellow human beings and for the planet we share. And yoga does not discriminate; to varying degrees, all people can practice, regardless of their relative strength, age or ability… On this first-ever International Day of Yoga, let us see the benefits of this practice in terms of individual well-being as well as our collective efforts to improve public health, promote peaceful relations and usher in a life of dignity for all.

And how does this relate to the Pope’s encyclical? The Pope is pragmatic, careful on his science, and aware of the economics and politics of what is required. He is also calling everyone, everywhere, to the spiritual transformation that must undergird hopes of change. Early on Francis writes,

Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it. The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason. The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges. (63)

He puts it this way toward the end of the document:

Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal. (202)

The Pope is eloquent on the deep roots of this transformation in Biblical and Catholic tradition, but he knows that there is no value in neglecting the immeasurable resources found in other religions as well. Yoga, often focused on the transformation of one individual at a time, does not immediately or without further reflection offer the cure for environmental neglect and destruction. But yoga is a practice and spirituality deeply respectful of what is natural, what leads to flourishing. It promotes care for oneself, body, mind, and spirit, and the reintegration of our individual reality back into the larger flow of life, one with all living beings. Practitioners of yoga are, to put it mildly, on the same side as the Pope.

Three closing hopes: First, let us hearken back to Mark 4 and Job 38: both God and nature are great mysteries to us, and it may be that the path of nature will return us home to God, if we are attentive and humble, of the earth. What are the texts in other traditions that remind us of the gift and sacredness of nature, the mysteries we serve and protect? (That the Pope quotes the Sufi Ali al Khawas is only the beginning of this learning; see also a piece just posted by Professor Joseph Lombard, a respected Muslim scholar, here, and a statement by a large group of Rabbis here.) Second, it would be most appropriate if the annual Day of Yoga, at summer’s start, is also a day for all practitioners to recommit themselves to care for the environment on the most local and most global scales: as the individual, so the world. Third, it would be most appropriate for us Catholics to make it clear that we know that Pope Francis is calling all spiritual beings, in all religions, to find the resources within our traditions to help save and restore the earth. Nobody can do this alone. Saving the earth is surely a prime topic for interreligious dialogue, and interreligious practical cooperation. Perhaps another Assisi meeting should be on the horizon, spiritual practitioners of all faiths coming together to affirm, in word and deed, our reverence and love for the gift of the earth, and our commitment to use our brains, our hearts, and our hands, to make a difference?

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