Spring 1989, Vol.41 No. 1, pp. 30-41

Charles Cummings:
      Exploring Eco-Spirituality

Perceived as Creation, nature invites us to turn to the Creator and to take up our responsibility to protect and enhance the natural world as the Garden of both God and humankind.

Charles Cummings, O.C.S.O. is a monk of Holy Trinity Abbey, Huntsville, Utah. He holds a degree in formative spirituality from Duquesne University and is the author of Songs of Freedom, the Psalter as a School of Prayer (1986), Monastic Practices (1986) as well as articles in Review for Religious, Envoy, Studies in Formative Spirituality, and Cistercian Studies. His last article in Spirituality Today was "The Best Place to Live" (Summer, 1986).

JOHN Evelyn, the seventeenth century British diarist, noted that a person's happiness both in time and in eternity seems to be dependent on a garden. He wrote: "As no man can be very miserable that is master of a garden here, so will no man ever be happy who is not sure of a garden hereafter."(1)

Spirituality has often been more concerned with the garden hereafter: that paradise of delight which corresponds to the kingdom of heaven. There are, I suppose, spiritual masters who would say that the gardens cultivated here on earth, which give us so much satisfaction, are only a pale image of the delights God has in store for those who love him. In this way they would try to orient our affection away from earthly gardens, and from earth itself, towards the hereafter, where alone can be found lasting happiness.

On the other hand, there are many who have discovered that their spiritual life is bountifully nourished by exposure to the nobility and beauty of nature. God seems powerfully present in the quiet of forest, lakes, mountains, desert, ocean, or flower garden. These people also look forward to the garden hereafter, the new heaven and the new earth. However, they believe "the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one."(2)

The garden we cultivate here on earth is not entirely separable from the garden hereafter, though we rightly distinguish between them. The following pages will suggest that Catholic spirituality has something to learn from and contribute to the current ecological movement. Spirituality can profit from a new awareness of the numinous quality of the cosmos. As concern for the present ecological crisis grows, spirituality must be there to support activists in their work of gently shepherding all creation into "the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). These tasks belong to what we may call "eco-spirituality."


In general, Christian spirituality deals with the dynamics of one's personal relationship to God the Father, through Christ Jesus, in their Holy Spirit. The human spirit is able, by grace, to know and love the triune God. God is revealed to the receptive human spirit in diverse ways, for the Creator has left traces of the divine image throughout the whole fabric of the cosmos. Divine life and activity extend into all reality.

The term "eco-spirituality" draws attention to the cosmos as a place of God's self-revelation. Ecology studies our total environment and all the living or non-living creatures that dwell with us in this cosmic house (oikos/house). Eco-spirituality studies our relationship to God as it develops in the context of our relationships with the cosmos in its totality. The challenge of eco-spirituality is to find God within -- not apart from -- this totality, and to view the totality as a dynamic, interdependent process centering on the risen Christ and growing to perfection in love. "Thus you may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph 3:1819).

Although the term is new, eco-spirituality as a perspective on the spiritual and material fabric of the cosmos is an established part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The ancient Hebrew psalmist, sensing the presence of God in the world of nature, called on the whole cosmos to celebrate its Creator:

Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad,
  let the sea and all within it thunder praise,
  let the land and all it bears rejoice,
  all the trees of the wood shout for joy
  at the presence of the Lord
  for he comes, he comes to rule the earth! (Ps 96:11-13)
Christian contemplatives have often found religious inspiration in the beauty of the world around them. On a trip to the Pacific coast in May, 1968, Thomas Merton was moved to capture on film the mysterious beauty of Needle Rock. He saw the visible and the invisible where the ocean swirled through the needle's eye, framed by black sand beach in the foreground and mist-enveloped cliffs in the background. Reflecting on his photograph, he recalled the experience of oneness he had felt:
The Agfa film brought out the great Yang-Yin of sea rock mist, diffused light and half hidden mountain... an interior landscape, yet there. In other words, what is written within me is there. "Thou art that."(3)

One not need be a monk like Thomas Merton in order to experience the sacred in the midst of nature. What is required is openness of perception, or what the poet and naturalist Annie Dillard calls "looking well." Dillard writes of Tinker Creek,

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton's prayer, "Give us time!" It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek. You don't run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You'll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day.(4)
It is possible to find such "seeing" among professional scientists, especially physicists and biologists, today. Their vision of the cosmos as an emerging, integral system of interconnected and interdependent parts leaves them stunned with beauty and wonder. In the space of a brief article, mathematical physicist Brian Swimme communicates his excitement by words like: stupendous, elegant, admiration, enchantments.(5) From such enchantment with nature, it is only a short step to religious experience and to the considerations of eco-spirituality.


