A critique on St Paul and the Groaning of Creation by Sister Bernardita Dianzon
National Conference on Sustainable Productivity, St Paul University QC
You can hear the earth breath, old folks used to tell us kids. We believed in them. It was part of our belief and culture on the farm. In some unspoiled landscape. On a patch of Eden, in romantic parlance. Being keen and observant about nature’s ways is as natural as being a farmhand, taking the carabao to the pasture – and back after school before sunset.
Or flying kites at harvest time. We would stay late after the Angelus, keeping company with the harvesters building haystacks (mandala) or gleaning some panicles strewn on the field. Then we would go home keeping our cadence with the breathing earth. A skink dashes here, the bamboo grove creaks in the slightest breeze, a gecko lizard makes a sonorous call. The crickets are happiest in summer. The fowls roost on their favorite tree, synchronized by the drooping of Acacia leaves. Soon fireflies become visible. They light our path inside our pocket. It is picturesque of the Gleaners of Millet (photo, below) or Wheatfield of Van Gogh. The rustic paintings of rural life by our national artist, Fernando Amorsolo.
Summer wears off easily. The rain comes. And we kids would run into the rain, sans fear, sans anything. It was pure joy. Soon the earth is green once more. And this is the way our world goes round and around, ad infinitum.
You can hear the earth under your feet. But it’s a different sound now. It is groaning. It is the sound of pain, of distress, of agony. It is a different scenario. It’s the opposite.
This is the scenario presented in Sister Bernardita Dianzon’s paper (The Groaning of Creation) and pictured in the CBCP’s report. It would be painful for one who had lived with the art of Amorsolo or the naturalism of Darwin to see eroded mountains, bald hills, silted waterways, and dried up river beds. And to live with polluted air, accumulating doses of pesticide, mutated pathogens, genetically engineered food we call Frankenfood. To live in the confines of a world of computers. And rigid institutions. Yet lose our sense of permanence. Where is home? What is the essence of who we are and why we are here?.
Who are we? The paper asks. Where is the humane in human, the kindness in humankind? Being in human being? Humanus in Humanity?
This is the groaning of creation, a sound that disturbs our sleep. That calls, Don’t go gentle into that good night, a poem by Dylan Thomas. Which takes us to the letter of Paul which in part says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” (Rom 8:22)
Paul was the best authority in his time to raise such issue, having traveled far and wide on three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – practically the whole world then. He must have traced some routes of Alexander the Great in his conquest from Macedonia to India and back 500 years earlier. He knew well the Persian Empire – the biggest empire the world had seen, bigger than the Roman Empire in the height of its power. He must have known the uniqueness of different cultures – including the barbaric tribes - the Vikings, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, the Saxons, Angles, and even the dominance of the Khans of China and Mongolia. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of leaders like Xerxes, Darius, Hannibal.
And the declining power of Rome then. It was when the northern provinces including England were ceding from the centralized authority – All roads lead to Rome. Rome had grown too big, the Dinosaur Syndrome was creeping in. Paul knew when to strike with “a book and a sword.” The message is clear and firm: To spread Christianity and defend it. He was a general, and a general again in the name of Christianity.
Creation to Paul is a holistic one – the biological and physical world, the forest and valley, the rivers and the seas, the land on which humanity was born and being nurtured. The society man built and continues to build. The culture that shares his society. The commonalities and differences of people - their achievements, goals and aspirations. Paul was a realist, with supreme military background. Thus he was also a strategist, fearless, adventurous.
Yet the inner man – the Little Prince in him, to recall Saint-Exupery’s famous novel of the same title – is a gentle kind, hopeful and patient. Which makes him an paragon of change - persuasive, sincere, and selfless.
I can imagine Paul’s concept and description of creation. First he referred to “a creation associated with labor pain.” The giving forth of new life. The birth of a baby. The germination of a seed. The metamorphosis of a butterfly. The rise of a new island. The formation of a valley. The growth of a mountain. Of a new river or a delta.
The sun is born everyday. Buds are born in spring. The desert suddenly blooms after an unexpected rain. The fields ripens in summer. Even a volcano erupts and enriches the soil in its surroundings. And there are creatures born with some difficulty. But it is a groan of joy. It is a groan of self fulfillment and victory. It is a groan of happiness which at the end is shared by many.
