Once a man who was considered to be wise approached St. Anthony and asked him, “How do you ever manage to carry on, Father, deprived as you are of the consolation of books?” St. Anthony replied, “My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God.” (Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos, chapter 92).
Many words have been and continue to be written about the tragic deaths and devastating oil spill following the blowout and explosion of BP’s drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, on April 20, 2010. There have been words of deep sadness and loss, frustration, anger, explanation, and, of course, blame and threats. These words have been before us everyday now for the past six weeks. Though the containment cap is having some success, the oil is expected to continue flowing into the Gulf until at least the fall. Cleanup and response efforts will go on for years. As the oil flows so will the words we read. As the cleanup continues so will the words we read. We read them on the internet, in newspapers, and in magazines. Books will likely be published.
Perhaps all those words will help us understand what happened, describe the devastation and destruction, update us on progress, and assign responsibility. They will keep us informed; but will they help form us? Will they deepen our lives, take us to new levels of consciousness, and strengthen relationships with each other and nature? Probably not. A recent NPR article reported how many people do not see much connection between their lives and what has happened and is continuing to happen in the gulf. The one exception is concern that we will have higher gas prices.
As important as all this information is maybe we have missed out on what should be some required reading, the kind of reading that would help form and transform our lives and world. Maybe we should be required to read the book of created things as written by the gulf oil spill. It would be, I suspect, a hard read challenging us with a different perspective. It would not be from the perspective of the media, BP, the government, the clean up crews, the environmental advocates, or even the survivors whether they be people, marine life, birds, or wetlands. It would be God’s perspective. The book of created things as written by the gulf oil spill would offer us God’s words. So what might we read?
I offer a few thoughts on what we might learn again or maybe even learn for the first time.
- St. John of Damascus says, “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” This means nothing is neutral, nothing lacks sacredness. Wherever we go we stand on holy ground. Are we aware that we drill in holy water?
- The entrusting of creation’s destiny to humanity is at the core of what it means for humankind to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Gen. 1:26). Dominion begins with our own relationship to the created world, how we see it, and our openness to learning from it. Humanity’s dominion over all the earth is one of care and responsibility not domination.
- Genesis tells two creation stories. One describes humankind’s creation in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). We are intimately connected to God. The other tells how humanity was created from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). We are intimately connected to the earth. Taken together these two creation stories reveal humanity to be the link between God and the earth. We can, if we choose, act as the priest of creation, taking and offering creation to God and bringing God’s blessing to what we have offered. Our role as the priest of creation is absolutely necessary for creation. Without this offering of creation to God the created universe will die because it is a finite universe. The only way to protect the world from its inherent finitude is to bring it into relation with God who alone is infinite and immortal.
- The gulf oil spill bears witness that we have rejected our earthliness, forgotten who we are, and
broken the sacred connection between ourselves and our world. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas writes, “The human being has rejected his role as the priest of creation by making himself God in creation.” We have made ourselves the ultimate point of reference.
- We regularly “confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” Perhaps we should also be confessing our sins against the natural world. In a 1997 address delivered in Santa Barbara, California Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew remarked
To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for human to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, admits life with poisonous substances – these are sins.
I wonder, what do you read in the book of created things as written by the gulf oil spill? What are you learning?