For me the simple answer to how prayer and mindfulness can help protect the environment is that prayer can change the mind and heart of the person praying. The climate crisis is human made and will only be resolved by human beings having a care and love for the environment and changing their ways so that they are contributing to the wellbeing of our planet. Whatever religion is about it is surely about conversion, opening up our hearts, freeing us from greed and selfishness and developing within us a concern, love and compassion for others which in this day and age we know must include our planet. For me there is much in my religious tradition that helps in this conversion.
Our scriptures have a lot to say about creation. The psalms, which are contained in that great hymn book which we Christians share with our Jewish brothers and sisters, are part and parcel of most Christian worship. They reflect the range of human emotions including an appreciation of the beauties of our world. Singing or chanting the psalms, as well as prayerfully and slowly reading them, evokes gratitude and wonder for the giftedness of life and hopefully a desire to care for the planet. When St Francis of Assisi reflected on Ps. 148 which is a great hymn of praise, he personalised the different aspects of nature. So he talked about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water and Brother Fire, and “Sister Earth, our Mother, who nourishes us and sustains us, bringing forth, fruits and vegetables of many kinds and flowers of many colours”.
It will soon be the beginning of the season of Lent, the 6-week preparation for the festival of Easter. It begins with Ash Wednesday when Catholics traditionally receive ashes on their forehead with the words, “remember that you are dust and into dust you shall return”. In the last few years alternatives to those words have been possible but I like the traditional ones because they bring us back to our origins. We are part of nature. We are earthlings. We do not stand above it or control it. We are made of the same dust as every other aspect of nature, whether it be animate or inanimate. And of course, today we know from science that this dust is not just the dust of the earth but is stardust. To hear these words year upon year is a moment to realise our intimate connection with nature and how we relate to it in a familial way, as Francis of Assisi believed.
Just as there are many moments in the public life of the Catholic Church that help us appreciate the environment so too in people’s private practice of prayer and meditation. This is the moment when we believers will have the opportunity to take these lessons and understandings into our own hearts and make them our own. It is this that gives us the motivation for how we live – the kind of conversion that is called for by Pope Francis and the one that leads to action. For me the preferred way of praying is silent and quiet meditation, to sit in silence, in the fulness of the present moment, aware of that Reality in which we all live, move, and have our very being - a reality known by different names and which some of us call God. To do this is to be aware of myself rooted in a reality which relates me to all of nature, a stream of life in which I participate. It is to be ever mindful of the precious gift of life and be aware of the great dignity of my vocation to be a life giver, helping the human family further in its journey into fullness of life. It is to feel myself embraced by life and to embrace in my heart this earth that gives me life and sustenance, to feel its pain, to appreciate the goodness and energy of all those who are working for its healing and the overcoming of divisions between people. It is to send out my loving energy and healing to the cosmos as I pray in a formula borrowed from the Buddhist tradition: may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.
For me this is prayer that can contribute to the well-being of our planet and make a positive contribution to the environmental crisis that face us all.