Our beautiful planet does not present a totally enthralling spectacle today. We have all heard about the major ecological problems: air pollution; holes in the ozone layer; nitric- or even sulphuric-acid rain; soil erosion; contamination of fresh water and of the oceans; deforestation, especially of tropical rain forests; hazardous waste disposal; and the total destruction of many biological species. What is threatened is the biosphere on which present and future generations depend.

Much is being done, even by some national governments, to remedy the crisis and slow down the devastation. The United Nations, on October 28, 1982, adopted a "World Charter for Nature" (with the United States casting the sole negative vote). The Catholic bishops of the U. S. have acknowledged environmental problems and have issued "a challenge to develop a new ecological ethic that will help shape a future that is both just and sustainable."(6) In 1988 the bishops of the Philippines issued a hard-hitting pastoral letter on ecology, entitled "What is Happening to our Beautiful Land?"

Basic moral questions are involved in the continuing abuse of the environment. Humankind is so interconnected with the earth that environmental irresponsibility quickly touches human rights and human life. Columbian missionary Sean McDonagh says:

Any action which misuses the resources of the Earth, especially if it is destructive of life-forms and does not allow the emergent creative process of the Earth to continue in an integral and effective manner, is intrinsically evil. The reason is simple: it affects this generation and all future generation and life-forms on Earth in a way that involves irreversible damage to life-systems.(7)

Pope John Paul II, speaking in Detroit on issues of social development, made a fine statement of the problem without spelling out specific solutions. He said:

Pollution of air and water threaten more and more the delicate balance of the biosphere on which present and future generations depend and makes us realize that we all share a common ecological environment.(8)
The world's ecological crisis has been widely noted, and some initial steps have been taken to solve it. As the Industrial Age draws to a close, ours is the generation that has to begin shifting gears and moving towards a new style of living if there is to be a civilization of any quality left for future generations. Since action flows from thinking and from willing, the first step should be a renewal of our perceptions and a conversion of heart. The first step towards the well being of our planet is not political but spiritual.


The deeper causes of the environmental problems we face lie in the human heart: the pathologies of fear, greed, selfishness, arrogance. Eco-spirituality knows there will be no healing of the earth unless there is a healing and conversion of hearts.

Our conversion-process may be slow and lengthy, but a good beginning can be made on the level of perception. Self-centered, myopic perception needs to be enlarged in order to see the cumulative, long-term effects of environmental abuse. For example, the effect of one internal-combustion automobile on the quality of the atmosphere is negligible; the effect of millions of cars driving millions of miles is painfully noticeable. As perception broadens outward from one's own immediate concerns, one can see the needs of the local or regional community. Beyond that context, one can begin to perceive the needs of the total living and non-living world community.

As our perception shifts from the small picture to the total, global picture, we open ourselves to a new possibility. Our goal is to forge a lifestyle that is sustainable within the global community, where all have a right to live from the limited resources of the earth. Affluent individuals and countries may have to accept a simplified lifestyle either voluntarily or reluctantly and by necessity. "The evil;" as Pope John Paul points out in his encyclical On Social Concern, "does not consist in 'having' as such (No. 28). The moral and ecological problems arise "When the 'having' of a few can be to the detriment of the 'being' of many others" (No. 31).

However, the ideal is not to jettison all technology and go back to the stone age. (We throw away too much as it is!) The ideal would be to utilize appropriate technologies that are more harmonious with the environment and based on renewable resources like wind or solar energy. Such technologies are in existence and have proven successful, though they are not always as cost-effective as the more wasteful technologies. Adopting them would be a major step toward a simplified lifestyle. Only a change of attitude can lead to a voluntary change of lifestyle. Eco-spirituality has a contribution to make in the transformation of these underlying attitudes.


Eco-spirituality of itself cannot and should not attempt to solve such major problems as environmental poisoning or destructive industrial methods. At most, spirituality might foster an awareness of these problems, encourage people to grapple with them, and especially encourage people to have unbounded trust in God's creative love. Solutions can be found if there is imagination, cooperation, and unbounded trust. Solutions will be found if enough people recover a contemplative appreciation of the earth in its beauty and fragility.

