Catholic Thinking – Creation, the Universe and Ecological Conversion

WelCom October 2020 Sr Patricia Powell rsm of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, spoke about creation and ecological conversion at the Australasia Catholic…

WelCom October 2020

Sr Patricia Powell rsm of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, spoke about creation and ecological conversion at the Australasia Catholic Press Association conference in her hometown of Bathurst, NSW, September 2019. Coinciding with The Season of Creation, 1 September–4 October, Patricia’s presentation is republished in two parts: Part 1 was in last month’s WelCom; and the concluding Part 2 is below. 

Sr Patricia Powell resm, at Rahamim, Ecological Centre, Bathurst, was awarded an Order of Australia(OAM) Medal in 2018, in recognition for services to the Catholic Church in Australia and Diocese of Bathurst. Photo: Jacinta Carroll, Western Advocate

The first experience I would identify as significant for my own personal journey towards ecological conversion or the shift in consciousness that it involves, was back in the 1960s when I was teaching secondary school in Orange, NSW. It is 50 years this year [2019] since a human being first walked on the surface of the moon. Crammed into the community room at the Orange Convent, over 100 spell-bound students and I watched the adventure unfold on a grainy TV picture. The focus of our celebration this year has been man’s achievement. But perhaps even more importantly, this achievement gave us a new perspective on our planet Earth – a new image to ignite our imagination. The astronauts coined a phrase to describe the transformation of consciousness this new perspective gave them. They called it ‘The overview effect’. Here is what some of them had to say when they saw Earth from space. 

‘We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.’ – William Anders, Apollo Astronaut.

‘From space I saw Earth – indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.’ – Muhanned Ahmed Farzis Syria.

‘The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.’ – Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

‘The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me – a small disk, 240,000 miles away. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.’ – Frank Borman, Commander of Apollo 8.

‘For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.’ Ulf Merbold, ESA Astronaut.

“We can no longer think of Earth merely as a collection of nations.”

That now iconic image of Earth from the moon – that blue and white jewel suspended in the blackness of space – reinforces the view that Earth is one organic whole. We can no longer think of Earth merely as a collection of nations. Weather patterns, ocean currents, feedback loops that balance temperature variations, tectonic plate activity of the continents – these can’t be controlled by national border security. This image of Earth altered my world view forever but I am still grappling with the practical implications of this knowledge.

The second significant experience in my ecological conversion or shift in consciousness came in the 1980s when I was appointed to Dubbo in response to a request from the Wiradjuri Elders for Sisters to assist Aboriginal people access educational opportunities made available by the Whitlam Government. These years in Dubbo were the also the years Aboriginal Australians were actively engaged in the struggle for land rights. I was entirely out of my comfort zone in land rights marches, and protests at Parliament House in Canberra. But I was committed to the people I was serving and the causes they espoused. And this particular cause immersed me in their felt connectedness and spiritual relationship to land. 

Associated with the Land-rights Movement was the setting up of Land Councils, funded by the Federal Government. The neighbouring Barkandji Land Councils pooled their money and bought a sheep station called Winteriga on the banks of the Darling River. This was a momentous occasion and called for celebration. Like all Aboriginal people, the Barkandji maintained a deep connection to their traditional land. So this was a spiritual as well as a legal affirmation of that relationship. 

Sr Miriam and I joined a convoy of cars, which set out from communities all around the Western area arriving at Winteriga just on nightfall. We shared a festive meal and then set about pitching camp for the night. We had brought our tent, but to our dismay, we realised we had left our tent pegs behind. So we slept on top of the tent rather than inside it. Oh happy accident!

Looking up at the night sky, the stars seemed to envelope us. I lost all sense of orientation in terms of whether I was looking up or out or down at the stars. They were so close, I had the urge to reach out and grasp a handful. I felt totally immersed in the Milky Way, not just an objective on-looker. 

A world view does not depend entirely on mental constructs. It is also informed by how we feel about what we know. Traditional Aboriginal people organised their societies and relationships on the basis of their felt connection with the natural world. There is an urgent need for us post-modern human beings, to reinvent ourselves and our societies with a feel for how our planet actually functions, and a commitment to working with its finely balanced systems and within its limits and capacities. That would be a respectful relationship with creation. We can’t be in right relationship unless we know and can appreciate what is before our eyes, whether we are speaking about another person or the planet itself.

