In 1989, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios of Constantinople, the first among the equal leaders of the Orthodox Churches, began an annual observance of a Day of Prayer for the Environment. His successor, Patriarch Bartholomew
, continuing the practice, on August 27 issued a message in anticipation of the September 1 observance.
The patriarch says that, "The world that surrounds us was thus offered to us as a gift by our Creator as an arena of social activity but also of spiritual sanctification in order that we might inherit the creation to be renewed in the future age."
But, he goes on, we have defiled creation by polluting it and by using its gifts heedlessly because of ignorance and greed.
"Thus, the invocation and supplication of the Church and us all to God as the Lord of lords and Ruler of all for the restoration of creation are essentially a petition of repentance
for our sinfulness
in destroying the world instead of working to preserve and sustain its ever-flourishing resources reasonably and carefully." (Emphasis in original.)
It is easy when thinking about the damage that has been inflicted upon the environment to point out "bad guys," the corporations, usually multinational, that mow down forests, level mountains, poison lakes, smudge the sky, deplete fish stocks and drive species to the brink of extinction and beyond.
Bartholomew points out that when we pray over the environment, "we are ultimately imploring God to change [the] mindset of the powerful in the world, enlightening them not to destroy the planet’s ecosystem for reasons of financial profit and ephemeral interest."
There is a danger, however, of becoming smug, of thinking that the problem is not mine, that merely separating cans and bottles from the rest of my trash frees me to feel superior to the corporations. After all, I’ve never strip mined for coal. Of course, the electricity I use comes from such mining, but there is not much I can do about that; switching to whale oil lamps would not help matters.
The patriarch’s call to repentance is issued to "each one of us inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage in our individual capacity and ignorance."
When we hear the word "environment," we think of green trees and blue waters, the natural environment. However, most people in Asia no longer live in that sort of environment. Ours is a manufactured environment. We are city dwellers, and our environment is not that of the farmer. Yet a metropolis is no less an environment than a field or forest is.
Of what relevance to us, then, is a Day of Prayer for the Environment? Are we exempt from personal direct involvement in restoring the environment because we cannot plant a tree?
For the most part, Asian cities are littered, filthy, noisy, smelly and overcrowded. The exceptions like Tokyo (which has environmental problems of its own) make the environmental degradation of other places starker. What does it do to the spiritual as well as physical health of people who live with ugliness and filth?
What can the Church do to help build a sense of community that includes caring for the streets, alleys and drains we share with one another? Can our parishes become homes to activities that educate people to the importance of a good environment even in a city? Can Christians become notable in their communities for organizing efforts to improve the actual environment they share with their neighbors?
There are limits to what local groups can do when faced with the problems of hyper-populated cities with inadequate infrastructure, just as there are limits to what local groups can do when faced with powerful economic interests that damage the natural environment.
But our inability to solve all problems must not become an excuse for avoiding the urgency of doing what can be done right outside our doors.