Assisi and the Spirit of St. Francis

UPDATE: Sandro Magister has a new post on the controversy surrounding the term “Spirit of Assisi” and its perceptions in the Vatican. Read more here

This week, world religious leaders gathered in Assisi to pray for peace. Several news outlets reported the event, here and here, as well as a good summary by Sandro Magister (1) which includes some of the major concerns and opportunities, as well as a private letter by Pope Benedict XVI to a Lutheran minister, seen below (2).

  1. ROME, October 26, 2011 – For the “day of reflection, dialogue, and prayer for peace and justice in the world” that he has convened for tomorrow in Assisi, twenty-five years after the controversial first edition held by his predecessor as pope, Benedict XVI has introduced two new features. The first is the extension of the invitation, in addition to representatives of the religions of the whole world, to nonbelievers as well. With their presence, the day of Assisi will take the form of a symbolic “courtyard of the Gentiles,” animated not only by the “God-fearers,” but also by those who do not believe in God, without, however, ceasing from searching for him. The nonbelievers who have agreed to participate in the day of Assisi are the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, the Mexican philosopher Guillermo Hurtado, the Austrian economist Walter Baier, and the French psychoanalytic philosopher Julia Kristeva, who will be the final speaker during the initial phase of the meeting, after a series of nine talks by religious representatives including ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and Rabbi David Rosen of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. After Julia Kristeva, Benedict XVI will speak, in his only talk of the day.
  2. “I understand very well,” the pope writes, “your concern about participating in the encounter of Assisi. But this commemoration would have been celebrated in any case, and, in the end, it seemed to me the best thing to go there personally, in order to try to determine the overall direction. Nonetheless, I will do everything I can to make a syncretistic or relativistic interpretation of the event impossible, and to make it clear that I will always believe and confess what I had called the Church’s attention to with ‘Dominus Iesus’.”

What the Pope emphasized in his Vigil homily was a reflection on peace and the centrality of Jesus Christ, who conquers through love and meekness. To this ecumenical dimension of the meeting, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist, as he has done in the past. In his address to the Assisi meeting he gave a diagnosis to the current threats to peace, which broadly come in the form of religious fanaticism or atheistic fanaticism, both eschewed understandings of God. This is a recurring theme for Benedict XVI, present for example in his famous dialogue with Habermas on the pathologies of religion and pathologies of reason. He also mentioned the misguided idea of freedom that marks our current spiritual climate, another of his key reflections, as well as the worship to Mammon, which he has cconnected to one root of environmental problems. 

The environment did not figure prominently  in the Pope’s words, though there was a specific mention by Cardinal Turkson (1), head of Justice and Peace who organized the event from the Vatican. Also pertinent to environmental issues was the beautiful reflection by Rabbi Rosen (2) on the animals in Noah’s Ark and Isaiah, and the need for going beyond a pragmatic peace to a deeper one. The vision of a harmony in creation is a symbol for our deep longing for peace. Below some of the key highlights:

  1. We come also to bear witness to the great power of religion for good, and to renew a common commitment to building peace, to reconciling those in conflict and to bringing man back into harmony with creation. The twenty-five years of our joint effort for peace have richly displayed our sense of brotherhood and solidarity in the service of our world and the human family. But the years have also been fraught with challenges to the sense of man and history. We have entered a century in which ideologies would reduce the sense of human person, and distort the relationships with nature. The strong resource competition among peoples in a climate-constrained environment threatens to dissolve the fabric of human society and devastate the very order of creation which Francis of Assisi praised in his Canticle of the Sun. The beautiful song bespeaks an awakening to the universe to be seen not only as a collection of things to be worked and consumed but also as a “community of life” to be entered into profoundly, humbly and creatively. 
  2. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall not learn war any more” and the prophet continues (11: 6-9) … “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” There is a very well known comment of the great rabbi Meir Simcha of Dwinsk,who lived a hundred years ago. He observed that this vision of peace had already taken place in the religious history of humankind – in Noah’s ark. Already there, predatory animals had to live a vegetarian existence and their potential prey could live in peace. However he points out that the profound difference between the situation in Noah’s ark and Isaiah’s vision, is that in Noah’s ark there was no choice. This was the only option available for the animals in order to survive the flood. Isaiah’s vision however, is born out of “the knowledge of the Lord”; it is a vision that emanates from the deepest spiritual understanding and volition.For many in our world, peace is a pragmatic necessity as indeed it is, and we must not diminish in any way from the blessing for our world from such pragmatism. However what men and women of faith seek and for which they strive “to ascend to the mountain of the Lord”, is the appreciation of peace as the sublime expression of Divine Will and the Divine Image in which every human person is created.

