By Peter Diaz, Service Learning & Immersion Coordinator and Religion Teacher at Mercy High School in Burlingame, California
My father was a very calm and patient man, and I don’t recall him raising his voice at me that often as a child. But one episode stands out clearly in my mind. I was eight years old, and my cousin, Bruce, and I wanted desperately to build a Native American teepee. However, living on the island of Guam as we did, we had to improvise on the building materials. The next best thing to leather hide was coconut branches, so we went to work on the trees in my back yard.
Later, I distinctly remember my father yelling my name to come out to the backyard. He angrily told me that I had cut too many branches of the coconut trees and that they could die as a result. He warned me that if they should die, I would get the belt.
As expected, I was very afraid, but also confused as to why he was so angry. They were just trees! Then it finally dawned on me that trees are also alive, just like me. Just as I need water and sunshine to survive, so do they. Realizing this, I immediately walked up to each and every coconut tree that I had cut branches off, placed my hand on their trunks and sincerely apologized for having hurt them. I truly felt remorse for what I had done.
The lesson I learned from that childhood incident had a profound impact on how I view our environment, to this day. The realization that the coconut trees were alive just as I was is very similar to what the California Conference of Catholic Bishops is pointing out to us in its pastoral statement, “God Calls Us All to Care for Our Common Home” issued on the fourth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Pope Francis and the California Bishops want us to realize that all of creation is alive, just like we are! And not only alive but possessed of the divine presence within. Another way to say this is that all things are in God.
The bishops’ reflection emphasizes two points. The first is the recognition of our state’s bounty and beauty. They point out how fortunate we are to be afforded such natural beauty and resources. Our state has everything from lush forests to barren deserts; it has clean water and vast fertile lands for farming. Another natural resource is the ubiquitous fog in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many homes in San Francisco aren’t air conditioned because the fog acts as our natural air conditioner and air filter. How fortunate and reliant we are on the fog to keep cool our city after a warm day.
The second point made by the bishops is how each person in their respective career can discern their vocation to contribute to the ecological well-being of our state. The bishops specifically address youth and young adults, parents, teachers and catechists, public officials and leaders in business. Each is called to discern how best to help alleviate the effects we as humans have on our state’s environmental health. As one of my science teachers once put it, Mother Nature would do well without our species. We, however, cannot say the same of her.
The California Bishops also pledge to do their part as spiritual leaders in addressing the needs of our environment. They will look into how their respective dioceses can use renewable energy, be more energy efficient and practice water conservation. They also pledge to divest from fossil fuels, whether from bank investments, oil leases or other sources. Lastly, they pledge to work with Catholic charities and health care institutions to undertake environmental health and social initiatives, with special attention to the needs of the poor and excluded, who are often the most affected by climate change.
The California bishops, together with Pope Francis, are calling us to a heightened awareness that all creation is indeed alive, just as I became aware as a child that the coconut trees were alive. This awareness is “panentheism,” not pantheism. There is a big difference! Panentheism means all of creation is sacred and has the divine spark in it. In Christian terms, this is what we call the “Incarnation.” We would do well to keep that in mind.
We must stop thinking that our natural resources are inanimate. They are not! They are living beings that we rely on for our well-being. We are all integrally connected!
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