The monk and climate change

What does a fourth century monk, St Anthony the Great, have to teach us about climate change (or indeed ecological engagement in general)?

Sketching (in detail) an answer to this question is at the heart of Douglas E. Christie's "The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology".

Three things (at least) come to mind.

The first is the Desert monastic tradition's emphasis on the 'gift of tears'. The recognition that we are alienated both from our best selves and from our places. Mourning what we have lost (and what we fail to be) is a good place, felt St Anthony, to begin the task of a proper assessment of what we might intelligently be responsible for and what we might change. We are all implicated in our gathering ecological crisis, more or less. We all know places, loved and known, that are no more, erased by our ever moving 'progress'. It might be a sensible step to acknowledge this, weep for it, and cleansed by tears begin to see more clearly, more resolutely. Christie writes beautifully of how numbing our (un)conscious sense of responsibility can be, phasing into denial, what we might need is a good jolt of appropriate mourning to jump start a real felt sense of where we are now. We do not really want to recognise that we are 'all sinners' so we will deny reality. Grief is a path to a renewed sense of reality.

The second is the cultivation of attention. Do we genuinely look at the world about us with cleansed, clear eyes? What happens when we do? We begin, suggests Christie, to see the world as an inter-connected whole, beautiful and cherish-able. The monastic Desert tradition has a rich and complex tradition of how such a deepening of consciousness can be achieved through patient discipline (and a touch of grace). Even if such seeing does not, as it did for the monks, lead you through to a transcendent subject that contains and brings forth the world as gift, it does offer an invitation to a way of seeing that recognises the naturally gifted beauty in things, freed of our preconceptions (and self-centring emotions).

The third is a sense that we are both 'at home' and 'on a journey'. St Anthony exhibited great love of the mountain where he took up his hermitage yet retained a sense of abiding 'detachment' towards things. At one level, this is a paradox, and if not held together led to a Christian devaluing of this world in preference to 'the next' but if held together can make for a genuine disposition in the world: loving it but not grasping it, recognising and 'surfing' its transiency, wanting to share it with others, now and for future generations.

Christie never suggests that there is a simple translation between the Desert Fathers and Mothers and a contemporary approach to valuing our common home but he plays beautifully with the comparisons and opens out an old set of resources for renewing use, usefulness. 


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