The Buddhist Connection

I have written before about the Dalai Lama and some environmental insights and approaches. In the context of the Assisi meetings this week, of which I will say more about soon, I think it is appropriate to take a look at another set of discussions with the Dalai Lama here. Clearly the buddhist idea of interconnectedness is an important gateway for engaging environmental issues, as well as interventions on humility and the value of life. The event was organized by the Mind and Life Institute, and had a variety of experts in different fields. A good summary of the event can be seen here. There is a mention of a Christian Theologian, and a little research suggests this is who she is, Sally McFague, you can draw your own conclusions. The video summary of the event is seen below.

Food, Gift and Behavior

Psalm 136 - The Great Hallel

Pope Benedict XVI continues to express abundant thoughts and teachings concerning Creation and the environment. Last week the Pope gave a catechesis on psalm 136, the Great Hallel  traditionally sung by the Jews on the night of the Passover. While it is clear that the central and unifying concept of the psalm is the enduring love of God, Creation ” frames this psalm at its beginning and its end “, and as such it is the place in which God chooses to reveal himself. The passages in which the Pope alludes to the spiritual dimension of creation are numerous:

  • The created world is not merely a set onto which God’s saving action enters; it is rather the very beginning of that marvelous action. With creation, the Lord reveals Himself in all His goodness and beauty; He involves Himself with life, revealing the good will from which every other saving action flows. 
  • laying particular stress upon the great lights: the sun, the moon, the stars — those magnificent creatures that govern the day and the night. The creation of the human being is not spoken of here, but he is always present; the sun and the moon are for him — for man — they are to mark time for man, putting him in relation with the Creator especially through the indication of liturgical times.
  • At this point the question arises: How can we make this psalm our own, how can we make this psalm a part of our own prayer? What frames this psalm at its beginning and its end is important: and this is Creation. Let us return to this point: Creation as God’s great gift from which we live, in which He reveals Himself in his goodness and greatness. Therefore, to regard creation as a gift of God is of interest to us all. 

The Psalm concludes with creation and the thanksgiving and praise to God, for the  Lord “gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever”. And on this point, that of food, the Pope had plenty to say at the World Food Day Speech, marked this year by the dramatic famine in Africa. The Pope always delivers a specific address for this occasion, seen here.  On this occasion he stressed the need for long-term strategies, interior attitudes and behavior change and solidarity.

  • The painful images of numerous victims of famine in the Horn of Africa remain engraved before our eyes and every day a new chapter is added to what is one of the most serious humanitarian catastrophes of recent decades. Surely in the face of the death of entire communities caused by famine and the forced abandonment of the native lands, immediate aid is essential, but it is also necessary to intervene in the medium- and long-term so that international activity is not limited to responding only to emergencies. 
  • liberation from the yoke of hunger is the first concrete manifestation of the right to life, which — despite its having been solemnly proclaimed — is often very far from being fulfilled effectively. 
  • In short, it is about assuming an interior attitude of responsibility, capable of inspiring a different style of life, with necessary sobriety in conduct and consumption, to thus favor the good of society. And that this is true also for future generations, for their sustainability, protection of the goods of creation, distribution of resources and, above all, the concrete commitment to the development of whole peoples and nations.  

Wildlife Pictures of the Year

This picture has won the  Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) 2011, award. It shows brown pelicans smothered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. WPY is one of the most prestigious competitions in world photography. Organised by London’s Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, it is now in its 47th year. See more images here.

I have another picture that resembles a friend when he surfs.

Technology, Silence and the Pedagogy of Farming

Carthusian Monks in "Into Great Silence"

After the historic speech in Germany and his mention of the environmental movement as one example of a challenge to the bunker of relativism, Pope Benedict XVI continues to make reference to the environment. In a speech to the Carthusian monks in southern Italy, he gave an interesting diagnostic of our world, where technology and the stimulus anxiety of the new generation reveals humanities fear of silence and inability to connect with God. Monks, who live in silence and in touch with nature, are an important witness to the Church and the deeper dimensions of our humanity. Below some key excerpts.

Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic. Cities are almost always noisy, silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always a lingering background noise, in some areas even at night. In the recent decades, moreover, the development of the media has spread and extended a phenomenon that had already been outlined in the 1960s: virtuality that risks getting the upper hand over reality. Unbeknown to them, people are increasingly becoming immersed in a virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night.

The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude…. by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, “expose” themselves to reality in their nakedness, to that apparent “void,” which I mentioned at the outset, in order to experience instead Fullness, the presence of God, of the most royal Reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension. He is a perceptible presence in every created thing: in the air that we breathe, in the light that we see and that warms us, in the grass, in stones…. God, Creator omnium, [the Creator of all], passes through all things but is beyond them and for this very reason is the foundation of them all.