But why did Paul express frustration in the same subject of creation?
Paul expressed frustration as a result of man’s disobedience. “Cursed in the ground because of you.” He said and pointed at man with a warning of Armageddon, “ … you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But Paul also saw renewal in man’s sinful ways. He too, was once sinful. But on one dark night on the road to Damascus he changed, a 360-degree turn. His enemies became not only his friends – he became their protector. And helped preserve and nurture their new faith, increased their numbers even through extreme danger and sacrifice. He was leading them to a new Paradise. The Paradise of Salvation.
We have to understand that, on the viewpoint of both faith and history. The “loss of Paradise” comes in three phases in the short history of humankind. The first was when man left the confines of a lush greenery described as a rainforest where he had practically everything for his biological needs and comfort, but it was the dawning of his intellect. Scientists and historians compare the Africa before and the Africa of today – the shifting of that great forest cover to a grassland where game animals roamed, and finally becoming into a dry land – the great Sahara desert – shaping man as Homo sapiens and hunter-gatherer, a life he followed through many generations, and until now for some cultures. Until the second loss of that Paradise came once more.
Again the groaning of creation.
As man formed societies, so with different cultures shaped by each. Cultures united and cultures clashed because of the conflict of interests, of trade and commerce, of thoughts and ideas. Leading to deeper conflict, this times in politics and religion. This is the scenario in which Paul founded his mission. The renewal of a paradise of unity and harmony by embracing a common faith – Christianity. It is Paradise Regained later epitomized by John Milton - the same author of Paradise Lost which he wrote before he lost his eyesight.
Religious wars followed after Paul had done his mission. More people were killed in those religious wars between Christians and non-Christian than all the other wars of history combined. For more than 1000 years the world remained in a state of torpor. The Dark Ages or Middle Ages was a long period of constant fighting, the Roman Empire fell and dissolved into fiefs and small kingdoms fantasized in love stories, fairy tales and children’s books.
Again the groaning of creation.
Paul must have dreamt of the Renaissance though distant it would happen. And it did in the 15th century. The Renaissance was the crowing glory of the church. The Renaissance is the story of the Church. It was Paradise Regained, Part 2. West met East, but it was not on mutual terms. Europe invaded and conquered the East, the Orient. A new era was born – colonization. The ideology of conquest and colonization is clearly biased on the part of the invader and master. The conquered were made to appear as barbarians and were doomed unless they submit to a foreign master and a foreign god. Rizal’s books - Noli Me Tangere and Filibusterismo - clearly pictured the lives of Filipinos under Spain. Hawaii, a novel by James Micheners projects a worse scenario. The colonizers were self anointed masters of the world and of God.
For us in the Philippines as in most colonized countries, we remained subjects of Spain for 400 years. India was colonized by England, Indonesia by the Dutch, Indo-China by the French, and so on down the line. Practically all countries in Africa and South America. Asia and the Pacific became colonies and the natives were “living in hell,” as some historians recall, the slavery of mostly Negroes in the US, notwithstanding. It was Paradise Lost to these countries ruled by the so-called “civilized” masters.
Again the groaning of creation.
Colonialism ended towards the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century. A new Paradise was born once again – the Age of Nationalism. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – the trilogy of the French Revolution became the universal cry for Democracy now led by the United States of America. Peace was short-lived. Two world wars shook mankind in disbelief. And when the last major conflict ended a new order came out – the Cold War, the polarization of the whole world into two warring camps – democracy and socialism. If there is a Dark Age here is a Cold War. Though the latter lasted for 50 years, in both cases, the quality of life was drawn down to a level whereby we ask ourselves, What is rationality?
Again the groaning of Creation.
If rationality – the power of reason to know what is good and bad, and even know the best and the worst of situations – is the singular gift of God to man, and to no other else among the millions of living organisms on earth, how come man destroys what he builds? Destroys that very thing he calls beautiful? Destroys other living things, their habitats and the environment itself that he shares with?
Why should man wreck his only spaceship, the Planet Earth? And finally, why should man destroy himself, his race, his entire species? It is a shame to our Creator that we, humans are the only species that is destroying its own kind.
