The Role of Seeing and Feeling in Ecological Conversion

A presentation by Vincent Miller, Ph.D.

Holy Family Chapel of the Sisters of St. Francis, Tiffin Ohio

In Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), the 2015 encyclical letter of Pope Francis addressed to “every living person on this planet,” His Holiness echoed St. John Paul II who in 2001 identified our current ecological crisis as a “summons to profound interior conversion.” What everyone needs, he wrote, is an “ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them”.

The Laudato Si’ Movement further defines ecological conversion as the “transformation of hearts and minds toward greater love of God, each other, and creation. It is a process of acknowledging our contribution to the social and ecological crisis and acting in ways that nurture communion: healing and renewing our common home.”

On the evening of May 9, the St. Francis Spirituality Center and the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center co-hosted Dr. Vincent Miller, Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton to speak on Laudato Si’ and integral ecology as a way of seeing the world. As author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, and editor of The Theological and Ecological Vision of Laudato Si’: Everything is Connected, Dr. Miller is one of our leading thinkers on Laudato Si’ and Pope Francis’ notion of hope amidst our current set of ecological crises.

Dr. Miller began his live-streamed presentation by reminding the audience of the reality of climate change and providing a few examples of its impact. The global average temperature, he observed, has exceeded the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold (over pre-industrial temperatures) set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement for each of the past 12 months, with April of this year being warmest April on record.

This atmospheric warming has led to record sea level surface temperatures and record low arctic ice. But if such changes don’t seem to directly affect our lives, the wildfires that burned some 58,000 square miles of Canada’s coniferous forests last summer, triggering Purple Air Quality Alerts throughout much of eastern North America, were impossible to ignore.

And yet, we do ignore, or least seem unable to appreciate the severity of this and other environmental challenges and to take personal responsibility for addressing them. Laudato Si’, Dr. Miller observed, speaks to this directly by urging a loving awareness that we are connected to the rest of the world, and by showing that human fulfillment is to be found in relationships with each other and our world made by the Triune God.

The primary focus of Dr. Miller’s talk addressed Pope Francis’ comments on “approaching life with a serene attentiveness” (LS 226), and the importance of recognizing and dealing with our feelings, of becoming “painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (LS 19).

Seeing all aspects of our world, the good and the bad, with serene attentiveness means being completely present to everyone and everything. Laudato Si’ reminds us of that the Gaze of Jesus (LS VII) was a totality of attention to all things: a silent engagement with the world, a conversation without words.

This gaze, Miller noted, is kindred to the Buddhist principle of Pratītyasamutpāda, variously translated as “dependent co-arising” or “interbeing”, in which all things in existence are connected and interdependent upon everything else. The concept is commonly illustrated with Indra’s Net (a metaphor shared by Hinduism and Buddhism), an infinitely large net with a jewel at each intersection that reflects all the jewels at every other intersection.

St. Thomas Aquinas said much the same thing when observing that all things in the world tell us about God’s goodness, and that no one creature can represent it fully; all are needed. We need serene attentiveness to see that living creatures exist only in interdependence on each other, that they complete each other, and exist in service to one another.

But, Dr. Miller observed, “Unlike Jesus, the human gaze is so partial that we cannot see the Trinitarian structure of each creature.” He illustrated this point with a discussion of the incomplete focus of everyone except Jesus in Carravagio’s painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew, and with a personal recollection of his own work collaborating with ecologists at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest located in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

The Andrews is the most well-studied primal forest in North America, containing an almost indescribably complex array of interrelationships among the plants, animals, fungi, and microbes of this ancient ecosystem. On first entering the forest, Dr. Miller, in a very human desire to understand what he was seeing, moved to place his hand on the bark of the massive trunk of an ages-old tree.

But instead of encountering rough bark, his hand sank into a rich carpet of damp moss consisting of a complex association of living organisms, an entire ecosystem in its own right. “The world” said Dr. Miller, “is so much more complicated than we, unaided, can see. Science helps us see the complexity better…not fully, but better.”

If we approach nature with a sense of openness to awe and wonder, then our feelings—even our most painful feelings—can be a path of transformation. “Our goal” said Pope Francis, “is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (LS 19)

Allowing ourselves to fully witness human trauma and ecological tragedies, and to feel within our souls as if they were occurring to ourselves, can be a gateway to awareness. “We need to pause,” said Dr. Miller, “and let our gaze linger on tears and sorrow.”

But although Pope Francis addresses our many failures to care for our world and for each other in Laudato Si’, His Holiness does not despair. Our hearts will be broken; it’s part of the deal. For Christians, hope is intimate with loss.

It is true that hope is easily seduced by denial, and there is certainly plenty of that today. But openness to the pain of the world is a promising way to address the denial of our age. St. Thomas Aquinas viewed hope as a form of Passion. Hope is not a wish, when things get tough, that they would be other than they are, but what the determination of we do now. It is action-oriented.

And that is the integrated, ecological message that Pope Francis has delivered to us in Laudato Si’. With serene awareness and heartfelt empathy, we see the manifold problems of the world, we recognize our species’ and our own personal roles in creating these problems, and we follow his lead in responding with active hope, in saying: …And this, therefore, is what we have to do now.