A few days later the Pope reflected on Psalm 126, and its message of joy. Reflecting on the psalm’s words of those who “sow in sorrow, will reap in joy”, the Pope deepens on the image of farming, sowing and reaping. He tells us how this act of socking reminds us of our smallness, weakness and necessity of something greater than ourselves. Counting on nature is an act of humility, it gives us this ” powerless time of waiting” for our sustenance to grow. Below his own words:

To scatter the seed is an act of trust and of hope; man’s industriousness is needed, but then one must enter into a powerless time of waiting, well aware that many deciding factors will determine the success of the harvest, and that the risk of failure is always lurking. And yet, year after year, the farmer repeats his gesture and scatters the seed. And when it becomes an ear of grain, and the fields fill with crops, this is the joy of he who stands before an extraordinary marvel. 

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Pope Benedict XVI in Germany and the Environment

Pope Benedict XVI at the Bundestag

I apologise for the delay on this post, I have been occupied with my thesis which I defend this week. Yet the Pope’s words in Germany  on the environment have a lasting impact, that will transcend the immediacy of the current situation. According to Vatican insider Sandro Magister Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the German Parliament is one of the 3 great speeches of his pontificate, along with the Regensburg Address and the speech to the College of the Bernardines in Paris.

The Pope’s theme in Germany was “Where there is God, there is a future”, and he spoke about many subjects such as Church identity, ecumenism, the apostolic mission, secularism, law and society. I would like to highlight a few of these, and key passages are highlighted below. The theme was taken from an address delivered in Austria at Mariazell shrine, seen here, where he spoke about the truth (1).  Another key address in Germany was delivered at Erfurt where Luther lived (2), as well as comments to the German jewish community (3). Finally, was a speech delivered to Seminarians on the importance of the intellectual life (4).

No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

  1. This attitude of resignation with regard to truth, I am convinced, lies at the heart of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Europe. If truth does not exist for man, then neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil. And then the great and wonderful discoveries of science become double-edged: they can open up significant possibilities for good, for the benefit of mankind, but also, as we see only too clearly, they can pose a terrible threat, involving the destruction of man and the world. We need truth. Yet admittedly, in the light of our history we are fearful that faith in the truth might entail intolerance…truth prevails not through external force, but it is humble and it yields itself to man only via the inner force of its veracity. Truth proves itself in love. It is never our property, never our product, just as love can never be produced, but only received and handed on as a gift. We need this inner force of truth. As Christians we trust this force of truth.Europe has become child-poor: we want everything for ourselves, and place little trust in the future. Yet the earth will be deprived of a future only when the forces of the human heart and of reason illuminated by the heart are extinguished – when the face of God no longer shines upon the earth. Where God is, there is the future.
  2. For Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God. “How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. 
  3. Alongside these important initiatives, it seems to me that we Christians must also become increasingly aware of our own inner affinity with Judaism, to which you made reference. For Christians, there can be no rupture in salvation history. Salvation comes from the Jews (cf. Jn 4:22). When Jesus’ conflict with the Judaism of his time is superficially interpreted as a breach with the Old Covenant, it tends to be reduced to the idea of a liberation that mistakenly views the Torah merely as a slavish enactment of rituals and outward observances. 
  4. Our world today is a rationalist and thoroughly scientific world, albeit often somewhat pseudo-scientific. But this scientific spirit, this spirit of understanding, explaining, know-how, rejection of the irrational, is dominant in our time. There is a good side to this, even if it often conceals much arrogance and nonsense. The faith is not a parallel world of feelings that we can still afford to hold on to, rather it is the key that encompasses everything, gives it meaning, interprets it and also provides its inner ethical orientation: making clear that it is to be understood and lived as tending towards God and proceeding from God. Therefore it is important to be informed and to understand, to have an open mind, to learn.

As in other occasions, the environment wasn’t necessarily a theme mentioned many times, but being brief was given a prominent role. The key speech was to the German Parliament. He spoke about the foundations of Law, and the need for natural law and conscience. The Pope identified a positivist reason as limiting and leading to the desperate situation we find ourselves in. The solution si to break free from the positivist bunker and open ourselves to a broader reason, that can recognize nature, natural law and the Creator himself. An example of this ‘breaking free’ is no other than the environmental movement. The Pope sees in the environment and concerns for its wellbeing an expression of the recognition that the world is suffering through our actions, and we need to reconsider how we live and approach reality. This intuition, that the environment opens doors for us to reconsider who we are, and wheat we are called to do, has accompanied much of the environmental interests, as well as Creatio from the beginning. Below the Pope’s words:

In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.

