D.T. Gonzalez – Ecological Works of Mercy

Mourning the Extinct

In communities that nurture an ecological spirituality, this can become a specific practice of mercy: the public recital and solemn remembrance of the names of the dead or extinct species whose extinction was anthropogenic or caused by human activity.  Perhaps churches, dioceses, parishes, and schools can initiate or establish a “day of remembrance and mourning for extinct creatures(in the anthropocene epoch[5])” in which names such as the Cebu warty pig, the Javan tiger, the Tasmanian tiger, and the Caribbean monk seal, among others, are recited in prayer meetings, liturgies, or even in the eucharistic prayer.

I humbly propose that such a day or period of remembrance of extinct species be included in the ecumenical “‘Time for Creation’ during the five weeks between 1 September (the Orthodox commemoration of God’s creation) and4 October (the commemoration of Francis of Assisi in the Catholic Church and some otherWestern traditions).”[6] Mourning the dead is an act of mercy, and it disposes mourners to receive the blessing of consolation (Matthew 5:4). 

A specific holy day for extinct creaturescan be agood opportunityto undergo “ecological conversion” and do the following: 

(1) express gratitude to our Creator for the gift of creatures and species that humankind had encountered and known even though insufficiently and briefly in the past;
(2) mourn their extinction and show regret for the lost and irretrievable opportunity for present and future generations to observe and appreciate living specimens especially in the wild;
(3) confess our sins against the Creator and creation;
(4) invoke divine mercyon behalf of, on the one hand, the poor persons and families who resort to destructive environmental practices owing to ignorance or desperation, and on the other, the consumerist and complacent persons and classes whose ears are sealed so that they hear only their own voices and nothing of the cries of poor families orthe groans of the Creator Spirit in endangered species;
(5) come together to talk about practical ways and means to prevent the extinction of more species andto provide alternative forms of livelihood to poor people who engage in harmful environmental practices such as slash-and-burn farming, cyanide and dynamite fishing, and haphazard small-scale mining.

For worship services in the “Time for Creation,” and even outside this period, it will be meaningful to refrain from using images and religious objects that were made from ivory.  In a pastoral letter, “The Lord God Made Them All,” the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) appealed to fellow bishops “to prohibit the clerics from blessing any new statue, image or object of devotion made or crafted from such material as ivory or similar body parts of endangered or protected species, nor shall such new statues or images be used as objects of veneration in any of our churches…[and] no donation of any new statue or religious object made from ivory…shall be accepted.”[7]

Developing a Multifaceted Ecological Understanding

Another ecological work of mercy for our times is helping novices, greenhorns, nostalgic romanticizers, and ill-educated persons to discover or developa multifaceted or multilayered ecological understanding.  To return to the example of the poetic text of Job, the divine speeches include a parody of Job’s speech, and they evoke many facets of creation: from the stable and orderly aspects to the fierce, funny, and frolicsome aspects.[8]Also, in many cultures, there are humorous proverbs about wildlife and nature.  One example is the Filipino proverb: “The crow shouts so that no one will shout at it.”[9]

I believe that it is an eye-opener to imagine our Creator as divinity with a great sense of humor.  Within humankind as image of God, humor is a valuable way of knowing and acting in the world,[10] and it is desirable to develop and maintain a good sense of humor in studyingnature anddiscussing the serious ecological challenges that societies and families face and the sustainable means to respond to them.Laughter that is not scornful can relieve a headache or heartache and create a gateway, even if it often will be a narrow gateway, for entrance into necessary reflection and better decision-making.  

In some instances, a better way of consoling the afflicted is by calling attention to the ludicrous or the tragicomic within creation.  Perhaps believers and pastoral leaders who like to quote and sing the 1848 hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”[11] by Cecil Alexander will need to wrestle with these (modified) lyrics of the 1989 parody made by the British comedy group Monty Python:

All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,

All things rude and nasty,
(Did not God make the lot?)

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,

(Did he make their brutish venom?
Did he make their horrid wings?).

Mature Ecological Spirituality

The mature ecological spirituality for our times leads us to open our eyes also to the ugly and tragic facets and facts of nature and wildlife even within habitats with minimal human intervention.  Among the foul facets are the fierce territoriality within many species and the cannibalism in which progenitors eat some of their young or the strong ones eat the wounded and the sick.

In rural areas of Cebu island, the small farmer lives closer to nature than the ordinary urban dweller.  She “looks up and asks for clement weather – the right amount of sun and rain,” and knows the difficulty of “watching out for ravenous birds [and] defending against audacious rats.”[12] Thus, she will not be like the armchair ecological thinker who can easily romanticize nature and wildlife.  In the Song of Songs, which is the inspiration for the CanticoEspiritual, a lovesick singer knows about the urgency to “catch…the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (SS2:15).

I consider Jim Cotter’s creative version of Psalm 104 expressive of a profoundecological spirituality especially in these last lines:

You give us an abundance to share, the loaves of life for the table, wine to gladden our hearts, oil to lighten our skin.  Yet the sun can scorch the corn, the lava snap the trees, the hurricane flatten the houses, the tidal waves and river floods drown.  The meteors hurtle through space, the stars explode and vanish, the violence our hearts abhor, yet playing its vital part.  We may believe your Spirit created and renews the face of the earth: the destruction tempers our praise, darkened by pain and perplexity.[13]

[5] The anthropocene is our contemporary period in which humankind has become aware of our planetary power and (ir)responsibility.  “’We’re the first species that’s become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality’ (Andrew Revkin)…This is our time, the anthropocene…the epoch when we gained our bearings and lost our marbles.”  See Renato R. Constantino, “Weather,” in Agam [Disquiet and Discernment]: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change (Quezon City: Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, 2014), 94.

[6] “Message of His Holiness” (1 September 2016), 1.  The “Time for Creation” was proposed initially by the Third European Ecumenical Assembly and supported by the World Council of Churches.

[7] “Those statues and images of ivory…already in use probably for centuries before the issuance of this pastoral guidance, should be safeguarded, and may remain in use for purposes of devotion and in recognition of their historical value.”  See Socrates Villegas, “The Lord God Made Them All: Pastoral Moral Guidance on the Poaching, Trafficking and Decimation of Endangered Species” (Manila: CBCP, 04 November 2015), 1-2.

[8] The humorous aspect is such that the book of Job can be considered a comedy, or better, a tragicomedy because of “its perception of incongruity that moves in the realm of the ironic, the ludicrous, and the ridiculous.” See William Whedbee, The Comedy of Job, in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, eds. Y. Radday and A. Brenner (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1990), 221.

[9] Damiana Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature: The Proverbs (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2002), 118.  Perhaps this is an example from the book of Proverbs: “The rock badgers are a feeble folk, yet they make their home in the crags” (30:26).

[10] “Humour is not a mood but a way of looking at the world.”  See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G.H. von Wright, trans. P. Winch (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), 78.  Genuine comedy is not merely amusing, and its major point “is its perception of the incongruities of existence in which celebration and festivity occur side-by-side with evil and death.”  See Whedbee, 245.

[11] “All creatures great and small… the Lord God made them all” are lines from the 1848 hymn which are quoted in the first sentence of the CBCP letter of Archbishop Villegas. 

[12] Grace Monte de Ramos, “How Do You Read the Clouds?” in Agam, 36.

[13] Cotter, 222-23.