One of the goals of eco-spirituality is to help transform human minds and hearts in the context of all their relationships, so as to bring people into creative harmony with the will of God in all these relationships. By this date in the history of spirituality we have come to see the need for a healing transformation in our relationship in our relationship both with God and with our neighbor, especially the poor. We have also come to see the need for a transformed relationship with our own bodies and psyches so that we may have a true appreciation of our own personal humanity in its dignity and beauty as the image of God.

The tradition of spirituality that divorces the search for God from the seeker's own body, from the opposite sex, and from the surrounding world is still very much alive, but it is too detached and negative to be the guiding spirituality in an ecological age. Pope John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical On Social Concern speaks about "the development of the whole person and of every human person."(9)

Eco-spirituality is concerned about whole persons and all persons, even in their relationships to the environment. We have largely gone beyond a purely mental approach to spirituality. We realize that our whole self must be oriented to the search for God. We relate to God not only with intellect and will but also with our bodily feelings, emotions, and sexuality. As I see it, our task is to preserve the best elements of the former tradition -- for example, cultivation of a personal, prayerful relationship with Christ -- and to integrate these into a more holistic and ecological spirituality. Jesus and me, plus the universe!

The integration of bodily reality into the spiritual life was a major advance, but we have already moved beyond that stage and have come to recognize a social dimension of spirituality. We encounter God through interactions with our neighbor on the level of friendship and faith-sharing. Franciscan retreat master Richard Rohr, after some profound experiences in the Third World, has established in Albuquerque a Center for Action and Contemplation, dedicated to social spirituality. Some charismatic groups now hold conferences on peace and justice issues. We realize that the spirituality of the New Testament cannot be lived without sensitivity to issues of social justice, a consistent pro-life ethic, and a commitment to the liberation of oppressed people everywhere. Spirituality has developed a social consciousness. Our neighbor is everyone, especially the neediest.

As our perception broadens, our notion of neighbor expands. To lend a helping hand to our neighbor also means to care for endangered species of animals, birds, and plants. To live at peace with our neighbor means to function in harmony with the primary processes of the planet -- the atmosphere, the water, the land.(10)


The spreading ecological crisis demands that we take responsibility for the house we live in, which is this planet where we live side by side with all our neighbors -- all other living and non-living creatures. From the matrix of this material cosmos human beings emerged, according to God's plan, many millions of years ago. The second account of creation in Genesis describes in its own way how humanity was formed from the reddish clay of the earth. In some sense the earth is our common mother. The commandment to honor our father and mother can be extended to include our mother earth in all her materiality. Today this maternal earth is nurturing and sustaining each of us in life; some day the same earth will receive back our lifeless bodies and incorporate them once again into the flux of elements and particles that make up the cosmos, until the final resurrection.

Humankind has a biblical mandate to exercise dominion over all creation as God's administrators (Gen 1:26). As Pope John Paul II points out, this dominion "is not an absolute power nor can one speak of a freedom to 'use and misuse' or to dispose of things as one pleases."(11) Instead we are called to administer wisely so as to foster life and development, and not to destroy the Creator's work. The Lord's Prayer -- with its petition "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth" -- can be a prayer for healing, life, justice, and harmony on earth, brought about by God's power through ourselves as God's instruments or co-creators. Our generation has a moral responsibility for the future, to leave to the next generation something more that a barren, depleted wasteland.


Just as Catholic spirituality now finds a revelation of God in our own male or female bodily reality and in our neighbor, especially the poorest, so will we find a revelation of God in the physical universe around us. "Since the creation of the world, invisible realities -- God's eternal power and divinity -- have become visible, recognized through the things he has made" (Rom. 1:20). All dimensions of reality, whether human or non-human, belong to the kingdom of God and manifest the Creator-king. God's kingdom links all reality together in such solidarity that we can hope, with St. Paul, "that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21).

