Ecology and Real Life

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Ecology and Real Life
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Summer 1997]

For many people nowadays, ecology is a popular subject. I believe that for us Orthodox it ought to take a “front seat” in our priorities. This is not simply to advocate the recycling programmes that exist in most places in our country, although that is indeed good in itself. Ecology does not have to do with simply supporting organisations which save this or that species from extinction, although that is also a good thing. Ecology has to do with something more fundamental than that : our attitude towards life and creation.

Many various Orthodox theologians have addressed this matter of our living in a wasteful environment, one in which we have made for ourselves an unrealistic dreamland of instant self-gratification. We have instant light and water. We have instant foods of all sorts. We have non-biodegradable packaging on almost everything, and packaging that is often more or bigger than necessary. As human beings, we have become well-known to ourselves as being very effective poisoners of our environment (and of ourselves as well). In all our instant expectations, we have forgotten patience, and in all our interest in “things” and “goods” we have forgotten relationships. We tend to treat everything that does not breathe and have blood as something therefore inanimate, and by extension not living in any way. Slowly this attitude creeps on to various breathing things, and even to human beings. We are even seeming to reverse the process developed in recent centuries in which human beings were supposed to come to respect all human beings as being equal in some way.

We are a long way from what is implied in the first two chapters of 1 Moses [Genesis], wherein mankind is shown to be responsible for co-operating with God in developing good order in creation, even naming the animals. This responsible co-operation implies also a living relationship with this creation. We understand that in those pristine times, humans ate “every seed-bearing herb that sows seed on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed” ; that animals ate “every green plant as food” (1 Moses 1:29-30). This is, of course, connected to our Lenten diet.

Historically, Orthodox societies have not tended to behave in the wasteful manner so evident in present day western civilisation. Perhaps it is not too late for us to put on the brakes with our own dispositions, and to try to recover at least some of our authentic Orthodox awareness.

What many Aboriginal societies seem to claim as theirs uniquely has, in fact, been ours for millennia : a living relationship with animals, plants, soil, water, air, rocks. The difference has been that we do not confuse these creatures with the Creator. Yet, we have understood our responsibility before God the Creator of all things for our stewardship of these creatures, and our creative relationship with them in Him. For instance, that an Aboriginal would prefer not to cut a still-living tree ought to make sense to us. For us, caring for the land, farming and gardening, is a holy way of life which seems to be ordered by God for most of us. We grow food to feed ourselves and our families, and by extension to feed our neighbours (which, we will remember, is everyone). By cultivating the land, we later reap the harvest of its fertility ; but at the same time, we have the responsibility to return to this land what we have removed from it in the form of living organic matter.

I remember the farm at New Valamo Monastery in Finland. When I was there in 1980, they were practising organic farming in a very careful way. The composting was undertaken in a very serious manner, to the extent that even the contents of the septic tanks were composted over several years and then returned to the fields. In Finland in general, forestry is being practised in a very careful way, much as one would practise farming. Only certain trees are taken from the forest, and foresters make provision for the renewing of what was taken. Great care was taken to be sure that the water was clean, and that it was not used up in various excesses. In some ways, the Valamo farm approached self-sufficiency at that time. Of course, such farming requires harder work to an extent. It probably also requires being satisfied with a smaller profit. However, our Creator does not ask us to work the land as a business ! He asks us to have a living, creative, and steward-like relationship with the land and with all creation.

Whether we are farmers or “city-slickers”, we all have the responsibility to order our lives correctly according to God’s direction, and to try to be a better example to those around us who are forgetting the correct order of priorities. As the adopted sons and daughters of God in the Body of Christ, we must do our best to correct our ways, and thus become true salt of the earth, and yeast (see Matthew 5:13 ; 13:33). I very much like to remember the quotation of an old peasant in the booklet Apostolic Farming by Catherine de Hueck Doherty : “Little lady, of course I know about the earth, and you will too. I came from her and I will return to her. Dust to dust ! That is the way God decreed we should come from Him into the world. That is the way we shall go back to Him. He has placed our soul into this house of sod. From it He will receive us back”.

In our self-imposed haste, let us ask our Lord Jesus Christ to help us to put on the brakes, to remember our priorities, and to recover our sense of stewardship of the Lord’s creation.