D.T. Gonzalez – Ecological Works of Mercy

« Ecological Works of Mercy »

by Dennis T. Gonzalez

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In 2016, Pope Francis proposed “a new work of mercy…care for our common home.” As a spiritual work, it invites usto a “grateful contemplation of God’s world…which allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us;” as a corporal work, it“requires simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,and makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.”[1] This essay is an attempt to specify ways in which care for our common home is a work of mercy.

Calling Attention to Creation

This is one way to specify care for the earth and its dwellers as a new spiritual work of mercy:“consoling the afflicted” by calling attention to the wonders of creation in daily life.On a personal note, I remember my late father.  In his last years of deteriorating health and unwanted retirement from hectic public service, hewould notice and mention with a faint smile the twitter of sparrows from trees outside the informal dining area at home.

At times I muse on these lines translated from an epic poem of the Manobo indigenous groups in the Philippine island of Mindanao: 

We shall not feel lonely
We shall not feel sad
Because the trees will play the lute.
The rustling sound of the leaves will be
Singing the victory song.
The rocks will be whistling
Whistling that can truly console
The chanting bamboos
The singing sons will console.[2]

Consolation can come to us through beings and things in nature owing to “the intimate connection between God and all beings; ”the ecological encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS), points out that this connectionis perceived by mystics like John of the Cross (1542-1591) in whose Cantico Espiritual one can read the following line, whichthe papal text reproduces: “Lonely valleys are quiet, pleasant, cool, shady and flowing with fresh water; in the variety of their groves and in the sweet song of the birds, they afford abundant recreation and delight to the senses, and in their solitude and silence, they refresh us and give rest” (LS, 234).

Ecological Wisdom in Job

A biblical example of consoling the afflicted by calling attention to creation is the long poetic drama of Job (3:1 – 42:6).To troubled Job’s repeated protestations of his innocence and the unfairness of his suffering, the Lord responds “out of the whirlwind” (38:1).  God peppers Job with many questions and statements that refer to the world of nature, its deep secrets, its superfluous aspects (38:25-27), its wildlife that eludes human control (ch 39), and its fabulous beasts (40:15 – 41:34).

The divine speeches to Job include an amusing descriptionof “the wild ass,” whichtakes “the wasteland as its home” and “laughs at the commotion in the town” (39:5-7). The Lord also expresses a non-utilitarian delightin “the ostrich,” which was created somewhat stupid yet surely swift, as “she spreads her feathers to run and laughs at horse and rider” (39:13-18). After God evokes an expansive vision of divine gratuitousness, freedom, and sportive creativity within and beyond divine justice, the poetic drama comes to a close with Job finding peace in the Lord and peace with himself, even if his fortunes have not (yet) returned (42:5-6).

Names of the Endangered

In the great hymn to the Creator and Sustainer, Psalm 104, the “wild asses” and the “wild goats” are among the wildlife mentioned by the ancient psalmist.  The Somali wild ass and the Nubian ibex, respectively, were the animals that the psalmist likely had in mind.  Today, they are considered endangered species.  In the case of the wild ass, it is critically endangered, and in Israel it survives only in the YotvataHai-Bar Nature Reserve.  Better knowledge of the “animals of the Bible”[3] and their current condition will increase our appreciation of texts like Psalm 104 and help nurture and consolidate an ecological spirituality.

One way to nurture an ecological spirituality in a local church or faith community is the adaptation, composition, and promotion of hymns and prayers to the Creator in which the worshippers pronounce the names of endangered species in the country or region such as, in the case of my country, the haribon (royal bird: the Philippine eagle), the tamaraw (wild buffalo), the katala (red-vented cockatoo), the kalaw (hornbill), the kwaknit (naked-backed fruit bat), the kulo-kulo(bleeding-heart dove), and the Palawan forest turtle.[4]

Recognized names contain signifying power. The periodic speaking and hearing of names, local or global, common or scientific, proper or improper, have consequencesfor communities especially when they come together whether insolemnassembly or not.  In the second creation story in Genesis chapter two, the naming of each kind of animal appears to be such an important responsibility of humankind that the Lord wants “to see what the human would name” each of them (2:19).

[1] “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” (1 September 2016), 5.  

[2] Agyu, in Gabriel Casal, Kayamanan [Treasure]: Ma’i – Panoramas of Philippine Primeval, ed. Nick Joaquin (Manila: Central Bank of the Philippines, 1986), 137.In Chinese merchant records from 1225 CE, Ma’i was the name of the group of islands that the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century eventually called the Philippines after their monarch Philip II (1556-1598).

[3] See, e.g., David Darom, Animals of the Bible: From the Lion to the Snail (Herzlia: Palphot, n.d.).

[4] In his attempt to reclaim the Psalms for the laity, the majority faithful, Jim Cotter composed a version of Psalm 104 with lines such as the following: “There jostle the shining mountains, lands of the long white clouds, eagles soaring to their eyries, snow leopards ruling the heights.”  See Jim Cotter, Psalms for a Pilgrim People (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 222.