Each created being in its own way reflects and images its Creator. Each was created through the Word that is present to God from the beginning. "Through him all things came into being, and apart from his nothing came to be" (John 1:3). Because of the Word, all creation speaks of God to those who have ears to hear. Humans are the ears and eyes of the cosmos, gifted with the ability to read the magnificent book of creation. As Sean McDonagh says: "Because we are the conscious dimension of the universe, our primary vocation is to recognize and celebrate the beauty and wonder of this magnificent creation."(12)

Teachers of spirituality, without slighting the divine transcendence, can awaken people to the presence of God immanent within the cosmos, in trees and flowers, in plants and animals. In this way people will grow in reverence for the cosmos as a place of divine revelation, concealing at the same time as it reveals the divine. God waits to be discovered, loved, and reverenced in created reality, since "each articulation of the real resonates with that numinous mystery that pervades all the world."(13)

Created reality in its numinous, revelatory dimension calls forth reverence. In its turn reverence towards the natural world fosters a consciousness of the universal divine presence. We can then "allow this consciousness to well up within us, to permeate us, and to spill over into that total fascination with reality known as contemplation."(14)

The reality that fascinates the contemplative is Ultimate Reality as manifest in the beauty and power of created reality. The contemplative does not adore the creature but the Creator; not the concrete object but, as Thomas Merton says, "the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls."(15) Created beings have their own identity distinct from God, although they are ontologically dependent on, related to, and hence in union with God at every moment. Therefore it is possible to reverence the cosmos and affirm the numinous quality of the cosmos without divinizing it or identifying the cosmic process with the Creator.


In the period of theological renewal since Vatican II, the cosmic or ecological dimension of spirituality has not been a priority. Ecology may at first seem foreign to spirituality or theology. It is when we begin to grasp the proportions of our ecological crisis that we sense the underlying spiritual problems. It becomes evident that some of the basic concerns of spirituality -- conversion of heart, respect for life -- are basic to the healing of this injured planet.

At the same time, the love for the earth shown by many environmentalists reminds us that contemplation often springs from an appreciation of beauty and an experience of wonderment. The ecological movement is fighting to preserve a world where a revelation of God's eternal power and divinity can be found. Ecology and spirituality can be allies in a common cause.

Eco-spirituality, as it has been called, is far from being a type of armchair spirituality. For some, eco-spirituality will mean a "mysticism of service."(16) For others it will mean a conversion to a simpler style of living. For still others it may mean a contemplative awareness of the beauty and fragility of our planet, and a sense of solidarity with all living and non-living beings. For all of us, a commitment to eco-spirituality is like the leaven that will slowly raise human consciousness in our post-industrial age. In this way we may be able to transmit a truly human quality of life, both interior and external life, to future generations.

  1. John Evelyn as quoted by Marvin Cetron and Thomas O'Toole, Encounters with the Future (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), p. 160.
  2. Thomas Merton, Woods, Shore, Desert (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 42. The photograph is printed on p. 43.
  3. Vatican Council II, The Church Today, No. 39, Walter Abbot and Joseph Gallagher, ed. and trans., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: The American Press, 1966), p. 237.
  4. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Bantam, 1975), p. 104.
  5. Brian Swimme, "Science: A Partner in Creating the Vision," in Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology, eds. Anne Lonergan and Caroline Richards (Mystic CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1987), pp. 81-90. Similarly, we read in The New Biology by Robert Augros and George Stanciu (Boston: Shambhala, 1988, p. 151), "In a real sense beauty is the main reason that the best mathematicians do mathematics, and physicists, physics."
  6. United States Catholic Conference, Economic Justice for All (Washington, D. C.: USCC Publications, 1986), p. 6, No. 12. The bishops also noted that "Catholic social teaching on the care of the environment and the management of natural resources is still in the process of development ...." (p. 106, No. 216).
  7. Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology (Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1986), p. 196.
  8. John Paul II, The Pope in America II (St. Paul: Wanderer Press, 1987), p. 130. See also John Paul II, On Social Concern (December 30, 1987), No. 34.
  9. John Paul II, On Social Concern, No. 32, (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1988), p. 58. This phrase, repeated five times in the encyclical, is drawn from Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (1967), No. 42.
  10. See Thomas Berry, "Teilhard in the Ecological Age," p. 29, in Riverdale Papers VIII (New York: Riverdale Center of Religious Research, no date).
  11. John Paul II, On Social Concern, No. 34 (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1988), p. 62.
  12. Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth, p. 95.
  13. Thomas Berry, "The American College in the Ecological Age," p. 28 in Riverdale Papers VIII.
  14. Dianne Bergand, CSA, The World is a Prayerful Place, (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987), p. 29.
  15. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 25.
  16. "The mysticism of service is a plunging into the most humble of callings, that of getting one's hands dirty in loving service. This means not a floating in the air, but a working on the earth." Albert Fritsch, Renew the Face of the Earth, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987), p. 251.