“There is an urgent need for us post-modern human beings, to reinvent ourselves and our societies with a feel for how our planet actually functions, and a commitment to working with its finely balanced systems and within its limits and capacities. That would be a respectful relationship with creation.”

My third significant experience was in Canada at the end of the 1980s. I was on sabbatical. The primary focus of my studies was to deepen my understanding and experience of my own Catholic spiritual tradition. But I also hoped to be able to communicate with my Aboriginal friends more meaningfully at a spiritual level, across our cultural divide. One of the courses I enrolled in was called eco-spirituality, which was an introduction to Catholic teaching about creation and the natural world down through the ages. My time span for this, of course, was the time span of Christianity – two thousand years. I could never have anticipated finding myself in a time zone that reached back 13.7 billion years to what is popularly called the ‘Big Bang’. But that is what happened. This is when I was introduced to the New Universe Story emerging out of the discoveries of Western science. As I reflected on the scientific data, a new way of looking at the world and understanding reality was becoming something I could not avoid taking into account.

The following examples are by no means exhaustive.

The Universe is expanding. We used to think it was static and unchanging. But that is not what has been discovered. Scientists, with the help of the Hubble Telescope, have been able to see and measure the speed of galaxies moving away from each other in every direction. Run this process backwards, and the age of the universe can be calculated: 13.7 billion years. The way this knowledge impacts our world view is to challenge political and religious assumptions and dogmas we thought were beyond question. If reality is a process, at what point can we be sure we have nailed something down forever? Are there any absolutes? 

Life is evolving by means of a process that involves chance and probability. We used to think that the human was of a completely different order from other life forms. But all living organisms store genetic information using the same molecules – DNA and RNA. Written in the genetic code of these molecules is compelling evidence of the shared ancestry of all living things, both animal and plant. We are all kin and every part of creation has intrinsic value – not just for its usefulness to us. That information has the potential to modify the way we relate to the rest of creation. Moreover, all life functions within eco-systems. To destroy one part of the eco-system has repercussions throughout the eco-system. Is it possible we also share a spiritual connection that has reached a complexity and subtlety of expression in the human species? That we are more connected than separate?

The chemical elements in our bodies are found throughout the known universe. We are literally made of stardust, while at the same time we have emerged out of the dynamics that have shaped Earth. We had no idea that other planets and stars were composed of the same chemical elements and molecules as Earth. We had no way of knowing that the universe was as big as it is, or that Earth began as a bit of debris left over from an exploding star on the outer edge of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy five billion years ago. Our concepts of space and time have been enlarged beyond anything we imagined and both space and time continue to expand with the expansion of the universe. When asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied ‘Your God is too small’. Does our theology do justice to the God of the Universe?

As a woman who brings the lens of faith to all reality, my automatic reaction to this new scientific information was, ‘Goodness, God is cleverer than I ever imagined’. Not for a moment did the New Universe Story constitute for me a conflict with the Genesis story of Creation or challenge my faith in God. But it has evoked in me a shift in consciousness and changed the way I look at the natural world. I feel wonder and awe as I reflect on the story and contemplate the geology of mountains or the biodiversity of landscapes. I feel frustration and sadness as I witness the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of the planet – burning or being destroyed for palm oil plantations, hamburgers or throw-away tissues. I feel anger and despair as the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin dry up because management plans are sabotaged. I feel fear and outrage as record hot temperatures and record low rainfall and other catastrophic weather events are documented, and still global warming is denied and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are side-stepped by our Government.

And just as the New Universe Story is changing the way we look at creation and challenging us to rethink our way of being in the world, the universe brings forth Francis as Pope who sees the world within an emerging new world view and addresses a Letter to the whole world Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home, which gives us something of a blueprint for right relationship or being reconciled with creation and each other. He sees clearly the connection between destruction of the environment and injustice and oppression of people, particularly the poor. And he promotes an integral ecology of environment, society and economy as a way towards a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship. Such leadership inspires hope in an Age of Indifference bordering on Despair.