What is this rationality that scholars talk about? What is the meaning of faith? Prayer? Research? Teaching? Progress? Values? How can this thing rationality make us true guardians of God’s creation?
Creation groans. It protests. This time against man. Man is the enemy of the earth.
I presume that this is the “restlessness” of creation the paper discussed, and it could be that restlessness Paul described as the sin-story of Genesis 3. It is restlessness in man in seeking more and more of what he wishes to have – his want over his need. The quest for the highest building, the fastest car, the state-of- the art of entertainment and pleasure and comfort. Quest for a Utopia built from the wealth of the earth. And the restlessness to have more of these even at the expense of others. And at the expense of Mother Earth.
All in the name of civilization.
“The ultimate test of any civilization
Is not in its inventions and deeds;
But the endurance of Mother Nature
In keeping up with man’s endless needs.”
AVR, Light in the Woods.
But what is civilization? Can’t civilization hear and heed the groaning of creation?
It is civilization that wiped out the American Indian from the Great Plains. It is civilization that plundered the Aztecs and Mayas Empires. It is civilization that brought the Spanish Armada’s to its final defeat. It was civilization that killed 6 million Jews during the second world war. It was civilization that built the atomic bomb – and dropped it in two cities to defeat a defeated enemy. It is civilization that made a clone animal, Dolly the Sheep. It is civilization that threatens the whale and the Philippine Eagle. It is civilization that is causing global warming and the many consequences destroying lives and properties. It is civilization that is causing today’s fuel crisis and food shortage. Drastic inflation and loss of currency value, the recession of America and consequently the world, ad infinitum.
All these constitute the groaning of creation. Creation gone wild and free. Creation without boundary. Creation on a global scale.
Man needs a model. Man needs conversion.
Paul is an embodiment of great men. We find in him the influence of Aristotle, the naturalist-philosopher-teacher, one of the greatest teachers of the world – the teacher of Alexander the Great; Plato of his concept of a Utopian Republic, the asceticism of Stephen the first Christian saint he witnessed while being stoned to death.
A touch of Paul is in Gandhi philosophy of attaining peace through non-violence, in Mother Teresa’s passion to help the poorest among the poor, in Lincoln’s heroic struggle in abolishing slavery, in Maximillan Kolby’s sacrifice by exchanging place with a doomed fellow prisoner, a father of young children, in a Nazi concentration camp.
Paul must have inspired Kenya’s Wangari in planting 40 million trees to reforest denuded and eroded watershed, and the advocacy of Fr Nery Satur who was killed while protecting the forests of Bukidnon.
There is Paul in the online lessons in ecology, Paul in the syllabus in Philosophy of Man, in the books and manuals about caring for the sick. Other than the pages of bible, more than a half of which he wrote or caused to be written, Paul is among the most read saints of the church of all times, indeed truly a doctor and a general of the faith. Paul is in the temple of worship, Christian or non-Christian. Paul is in every Paulinian sister or teacher and student.
Paul set a new horizon of sainthood, he an apostle – in fact, the greatest of them all, yet he was not one of the original apostles – because he never saw Christ, never walked with Him, never talked to Him. Yet Christ was his way, his constant companion. Christ was always in his heart and mind and spirit – and in fact, he gave himself and his life to Him.
Which challenges the church and us today. Around 10,000 saints - 30,000 to 50,000 including the lesser saints and the blessed ones - are venerated as soldiers of Christ and keepers of the faith. The concept of sainthood took a new turn with the case of Kolby - that of sainthood for charity. Along this line are candidates like Mother Teresa.
But we have yet to have a saint, after St Francis of Assisi, for Nature the expression of God on earth, the environment. Indeed there are heroes for Mother Earth featured by Time and cited by governments, private organizations and civil society. Among them, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, EC Schumacher, including present leaders like Al Gore and Michael Gorbachev, among dozens more.
But looking back to Paul, the investiture for sainthood is only by Heaven and it is for the glory of God. If that glory is the preservation of His creation, the protection of His face on earth, if that glory means relief from groaning arising from pain, loneliness, hunger, sickness, thirst, imprisonment, then that person who, like Paul, deserves the honor. He could be the first saint for the cause of the environment.
The earth actual breathes, the old folks used to tell us kids. I still believe it.~