But how are we to do this? How do we find our way out into the wide world, into the big picture? How can reason rediscover its true greatness, without being sidetracked into irrationality? How can nature reassert itself in its true depth, with all its demands, with all its directives? I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.

The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature…

The Solidarity of Bees

Last week I posted on the Spirituality of Bees, but after my experience yesterday I am more inclined to “shift the focus”. I went to check on my bees supplies of honey, but for some reason they were particularly defensive. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, many times I have followed beekeeper Corwin Bell’s approach and engaged the bees with no real protection, and had no stings. Bees are generally peaceful, but… This time, I was all covered up, and still it was bad, I think it was because I broke a comb in the process. Anyway, I got stung many times. In one sense this is a true mark of spirituality, its not all honey, but also the sting of the cross.

Let me mention then someone who really does know what he is doing, Marty Hardison. Here are some of his pictures. Not only is Marty an expert beekeeper but he teaches beekeeping in developing countries to improve the standard of living and increase their income with honey sales. Marty has helped me greatly with my hive and also has assisted the nuns at Walburga Abbey in northern Colorado. Below his own bio:

Marty was born in Fresno, California, in 1946.  His first encounter with bees was in the summer of 1963.  At that time a commercial beekeeper and friend of the family asked for his help in loading up several hundred hives for transport out of California.  The problem the Commercial beekeeper was aiming at avoiding was frequent pesticide kills of his bees.  His solution was to move to South Dakota.

Marty didn’t begin keeping bees until 14 years later when he was living in Houston.  There he acquired two of the meanest colonies in Texas for Free!  Marty moved to New Mexico in 1978.  He is married to Dawn and has two grown children.  In 1997 he and his wife moved to Denver where they now reside.

Marty began beekeeping using Langstroth hives exclusively.  In 1980 he tried a topbar hive.  For the next ten years he experimented with top bar beekeeping and shared his evolving system with students and local acquaintances.  He sponsored the formation of a local beekeeper’s association which successfully quarantined the area against mites for 10 years.  One of his prime goals was to end up with a beekeeping method suitable for a development project in Haiti.  In 1991 that goal was realized when Marty traveled to Fon-de-Blanc, Haiti, under the auspices of the Haiti Christian Development Fund and set up a topbar beekeeping project.

From 1990 through 1997 Marty taught topbar beekeeping in various settings: Ghost Ranch, Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, Earthworks Institute, and at various individuals homes.  He has talked to groups about topbar beekeeping at the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe Community College, Capitol Beekeepers in Austin, and at the New Mexico Beekeeper’s Association.  For the 1995 and 1996 season he was employed by a commercial queen rearing company on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. 

In 1999 and again in 2000 Marty participated in a beekeeping development project in Mozambique, Africa.  The aim was to introduce topbar beekeeping to rural farmers.  The project was sponsored by ACDI/VOCA a development NGO.  Credit for sustaining the project for a full 5 years must go to Nicky Benn, the director of the Mozambique branch of ACDI/VOCA.  Without a sustained presence the project would have had little value.  Marty was involved in another ACDI/VOCA project in 2001.  At that time he traveled to the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan where he taught beekeeping at the Bashat Women’s center. In 2007 he traveled to Azerbaijan to assist a remarkable beekeeper named Bedreddin Hesretov in the development of a commercial queen rearing project. In 2010 he spent two weeks in Egypt doing beekeeping consultation with high school agriculture teachers.  His most recent project involved a trip to Zambia during June of this year.  The aim of the project was the economic development of the rural northwest area of Zambia. The goal is to provide a fair market for the honey that is already being produced there and to make available improved beekeeping tools.

Presently he is building up his hive count in preparation for retiring from his full time employment next year.  He will focus his personal beekeeping out at Berry Patch Farms in Brighton and continue to mentor his three grandsons in the development of their honey production and sales.  Beyond that his hope is to find beekeeping opportunities in the global Catholic community.

Creatio President Meets Vatican Cardinal

Jose Ambrozic, President of Creatio, and also a member of CALL (Catholic Association of Latino Leaders), was part of a delegation of CALL member’s who gave the Vatican an official response to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” (The encyclical contains many environmental references which I have commented on previously here and here). Other members of the delegation also included Robert Aguirre, the association’s president, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Fr. Matthew Munoz, a priest from Orange County in California, and Jose Gonzales, a Wall Street businessman. The response was given to Card. Turkson, the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 

Jose Ambrozic was also in Rome consulting the Holy See on how the next Creatio Conference can best represent the Church’s position on environmental issues. Please stay tuned for further developments of the Conference, which is scheduled for August 2012, at St. Malo Retreat Center.